How to conquer Gmail in 6 easy ways

Whether it's filters or labels, organizing mail is a snap

After a long courtship, I recently pledged my everlasting love for Gmail, forsaking all other e-mail systems (well, almost) in favor of Google's free, Web-hosted service. But as in any relationship, my passion for Gmail is constrained by practical concerns. Though it possesses many excellent qualities, Gmail is far from perfect. Fortunately, I've uncovered some strategies that will give my walk down the aisle with Gmail a good chance of yielding a happily ever after.

Read, label, archive

Most e-mail users dream of an empty in-box -- evidence that we've read and deleted (or filed) all incoming messages and are now free to take the rest of the day off. Because Gmail offers more than 5GB of storage, the only messages you need to delete are those you never want to see again. To banish pieces of e-mail from your in-box but keep them handy, add a check mark beside them under "Select" on the left side of the screen, and then click "Archive." This step hides messages from plain view without expunging them. (There's more on archiving below.)

To make archived messages easier to find later, use Gmail's labels to categorize them by topic, project, sender or any other criterion that make sense to you. Most e-mail programs let you sort your mail into folders, but Gmail's labels improve on folders in a powerful way: Instead of requiring that mail go into only one folder at a time, they let you assign Gmail messages to multiple categories simultaneously. For example, a single properly labeled message that pertains to both Project A and Project B will appear in the collection of messages labeled "Project A" as well as in the "Project B" group.

To categorize a message, open it and choose one of the labels on the "More Actions" drop-down menu, or check one or more messages in one of the message list views, and then choose the label from the same menu. Alternatively, to create new labels on the fly, choose "New label" from the menu. To view or modify your labels, first choose "Settings>Labels" in the upper right-hand portion of Gmail's interface; this will open a page where you can rename or remove individual labels, view a list of messages tagged with each label, or create a new label. Unlike deleting a folder in a standard e-mail program, deleting a label doesn't wipe out the messages tagged with that label, so feel free to delete any labels you no longer need.

You can also remove labels from individual messages without deleting the labels themselves. First, open a single message or check multiple messages in the mail list. Then, choose "More Actions." Scroll to and select the unwanted label beneath the "Remove label" heading. To find messages no longer tagged with a label, click "All Mail" in the far left pane to see the list of every message stored in your account.

Gmail's in-box is just another tag that incoming messages receive by default. Should you mistakenly archive a message, which strips it of its 'Inbox' tag, you can return it to your in-box by clicking "All Mail," selecting the message and clicking "Move to In-box." A similar method enables you to retrieve messages that you inadvertently send to the Trash folder. Gmail's handy habit of grouping e-mail conversations into message threads also means that messages you've archived will pop back into your mailbox as soon as someone else posts a response to an earlier message in the thread. If you no longer have any interest in the conversation, prevent it from reappearing in your in-box by checking it and then choosing "Mute" from the "More Actions" menu.

Fetch mail from other accounts

Though you probably have one primary e-mail account, you may regularly receive messages at more than one address. You can configure Outlook, Thunderbird and other e-mail programs to download messages from all of your accounts so you can see all of your e-mail in one convenient location. Not surprisingly, Gmail lets you do the same thing, allowing you to centralize all of your mail in Gmail's in-box. Besides reducing the likelihood of forgetting which account has the message you're looking for, this practice ensures that all of your mail passes through Gmail's excellent spam filter.

Label automatically via filters

One of the biggest obstacles to emptying your in-box quickly is the need to scan and prioritize incoming messages. Having all of your e-mail in one in-box is great, but it does complicate the task of sorting messages that require immediate attention from those that can wait. One solution is to have Gmail automatically do the prioritizing for you by applying filters to incoming mail. The easiest way to create a filter is to open an example of the message that you want Gmail to act on, and then choose "More Actions>Filter messages like these." Gmail will display the filter criteria that it has chosen in the sample message (often the From: address), along with a list of messages in your account that the filter would detect. Add or remove criteria by altering the contents of the various fields provided, and click "Test Search" to see how your changes affect the search results.

When you are satisfied with your filter's search criteria, click "Next Step" to determine what actions Gmail should take on the matching messages. Two obvious actions are "Skip the Inbox" (Archive it) and "Apply" the label. Check both of these and select a label from the drop-down list. If you'd like to apply the filter to the messages in your test search results too, check the "Also apply filter to ..." option and then click "Create Filter" to shunt incoming messages that match your filter criteria directly to a folder. You can create filters that forward messages to other e-mail addresses, apply Gmail's star flag, mark messages as read or delete them -- in effect hyperprioritizing, delegating or utterly ignoring specific projects or people before they arrive in your in-box. To view, edit or delete your filters, choose "Settings, Filters."

Gmail digs IMAP

Gmail's Web interface has many admirers, but you may prefer to access your account via a standard e-mail program, such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird or Apple Mail. Gmail has long allowed users to download its messages to such e-mail programs by using the Post Office Protocol (POP) 3 standard, in which the program downloads a copy of each message to your PC,and optionally deletes or leaves a copy of the message on the mail server. The service recently added support for the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP), in which the mail program leaves messages on the server, downloading a copy for local viewing only when needed. One key benefit of IMAP is that your in-box, sent mail and sorted mail folders (or in Gmail's case, labels) look the same no matter which PC or program you use to access your mail -- a boon for anyone who uses a combination of home, office, portable and public computers. IMAP is also perfect for accessing your mail from cell phones and other devices with limited storage. Before you can read Gmail in your mail program, you must make some decisions. First, choose "Settings>Forwarding" and POP/IMAP and specify either POP3 or IMAP. For POP3, select "Enable POP for all mail" or "Enable POP for mail that arrives from now on." Choosing the first option will cause your e-mail program to download everything it finds in your Gmail account, which could tie up your computer and its Internet connection for some time, depending on how many messages you have in Gmail and whether they contain large file attachments. Choosing the second option leaves past communications in Gmail and starts your POP3 downloads from the present moment. Next, you need to decide what should happen to the messages in Gmail after you've used your mail program to download them. Given Gmail's nearly unlimited free storage, I recommend avoiding the "delete Gmail's copy" option and instead choosing "archive Gmail's copy." The other option, "keep Gmail's copy in the Inbox," leaves Gmail's mail list unaltered by your POP3 downloads. Click "Save Changes" to enable POP3 in Gmail. To enable IMAP, select "Enable IMAP" and click "Save Changes."

IMAP and POP3 support for Gmail

Next, configure your e-mail program to send and receive mail via your Gmail server: Choose "Settings>Forwarding" and POP/IMAP and click "Configuration" instructions in either the POP or IMAP section of the page for details on how to configure your software. For a POP3 configuration, the server for incoming mail is on Port 995 using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security, and the server for outgoing mail (which uses the Secure Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP) is on Port 465 using SSL or on Port 587 using the newer Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol. Don't enable options to log on using Secure Password Authentication. For an IMAP configuration, the incoming mail server is on Port 993 using SSL; the outgoing mail server (which uses SMTP) is on Port 465 using SSL or on Port 587 using TLS.

Whether you choose IMAP or POP3, as soon as your e-mail program connects to the Gmail server, it will find and display your Gmail labels -- including "Sent Mail," "Spam" and "Starred" -- as folders. If you choose POP3, creating or deleting folders in your mail program won't affect your Gmail labels, but deleting a folder will also delete the files contained in the folder from the Gmail server (just as you'd expect). If you choose IMAP, creating or deleting folders in your mail program will create or remove the corresponding label on Gmail, because that's where the folders/labels actually reside. Deleting a folder doesn't delete the messages it contains -- just as deleting a label in Gmail doesn't delete the messages tagged with it.

Chat with your AIM buddies

Gmail has long included an integrated chat feature that connects you to other Gmail users via the Google Talk network. To start an instant message conversation with another user, just expand your contacts list, hover the cursor over the Gmail contact you'd like to chat with, and click "Chat." For voice chats, you must download the free Google Talk application. Google recently added support for AOL Instant Messenger to Gmail's Chat feature, so now you can banter with your AIM buddies without having to launch AOL Instant Messenger (this is especially handy if your company's firewall blocks regular AIM traffic). To log in to AIM via Gmail Chat, click the arrow next to Chat's status field (or click the "Options" link at the bottom of your contacts list), and choose "Sign into AIM." Enter your AIM screen name and password into the dialog box that appears, and click "Sign in." Your AIM buddies will now appear in your Gmail chat list.

Improving on near-perfection

Even if you're expert at wrangling Gmail's advanced features, some things in the Web-mail service need fixing. For example, when you click a "mailto:" link on a Web page, why doesn't a new message open in Gmail? When you're looking for an important spreadsheet, wouldn't it be great if you could see what kind of files were attached to messages in the list display, instead of seeing just a paper-clip icon? And why isn't Google's excellent Calendar application integrated with your Gmail page?

These and many other missing features have inspired a gaggle of volunteer programmers to write dozens of Greasemonkey-compatible JavaScripts that customize Gmail's interface in Firefox, as well as applets that change the service's behavior in both Firefox and the Opera browser. Better Gmail is a one-stop collection of 25 of the best scripts that you can enable and configure through a single dialog box. Firefox users must first install the Greasemonkey add-on. Opera incorporates its own scripting environment compatible with Greasemonkey scripts. Although the scripts in Better Gmail have not yet been updated for compatibility with Gmail's recently revamped interface, you can switch back to the earlier Gmail interface by clicking the "Older version" link in the site's upper-right corner.

This story, "How to conquer Gmail in 6 easy ways" was originally published by PCWorld.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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