Time to confess a personal bias: I love Gmail. I think it's the best thing since sliced bread. I try to be impartial when I write about software and online services, but seriously -- of all the free email services out there, why would you use anything else?
A quick point of orientation before we begin. If I mention the "Options menu," I'm talking about the little gear-shaped icon up in the top-right, next to your username.
I get a lot of email. A lot, lot, lot of email. Mixing up work emails with emails from Mom isn't exactly good for business (or family). Luckily, Gmail's got labels.
Make as many as you want (click the "Labels" tab within your Mail Settings to get started). Color them however you please. Then smack those labels on your messages. Like so:
You can see all of your labels displayed in the sidebar. Click on any one of them, and your inbox will only display emails with that label. If you don't want a labeled email to be visible in your main inbox anymore, click the "Move to" button instead (shown in the picture above). It'll hide your email until you click on its label name.
Google likes to play around with experimental stuff. This isn't surprising, as we're talking about a company that has playground slides and gaming rooms in their offices. If you click the "Labs" link in the Options menu, you'll get a whole bunch of fun widgets and gadgets to play with.
To put it simply, Labs are free extras that give you additional features. Mundane but helpful Labs include things like a Google Calendar widget for your sidebar, or the ability to insert images into the body of an email. There are fun Labs, too, like a tricked-out set of emoticons or a widget that lets you do simple math problems.
Not all Labs are for everybody, but you might find some game-changingly useful stuff in there, depending on your needs.
When I first learned that Gmail has a built-in instant messenger, I wasn't too sold on the idea. I have some rather chatty friends, and while I love them dearly, if I'm in my Gmail, it's because I need to work. But Google Chat quickly grew on me. I typically spend a good ten hours a day (or more) at my computer. Constantly jumping between browser tabs and software windows gets exhausting. Having a little chat box right there in my Gmail means one less thing I have to keep an eye on, and it's very handy if I have a quick question for somebody.
To open up a chat window, just double click on one of your contacts. You can find a list of chat-friendly folks in your sidebar.
Another cool thing about Google Chat is that you can use it to reply to an email, provided that the contact is online. This is really useful if the email is urgent, or if a bit of discussion is needed.
Now, you may notice that I have a video camera icon beside my name, rather than the default circle. That means that I've got video chat installed. Yep, you read correctly. You can have video chat right there in your Gmail. It's very good quality and super reliable. If you want to know more about how to set it up, check out the Corkboard. There's a great video there called A Grandmother's Guide to Video Chat. It really couldn't be easier.
Speaking of voice chat, that brings me to the next feature...
Let's get right to the point: Google lets you make actual phone calls through your Gmail. If you're calling an international number, you'll have to buy a bit of phone credit. But if you're calling a US number, it's free. As in beer. And the quality's good, too. A little staticky at times, but overall not bad. Last week, I used Google Talk to call my US-based bank from Iceland. Worked like a charm.
To access Google Talk, click the "Call phone" link within the Chat panel. You'll get a pop-up box that looks like this:
If you're wondering why you'd ever need this feature if you have an actual phone, allow me to share an anecdote. A few months ago, one of my employers gave me a research assignment that required me to make a couple hundred phone calls. With Google Talk, I did the whole project without it costing a dime or eating into my cellphone minutes.
Other uses could include calling your phone if you've misplaced it. Or making cheap long distance calls. Or just doing it because you are calling phones from your computer, which is incredibly cool.
I go searching for old emails all the time. Sometimes I'm in need of a misplaced attachment. Sometimes I need a phone number or a detail from a long-past conversation. But searching for just one keyword can be problematic. Let's say I was looking for an email from my brother. If I were to simply type "Matt" into the search bar, my search results would include every time his name was mentioned in an email. And that's just not helpful.
Luckily, Gmail comes with a powerful filtering tool. You can find it in a tiny link, just to the right of the "Search the Web" button.
Once you specify your search criteria, all non-relevant emails will be hidden from view. But don't worry -- they're not gone! They'll come right back as soon as you clear the filter.
If you don't want to go through the bother of downloading an attached document, you can take a look at it right in your browser by using Google Docs. Just click the "View" link at the bottom of an email.
A new browser tab will open, revealing your document in all its text-based glory.
If you want to save a copy of the document in your Docs or if you'd like to edit it straight away, click the "Save in Google Docs" button in the top-right corner. I won't go into how to use Google Docs at the moment, but you can read a bit more about it in one of my other articles.
This is, by far, my favorite feature. See, I currently have three email accounts. I've had more than that in the past. Staying signed into all of them at the same time is annoying, inconvenient, and inefficient. Now, as you may know, many email services allow you to set up message forwarding. This instructs the mail server to automatically send incoming messages to another address -- in my case, my Gmail account (the steps for setting up message forwarding will depend on what service you're using; feel free to ask in the forums if you're stuck).
The drawback to email forwarding is that when you reply to a forwarded message, you're replying from the account that it was forwarded to. For example, let's say an email is sent to Becky@AwesomeWebsite.com, and it's forwarded to Becky@gmail.com. The person who wrote to Becky@AwesomeWebsite.com will get a reply from Becky@gmail.com.
...or will they?!
That's right, folks. "Send mail as." In which I can reply to non-Gmail emails from my Gmail...while using a different sender address.
Seriously, I cannot tell you how much I love this feature. I don't want the world to have my personal Gmail address, and it can be confusing for the original sender to get an email from a different address than the one they wrote to. Being able to reply through my Gmail as if I am replying from another account is kind of magical. It's easy to set up, too. Just hit the "Send email from another address" button, and punch in your login details and password for the other account. Good to go.
Once you've got this set up, the "From" field in your email composition form will turn into a handy drop-down menu.
So, there you have it. A few of my favorite Gmail features. Let's hear about yours in the comments.