Gmail vs. Inbox: 8 productivity features Gmail still can't match

Gmail is better than ever, but its "experimental" email sibling has some organizational advantages that are tough to give up.

Gmail vs. Inbox
PIRO4D, modified by IDG Comm

Sadistic as it may sound, I've been dedicating an awful lot of brain power to the subject of email as of late. And considering what a limited supply of power this ol' noggin has nowadays, that's really saying something.

Part of the noodling has been related to my ongoing exploration of email newsletters, both with my own weekly endeavor and with the variety of other email-based publications I've been digesting lately (yum). Increasingly these days, my inbox is becoming more than just a place for messages.

But that aside, I have an insatiable urge to endlessly refine my personal tech setup in the pursuit of optimal efficiency. Whether I'm spending 10 minutes a day or 10 hours a week in my inbox, I want every second to count — and from start to finish, I want things to be as effective and hassle-free as possible.

That's why I've experimented with countless email apps and configurations over the years — and that's why lately in particular, I've been devoting so much of my neural oscillation to the juxtaposition of Gmail and Inbox, Google's two email interface options.

I've mostly relied on Inbox over the past few years, you see, but with Google's recent improvements to Gmail combined with the company's diminishing (though not entirely eliminated) focus on Inbox, I've been wondering if it's time to throw in the towel and turn back to Gmail. So I've spent the past several weeks toggling back and forth between the two apps, both on desktop and on mobile. And after a month, one thing is clear: Much as I've tried, I'm not ready to give up on Inbox yet — for eight very specific reasons.

1. Time-based bundle delivery

One of the core components of Inbox is its ability to intelligently sort incoming messages into bundles — categories such as Purchases, Finance, Social, Updates, and Low Priority. By default, these bundles all show up collapsed in your main inbox view, but here's the key for me: You can configure any of them to remain out of view and then show up only once a day or even just once a week.

That means the not-so-important stuff that endlessly fills my inbox and either piles up into an unmanageable mess or compels me to keep glancing and swiping away stays out of my sight most of the time — then shows up in one cluster, at a time when I can deal with it efficiently, all at once. (And yes, Gmail has a vaguely similar system of categorization, but it's nowhere near as powerful or customizable, and it lacks that crucial time-based delivery system that keeps all the less important stuff out of your hair during the day.)

Gmail vs. Inbox - Bundles JR

More than anything, this has truly changed the way I think about — or, to be more accurate, frequently don't think about — my inbox. Smart sorting and fewer interruptions are a potent combination and a key part of what's allowed me to maintain that elusive state of "inbox zero" and avoid feeling like email is taking over my life.

2. Simple sweeping

As part of its bundle system, Inbox gives me the ability to sweep away an entire group of messages with a single tap. I can't tell you what a massive time-saver that is: It means I can glance at everything in, say, my Updates bundle when it shows up once every morning, see that none of it requires any action, and then tap a single icon to send it all away at once. It may sound like a small thing, but having to either manually swipe away each message in a category or manually check each one and then hit the Archive button — as I've been doing these past several weeks with Gmail — feels archaic in comparison, especially when a dozen or more messages are involved.

Inbox's sweeping system has one other touch that really makes it invaluable: Say I have 15 messages in a bundle. One of them is something I want to keep; the remaining 14 are irrelevant noise. I can select the one message that matters and pin it to my inbox, then sweep everything away — and the message I want will remain while the rest will be archived.

Gmail vs. Inbox - Sweep JR

It's a little touch that makes a big difference in my never-ending efforts to keep my inbox under control.

3. Integration of Google's universal reminder system

This one's huge: Inbox integrates seamlessly with Google's reminder system — y'know, the thing that lets you say or type "remind me to..." in Google Assistant or any Google search box (including in the Chrome address bar) on any device. It's also connected to the reminders in Google Keep, where I keep all sorts of notes and information.

This essentially turns Inbox into an all-in-one task list and personal organizer: Any reminder I set anywhere shows up as an item in my inbox, and I can check it off once it's done. (If I mark it as done anywhere else, meanwhile, it also gets marked as done in Inbox. Win-win.) Reminders barked into Google Home don't just disappear into the ether after they've sounded once, either; they remain in my inbox along with all the other stuff I need to do and then disappear only when I mark them as finished.

I can set new reminders right from Inbox, too, instead of sending myself emails in the primitive way I used to. It's simpler, more streamlined, and more sensible — and man, do I miss it when I'm using Gmail. The bare-bones and separated Tasks app doesn't even come close to replacing this.

4. Reminders within emails

In addition to serving as a hub for regular reminders, Inbox allows me to attach reminders onto individual emails. So when I have a long back-and-forth thread with an editor, for instance, and I need to remember to perform one specific task related to it the next day, I can put a reminder about that on top of that very email, where it belongs, and then snooze the whole thing to the day and time I want.

Gmail vs. Inbox - Message Reminders JR

When the time arrives, the email pops back into my inbox with the reminder attached and prominently displayed — right above the message, both when viewing it in full and when looking at the main inbox view. It's such a valuable productivity tool, and it's something I've really missed during my weeks with Gmail.

5. Simple link saving

Remember that whole "all-in-one task list and personal organizer" idea we were talking about a minute ago? On that same note, Inbox makes it super-simple for me to save links from the web — either by sharing them to Inbox on my phone or by clicking an icon for the Inbox extension in my desktop Chrome browser. I do that whenever there's something I need to consider but don't have time to deal with immediately.

Then, like everything else in my inbox, I snooze it to a moment when I will be able to deal with it — and it shows up right there with all my other tasks for that specific time. I don't have to remember to look in Pocket or Chrome or some other random app where I collect things and then promptly forget about them; it's right there where I'll see and remember it, no different from any other task on my list.

6. Simple trip organization

Another one for the "all-in-one organizer" column: Inbox automatically pulls together bundles about upcoming trips and makes them readily available in my inbox. It collects info about flights, hotel reservations, and other relevant plans from incoming confirmation emails and then organizes them all into an easily glanceable and shareable itinerary.

Gmail vs. Inbox - Trips JR

It takes things a step further, too, and integrates with the excellent (and underappreciated) Google Trips app. Trips puts all that same info into a single place, broken down by destination — then supplements it with travel tips and local recommendations and keeps everything neatly organized and accessible.

7. One-tap access to attachments on mobile

The new Gmail adopted the Inbox-like feature of providing one-tap access to attachments from your inbox, so you can click directly to a document without first having to open up the associated email. That's a handy option to have, but the place I find that function most useful is actually on mobile — where I frequently want to glimpse at something like a PDF attached to a report while I'm getting ready in the morning, without wasting time or tapping around unnecessarily — and as of now, at least, Gmail doesn't offer that option in its mobile app.

8. Sensible swipe gestures on mobile

Snoozing coming to Gmail is fantastic. It's one of Inbox's best features, without a doubt, and a spectacular tool for keeping your inbox in order.

In Gmail's mobile app, however, it feels like an afterthought: You have to first select or open a message and then look in the overflow menu to find the command. The nice thing about snoozing a message is how simple it is — or should be: With Inbox, I just swipe a message to the left, and bam: Up comes a box asking me when I want it to reappear. I can triage through emails in no time and send them all away to a time that's right.

Inbox's time-saving gestures don't end with snoozing, either: Swiping up or down while viewing a bundle or label in the app — when you're at the very top or bottom of the message list, respectively — takes you back to the main inbox view. It's so sensible, I can't stop trying to do it (to no avail, of course) in Gmail.

Similarly, swiping up or down from the top or bottom of an individual message closes the message and takes you back to the previous list view. Like so many things, it's a seemingly subtle touch that makes an immeasurable difference in the way you experience the app and how easy it is to use.

The snoozing part, at least, seems like something that's bound to be addressed before long. It probably feels like an afterthought in Gmail because it was an afterthought in Gmail; all signs seem to suggest the mobile app was quickly patched to match the updated desktop site's most prominent new features but that a more thorough revamp is still pending.

As for all the other stuff we've talked about in this section and above, some things seem more likely than others to make their way to Gmail eventually. But each one is an important part of a productivity puzzle — one that, for now, at least, is sending me back from Gmail to Inbox once again.

Here's hoping that choice doesn't disappear anytime soon.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

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