Six weeks with Google's Inbox -- and why it's back to Gmail for me

Google's Inbox brings some useful new tricks to the world of email, but it's lacking key features that business professionals and power users may need.

Google Inbox Revisited
JR Raphael, IDG

With as much time as I spend in my inbox, Gmail is like a virtual home. So when Google announced Inbox, a reimagined Gmail interface aimed at making email easier to manage, I was immediately intrigued. 

My first impressions of Inbox were mixed, to put it mildly. But with anything new, there's always a period of adjustment -- especially when it's tied to something you know so intimately. So I wanted to give Inbox a fair shake before reaching any conclusions.

And that I did: After my initial hands-on evaluation, I replaced my Gmail shortcuts with links to Inbox on my various computers and mobile devices. I turned off Gmail notifications and made Inbox my home. I dedicated myself to living with it for a full month and a half to see how my impressions would evolve as I got used to its unusual ways.

Six weeks later, here's what I've found:

[UPDATE: 9 months later, how Google's Inbox finally won me over]

1. Inbox definitely takes some adjustment.

In my first few hours with Inbox, I found it to be pretty overwhelming -- and I've heard a similar sentiment from a lot of other folks, both those who are tech-savvy and those who fall more into the "typical user" camp. 

Looking back now with the perspective of time, it's easy to see why: At first glance, Inbox can look like a jumbled mess. Messages aren't where you expect them to be, commands you rely on are called different things and exist in different places (or are missing altogether, as we'll get into a moment), and -- especially if you use Google's reminder function with any regularity -- your inbox is a confusing mishmosh of current emails and ancient reminders you'd long ago dealt with and forgotten.

Inbox Google Web

But you know what? It's easy enough to get acclimated if you take the time to adjust. You clear out the old reminders, swipe away messages you no longer need in front of you, and learn the basics of Bundles, snoozing, and using "done" instead of "archive." I think a proper Inbox experience almost requires you to clean house and start fresh -- and then commit to adapting your mindset to match the app's unconventional approach. You really have to start thinking of your inbox as more of a living to-do list than a simple stack of messages.

Once I did that, Inbox became a lot easier to wrap my head around. As I introduced the app to some less geeky family members -- ones who want something that works well but are in no way excited by technology -- I saw them experience a similar sort of progression. It started out as a "WHAT THE HELL?!" reaction and then moved to something more along the lines of: "Oh, I see. Yeah. This is kinda neat."

2. Inbox has a refreshingly modern design and some genuinely compelling elements.

Visually speaking, Inbox is the exemplification of Google's new Material Design: It's clean and modern with big buttons and bold colors. The mobile app in particular is a delight to use. Especially in Inbox's early days -- before Google's new Lollipop-level Gmail app arrived -- it was a refreshing change and one of the aspects I enjoyed most about the experience. 

(And remember, design isn't only about appearances. Things like being able to swipe up to close a message in the Inbox mobile apps are small but significant touches that add up to create a pleasant overall user experience.)

Google Inbox Material Design

Design aside, Inbox has some really compelling features that I appreciate just as much six weeks in as I did on day 1. I love having the ability to snooze messages with a single swipe (or click); I've long been a user of the third-party Gmail add-on Boomerang, which offers a similar sort of function, but having the feature built natively into Gmail makes it much simpler and more powerful to use -- especially from a mobile device, where Boomerang works only if you use its own dedicated app for all of your email needs.

The integration of reminders has been another real highlight for me. I'm constantly leaving myself notes by speaking into my Android phone or my Android Wear watch, and up till now, those reminders showed up only as short-lived notifications on my various devices. Having them also appear as items in Inbox feels like an intelligent integration of elements from separate but naturally overlapping Google services.

Inbox's Highlights feature has, quite fittingly, been a highlight as well. It's where the app pulls out relevant info from an email -- like travel details, file attachments, or links to package tracking -- and shows it to you right within the main message list. You can then digest the info at a glance and access it quickly without ever having to open the message. Regular Gmail does that to a certain extent, but it's far more prominent and far-reaching in Inbox -- and it can be pretty handy at times.

Google Inbox Highlights

And then there are Bundles, perhaps Inbox's most immediately noticeable feature. The app automatically groups incoming messages into clusters like Travel, Purchases, and Social -- and then shows those clusters as single lines within your inbox. You can tap or click to expand and view all of the bundled messages individually; you can even dismiss them all at once, if you're so inclined. (It's similar in concept to the tab-based category system introduced into regular Gmail last year but with a more streamlined and purposeful implementation.)

Inbox Google Bundles

For some people, that type of automatic categorization and grouping makes email much easier to manage. My wife, for example, loves it: I introduced her to Inbox as an experiment (she often ends up being my "typical user" lab rat -- err, sorry, lovely lab creature). Once she got past that initial adjustment period, she found Bundles to be the single feature that stood out the most and made her want to stick with Inbox instead of Gmail.

For me, well, it's slightly more complicated. I'll explain in a minute.

3. Inbox is missing many of Gmail's more advanced features and options -- and some of its more basic elements as well.

Let me preface this by saying that I'm very much a Gmail power user. I deal with tons of email every day and take advantage of the service's more advanced features -- things most typical users probably don't care about. 

Gmail is also a professional-oriented business tool for me. I use it to manage my work email in addition to my (far less substantial) personal email, so that's going to color my perspective in this domain.

And here it is: Despite its many positives, Inbox currently lacks a lot of email management options I've come to rely on. Those options range from power-user-level features to basic business-level tools -- but for me, they're all important parts of the email experience.

Some examples:

  • Signatures. As of now, Inbox doesn't allow you to create a standard signature that's tacked onto the end of your outgoing messages. I realize that's not part of the more modern and idealistic "conversational" view of email, but it's still very relevant and necessary for a lot of professional circumstances.
  • Shortcuts. I get around Gmail like a whiz, and while Inbox carries over some of Gmail's keyboard shortcuts, many of them -- like those for moving messages into a particular label (or Bundle) without ever touching your mouse -- are gone.
  • Desktop notifications. Inbox's Web-based app offers no way to get notified when any new message arrives, let alone to get notified only when specific types of messages arrive.
  • Favicon notifications. In addition to missing basic notifications, the Web version of Inbox doesn't have the ability to display the number of unread messages as part of its favicon -- something I sorely miss.
  • Drag-and-drop attachments. Yup -- they're not there in Inbox. And when you manually insert an attachment by clicking the appropriate icon and then selecting a file, Inbox gives you no indication of its upload progress; instead, it just grays out the "Send" button, which makes it hard to know what's going on. (The first time I saw that happen, I thought the app had just crashed or timed out.)
  • Insert from Drive. Gmail has an integrated option to let you insert a file attachment directly from Google Drive; Inbox in its current incarnation does not. For someone who relies heavily on cloud storage, that's a bit of a bummer.
  • Mark as read or unread. Both are M.I.A. in Inbox -- quite possibly by design, as the app encourages you to deal with things immediately and move on. That's a fine philosophical attitude, but in reality, things aren't always so black and white for me and I miss being able to take control.
  • Select all. Want to clear out your spam -- or process any other list of messages in bulk? Get ready to tap or click on every message individually; Inbox has no way to select all messages on screen at once.
  • Advanced filters. Inbox has a basic form of filters that lets you move certain types of emails into specific Bundles upon their arrival, but that's pretty much it. More advanced filtering options, like automatically marking certain types of messages as read upon their arrival or automatically forwarding them to another address, are not available. (An all-purpose auto-responder is also absent; if you need to create an out-of-office message for vacation, you'll have to head into Gmail to do it.)
  • Widgets and label- or account-specific shortcuts on Android. Maybe they'll be added eventually, but they're not available as of now.
  • Custom label notifications on Android. A very niche-type feature, I realize, but I've long had the Gmail app on my phone configured to notify me in different ways for different types of messages. Most messages show up in my notification panel but don't make a sound. Messages from specific high-priority people, meanwhile, show up and play unique sounds that grab my attention and let me know immediately whom they're from. Inbox doesn't offer that sort of granular control.
  • Android Wear-friendly notifications. Gmail notifications are formatted to work well with Wear devices -- which means you can scroll through entire messages as they arrive on your watch. Inbox notifications don't presently enjoy that optimization; they show only a short amount of text and then cut off when you view them from a Wear device.
  • Gmail Labs. To be sure, some of these are silly, but Labs-based features like Canned Responses and Undo Send are among my most frequently used Gmail tools. While Google engineers have indicated that at least some of them will make their way into Inbox eventually, they aren't there as of now.

And all of that leads us to our final point:

4. Inbox is going to be a revelation for some people -- and a disappointment for others.

Ultimately, whether Inbox is awesome or obnoxious is going to depend on how you use email and what type of email experience you want to have. 

If you tend to be overwhelmed by email -- the type of person whose inbox is always a cluttered and seemingly infinite mess with months' worth of built-up messages -- Inbox might be just the thing you need. It creates a series of systems for managing email and expanding its scope without much effort on your behalf. Using it feels more like checking items off of a to-do list than dealing with daily correspondences.

If you already have your own system for managing email, though -- using any combination of the advanced tools and interface options offered in Gmail -- you may find Inbox to be more frustrating than useful. It does a handful of things very well, but it's far less robust and customizable than the traditional Gmail application.

And if you use email for more formal business purposes, Inbox may not work for you. While its more "conversational" approach to email seems nice in theory, it doesn't always make sense in reality. Inbox feels more casual than professional -- almost like a modernized social-like take on email -- and admirable as that may be, it's simply not going to be suitable for everyone.

As for me...

After six weeks with Inbox, I've decided to move back into Gmail. At least, for now.

I really like a lot of Inbox's features. I love the mobile app interface and all of its swipe-based gestures. I love the modern Material Design motif seen throughout the service. And I really love features like snoozing and Highlights along with the prominent integration of Google-made reminders.

But despite those strengths, Inbox currently lacks a number of foundational email elements I absolutely need -- things like signatures, desktop notifications, and the ability to select a large group of messages with a single click. It lacks several other features that are less critical for me but go a long way in making my life easier, like drag-and-drop attachments, the ability to mark a message as unread, and Canned Responses (along with most of the other items mentioned in point #3).

Beyond that, Inbox's core approach just doesn't suit my work flow as well as I'd like. The desktop app feels like a bit of an afterthought to me, with low info density and little optimization for the larger on-screen space. It's pretty-looking but less practical and efficient for the level of email-oriented work I do; I frequently end up taking extra steps to achieve tasks that are simple for me in Gmail, like seeing and accessing my list of Bundles (or labels).

On a broader level, I find I prefer Gmail's highly customizable Priority Inbox system over Inbox's auto-sorted message list presentation. With Priority Inbox, I can split my inbox into multiple sections that make sense for me: I see unread and important messages at the top of my inbox followed by my most pressing (starred) messages, my next-to-most-pressing (priority but not starred) messages, and finally my least important (non-priority) messages. With Inbox, all of those levels get mixed in together and separated only by date; there's no way for me to make important items appear above everything else, where they're certain to grab my attention and get addressed.

(Inbox does have an option to "pin" a message that's important, but its method of putting pinned messages together on a separate screen instead of in an attention-grabbing and easily glanceable top-of-inbox section just doesn't work for me.)

As for Bundles, I think it's a fantastic concept -- but again, it doesn't quite suit my personal work flow. I get a lot press releases, for example; most of them don't matter, but I need to scan through them all to make sure I see the one out of every 30 that's important. Those messages are difficult to define by algorithm, so Inbox usually ends up bundling them somewhat arbitrarily into categories like Promos, Updates, and Low Priority. I then have to click on each of those categories to see the list of messages, even if there's only one message bundled at any given moment. Again, extra steps that are less efficient for my needs.

I'd love to see features like snoozing and Highlights be offered alongside the more traditional Gmail-based features, and it sounds like the two apps may eventually overlap further or even merge so I can. For now, though, it's an either/or situation -- one complete environment and set of features or the other. And for me, much as I enjoy parts of Inbox, Gmail remains the more sensible overall option.

Inbox has been an interesting experiment, but at the end of the day, opening up Gmail feels like returning home -- and the fact that the homecoming feels so good tells me everything I need to know.

[UPDATE: 9 months later, how Google's Inbox finally won me over]

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