Barbara Krasnoff

Google's upgraded Gmail: For better or worse?

November 02, 2011 3:25 PM EDT

By (@BarbaraKrasnoff / ) - November 2, 2011.

Google usually offers tweaks to its various online apps in dribs and drabs, without much notice -- a new feature here, a slightly revamped one there. But with its new redesign of Gmail, Google is pushing out several rather radical changes in one swell foop.

Gmail users are being currently sent an offer to switch to what Google calls its "new look" with a reassurance that they can switch back to the old one if they want -- temporarily. Apparently, Google is offering this as an advance taste -- in its page "About Gmail's new look" it says bluntly, "You will automatically get upgraded to the new look soon." It is also actively soliciting feedback via a small link at the bottom of the Gmail page, presumably so anything that really irritates its users can be tweaked before making it permanent.  

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Want to see the new Gmail?

For a look at some screenshots comparing the old and new Gmail, check out our image gallery.

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I switched over to the new format to see how it improved -- or if it improved -- my usage of Gmail. (JR Raphael offers some additional advice in his blog entry "5 tweaks to make the new Gmail even better.") Here are some of my observations, based on a day's usage and going under the same categories as Google's explanations in its "About Gmail's new look" page:

Google says: "Cleaner, more modern"

Well, it's different. "More modern" refers, I think to some of the new features, but that's largely a matter of opinion. Cleaner? Well, a little. You can now change the size of the chat box in the left column, for example, which does eliminate some of the clutter. Many of the buttons now use icons instead of words, which may either be an attempt at a new look or to allow for better use by non-English speakers. Google also added some new themes (and says that apparently, some older themes are no longer supported).

Google says: "Improved conversation view."

I've always liked Gmail's conversation view, which adds new emails to a thread rather than simply listing it separately, thus making it extremely easy to follow a conversation, even over days or weeks. The new version has some improvements, although most are not immediately obvious and many seem to me to be simply user interface changes rather than added features.

For example, all emails in a conversation now have profile images associated with them (which, in my opinion, add to the clutter). A down arrow below an email sender's name lets you see all the recipients (previously, you found that in a "show details" link). Some of the borders and other graphics surrounding each message thread have been eliminated. The most useful change I've found so far is a label in the center of a stacked thread which tells you how many older messages are contained there.

Google says: "Customizable in new ways"

This seems to refer largely to the density of the message list, which is changed via the settings button on the top right side of the Gmail screen (not to be confused with the almost identical settings button in the black toolbar that now heads up all Google's apps). You can choose from Comfortable, Cozy and Compact; the only apparent difference among the three is the amount of white space between the text and the borders -- and consequently, the number of listed emails you can see at one time. I'm not sure why Google thinks that users will want to see less on their screens than before; I immediately changed mine to Compact, which most closely resembles the density of the older version.

Google says: "More control."

In other words, as mentioned before you can resize the chat window, which is nice, especially for those of us who don't use it much.

Google says: "Search and filters made simple"

This is actually a distinct improvement, especially for those of us who have a lot of emails and therefore may need to do a lot of searching to find messages.

Previously, you only had a single search field at the top of your email list. If you wanted more, you had to click a small link to "Show search options," which opened a Search Options section at the top that let you specify which folder the email is in, whom the email is from, whom it is to or what the subject is; specify words that are or are not in the message; state whether it has an attachment, and what date it was sent (and you can also specific a period of time -- for example, within a week of the stated date). It was useful, but a bit awkward, and I tended not to use it much.

Now a small arrow at the side of the search field lets you access all these fields in a smaller, faster drop box and lets you immediately create a filter from the search. Again, nothing new here, but in this case, the UI is much better and easier to use than the older version.

Google says: "Switch to Contacts and Tasks"

On the other hand, this is not an improvement. In the older version, links to Mail, Contacts and Tasks were lined up, one below the other, at the top left side of the window. Now you only see the app you're using; you have to click a small arrow on the side of the label to access a drop-down menu and move to one of the others.

Google has always, for reasons I've never understood, underestimated the importance of offering a solid, separate contacts list with its email application. (We won't even talk about its Tasks application, which doesn't even have any type of deadline alarm available.) Over the years, it finally tweaked its Contacts listing to the point where it's useful, but I'm not sure why making the interface "cleaner" is more important than letting me access my contacts with a single click.

Google says: "A new toolbar"

The toolbar buttons that allow you to mark an email read, delete it, move it, etc. are now icons instead of words ( and not always obvious icons; I had to hover my cursor over most of them to figure out what they were for). The buttons now only appear when appropriate; for example, you only get the "Delete" button when you're either reading a specific email or have checked one or more in a list. This does make for a somewhat cleaner interface, which is fine.

(A friend also noticed that something interesting when he accidentally marked a commercial email from Staples as spam -- he meant to archive it and hit the wrong button, which seems to be easier to do with the new look. At that point, he got a message from Google offering to unsubscribe him from the Staples email list. I'm not sure if this is a new feature, but it is a nice one.)

What I also find interesting is that Google's advertising line, which was previously above the toolbar (and therefore easier to ignore) is now between the toolbar and the message or the message list -- so that you are almost forced to read it as your eye moves between your message and the icons that let you reply, delete, or move it.

I may get used to this in time. However, when I first noticed it, my first reaction was that it was an interference, and to start investigating ways to remove the advertisement line -- something that hadn't occurred to me in the old version. This is probably not the reaction Google was looking for.

Conclusions

When Google changes an application, it's usually largely for the better (although its recent changes to its Reader RSS feed app has been met with disapproval by some users). In the case of Gmail, there are some good changes there -- the search is much easier to access and use, for example. However, many of the differences seem, after an immediate try-out, to be more aesthetic than practical, and some of them seem to cater more to advertisers or to some overarching design scheme.

I don't find the new Gmail so terrible that I no longer want to use it. I even like a couple of the changes. But overall, to my eyes it just looks different -- not necessarily better.