In the interest of full disclosure, one of my motivations for writing this post is the difficult experiences that I and my team have had in providing support to home users for email clients. It’s hard to explain to someone who is really comfortable with their outdated platform that there is an easier way to do things. When an alternative product becomes available, the tendency of people is almost always to continue using what’s familiar to them. And I get it! New things can be intimidating and user interfaces aren't always intuitive, but I've found time and again that once a user has been set up and oriented to Gmail, they are able to see the power and robustness of the platform. Gmail overcomes many of the issues that we face in the support sphere.
Mail Quota and Protocol
One of the most common problems that customers encounter is exceeding the mail quota set by their service provider. This can be due to a number of reasons, but primarily is due to the inadequate mail storage provided by many ISPs. If you are using an IMAP configuration with only 25 megabytes of storage allocated on your ISP's mail server, you will shortly run into problems. Even with POP mail being downloaded to your computer, if you check your email infrequently you may still encounter these problems.
Google counters this with a generous 15 gigabytes of storage, shared between Gmail and Google Drive. If you find you’re getting close to filling your quota (yikes, that’s a lot of email!) you can expand your limit to 100 gigabytes for just just $5 per month.
Additionally, if you ever choose to migrate to a new ISP you may lose your emails! You can avoid this by using Google’s Mail Fetcher to download any messages from your mail server and store them in Gmail.
Windows 8 Mail App
If you've upgraded to Windows 8, you may have noticed that the built in Mail app does not support the POP protocol for checking mail. This spells trouble for any mail services that do not support IMAP, or that do with only a limited quota.
If you do have your heart set on using the Windows 8 Mail app, then – as mentioned above – Gmail supports both the POP and IMAP protocols, and you with sufficient storage space to make this manageable.
Attachment Size Limits
Many mail servers will reject emails with attachments over a particular size (or cumulative size if multiple attachments). This varies between servers, but 10 megabytes is generally the limit imposed by most. Gmail allows actual attachments of up to 25 megabytes, while files uploaded to Google Drive (which can be easily attached/linked to) may be up to a whopping 10 gigabytes!
Offline Access Now Available!
One feature that desktop clients have had over Gmail in the past is offline availability.
Desktop mail clients store a local copy of your messages that are able to be read offline and replies can be composed and saved to your outbox, ready to be sent when you have internet access. Gmail's weakness in the area has now been remedied with the release of Gmail Offline – an app developed for Google’s web browser, Google Chrome. Released in 2013, Gmail Offline allows “mail to be read, responded to, searched and archived” without an active connection to the internet. It has a stripped down interface that will be familiar to anyone who has used Gmail’s phone or tablet app. While it lacks many of the features of the web interface, it provides the basics of email availability and message composition which had heretofore been lacking.
Synchronisation Across Multiple Devices
These days even the most technophobic people have multiple communication devices – smart phones, tablets and computers are not just for those in business or technology industries any more. However, many are not utilising these devices to their potential. What’s the point of all this new technology if you’re not taking advantage of it?!
With Google’s Android operating system approaching 80% market share they are of course providing strong support for Gmail on those devices. Synchronising your devices makes it easy to keep track of emails you've read and those you've responded to, and to maintain your contact list and calendar events. With the universal support for the Google platform, setting up and synchronising your gadgets is more user friendly than ever before.
Google Drive Integration
Google Drive is a great file storage tool as well as an online file viewer. While similar online storage facilities offer free packages, Google Drive’s storage quota of 15 gigabytes dwarfs that offered by Dropbox (2GB) and Microsoft’s SkyDrive (7GB). Google’s powerful search engine also means that when you search Google Drive, you’re not just searching file names – you’re searching the contents of the files. So even if you have forty-six files name Untitled Document, Google is still able to find the draft of your essay, or the recipe you were collating, or the draft of your play, based on the content of your files!
Google Drive’s Windows and Apple apps allow you to drag and drop in to the folder for easy desktop management, while the web interface lets you access those files from anywhere. Google provide mobile access for iOS and Android platforms (as to be expected) with apps available for free from the Apple App Store and Google Play Store respectively.
Multiple Account Management
Another aspect that mail clients have traditionally handled better than webmail interfaces is managing multiple accounts. Gmail allows multiple account management in two different ways: POP mail checking and browser cookies.
POP Mail Checking
This option allows you to add up to five POP mail accounts. POP is still the most common mail delivery protocol, and supported almost universally.
Using Gmail’s Mail Fetcher, you can download messages from you ISP mail account, your Hotmail account, your Yahoo account, your Live.com account, or any other service that supports the POP protocol. Not only that, but Gmail also allows you to continue to send from those addresses despite accessing the messages via Gmail (so even though you log into Gmail to check your messages, your emails will be sent from your @hotmail.com or @live.com email address). This feature allows you to easily manage multiple accounts by logging into a single location.
Filtering and labelling also allows for simple and easily identifiable colour-coding of your incoming messages.
Browser cookies allow you to switch easily between multiple Google accounts, if you have them! These sessions persist as long as your cookies do (but be aware that if you clear cookies on browser close, you'll need to add the accounts during each browser session).
Google’s labelling system may seem a little strange at first if you’re used to folders, but it should be easy to see that a feature that accomplishes the task of both folders AND flags makes managing your inbox much less complicated! Not only that, you are able to attribute multiple labels to a single email.
For example, you may keep all your correspondence with your uncle under a label named “Uncle Joe”. But you also like to keep all emails with family photos attached under the label “Family Photos”. You receive an email from Uncle Joe, describing his holiday to Fiji, with photos of your cousin’s wedding. Unlike with folders, you can add both of these labels to a single email.
You can choose whether to visually display these messages in your inbox, or to hide them from the inbox, only visible when you select the labels that they belong to. As mentioned above, these labels can be colour coded to make for easy identification (I make sure that my label for Bills and Invoices always appears in bright red!).