Little-known beta apps enhance Gmail’s usability

Lincoln spector By Lincoln Spector

While there’s much to like about Gmail, there’s also much that’s missing — such as multiple signatures, hierarchical tags, and the ability to embed pictures as part of your mail.

You might be surprised to learn that Gmail actually does support those features, and about 50 more, in a beta program called Gmail Labs.

Each lab adds something to Gmail, and some are truly worthwhile. Installing preproduction software is usually a bit dicey, but using Web-based beta products doesn’t carry much risk. A Gmail lab might break, but it won’t damage your PC.

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The labs are browser-neutral; I’ve used the same ones in Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome without any problems. Start Labs by going to your Gmail settings and clicking the Labs tab. On the Labs Settings page, enable the individual apps you want to try. Once you have saved the changes, a small green beaker will appear in the upper-right bar on your Gmail screen. (See Figure 1.) Click it from any Gmail window to add or disable Labs.

Gmail labs page
Figure 1. The Gmail Labs page, accessed by clicking the little green beaker (circled in yellow), is where you enable and disable Gmail’s new beta e-mail tools.

Here are my five favorite labs, add-ons I now consider as essential parts of my Gmail experience. I’ll finish with a wished-for sixth lab — it doesn’t exist, but it should.

Avoid repetitive typing with Canned Responses

We all have strings of text that we enter into e-mails over and over again. They might include your mailing address, a common introductory paragraph, and two or three signatures. Enable Canned Responses, and you’ll have to type each of these strings only one more time.

First, type something you’ll want to use again; highlight the text; then select the Canned responses link below the subject field. Select New canned response and give your new response a name. (See Figure 2.)

Gmail labs canned response management page
Figure 2. With Gmail’s Canned Response lab, you can enter frequently used text and quickly insert it into future mail.

The next time you want to insert those words into an outgoing message, select it from the same Canned responses pull-down menu.

I do have one complaint about Canned Responses: You can’t organize your responses or even sort them. It would, for example, be nice to pull several signatures together, collect them into one group, and arrange them in a convenient order. However, they remain listed in the order in which you created them.

Embed photos and illustrations in your e-mail

It’s almost pathetic that Inserting Images has to exist as a Lab. It should have been part of Gmail’s default features from the beginning. After all, photos and illustrations have been a standard part of e-mail for a very long time. I’m not talking about attached images — I’m referring to images, such as a company logo, that are embedded in the body text.

Before Inserting Images was added to Labs, people had to resort to all sorts of tricks to place a photo inside a Gmail message. A method I used was to create a Google Docs document with text and an embedded image, then copy and paste it into a message.

Once you’ve enabled the Inserting Images lab, that problem is over. You’ll find an image icon in the Gmail editing toolbar. Click that, and you can insert a picture from a local file or from the Internet.

Organize Gmail labels with the Nested Labels lab

The creators of Gmail had a brilliant idea when they replaced the folders metaphor used in most other e-mail programs with labels. But you need the Nested Labels lab to turn those labels into a real organizing tool.

Labels behave much like folders — they are a convenient way to group related e-mails. Click on a label, and you’ll see a list of all the messages you assigned to that label, just as you would with a folder in most other e-mail programs.

Labels have one big advantage over folders: you can assign multiple labels to any single message. In most e-mail clients, a message discussing two different projects can be placed into only one folder. In Gmail, you can give it both labels.

As originally conceived, labels also have a big disadvantage. You can’t, for example, put a label inside another label, as you can with folders. Think how unruly your hard drive would become if every single folder — My Documents, Windows, System32, Microsoft Office, and thousands of others — all sat directly in the root directory.

This is where Nested Labels becomes essential. With this lab, labels can live inside other labels. (See Figure 3.) If you name one label Projects and another Projects/Conquer World, your Conquer World label will appear nested inside Projects in Gmail’s left panel. (It’s the slash that tells Gmail what goes in what.)

Gmail labs nested labels tool
Figure 3. Use Nested Labels to place one label inside another, as you would folders.

It’s not a perfect solution. You can’t put one label inside another with a simple drag-and-drop. And the Move to and Labels pull-down menus don’t show the nesting. But it’s a big step in the right direction.

Mouse around more quickly within Gmail

The Mouse Gestures lab gives you yet another way to navigate around Gmail. It’s not a full navigation system, but it nicely augments the basic technique of clicking the appropriate links and icons as well as the keyboard shortcuts.

Finished reading one message and want to go to the next one? With Mouse Gestures enabled, simply hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse slightly to the left. (Moving it to the right brings you to the previous message.) Move it up, and you leave the message and get back to the inbox, where mouse gestures no longer work.

That’s it — just those three gestures. But hey, it’s free and you don’t even have to install anything. And once you’re used to them, you won’t want to give them up.

Organize e-mail priority with colorful stars

The Superstars lab is an easy way to organize your top-priority messages.

Normally, Gmail displays a little white star outline next to every e-mail. Click it, and it turns bright yellow — a convenient way to make high-priority items stand out. You can even click the Starred link near the top of the left panel to see all your starred items.

With the Superstars lab enabled, clicking that white star will still turn it yellow. But click it again, and it turns blue; click a third time, and you get a green circle with a check mark; a fourth click produces a red circle with an exclamation point. The fifth click starts the cycle over again. (See Figure 4.)

Organize e-mail with superstars
Figure 4. Superstars lets you add both color and organization to your Gmail inbox.

The different icons don’t actually change any Gmail behavior — you can’t, for example, filter your messages to show only those with a red circle. But they do help you categorize and prioritize e-mail conversations. For instance, you could use the green icon for financial issues, and the red one for top priorities. The result not only gives you more information at a glance, it also makes your screen more colorful.

A lab is needed for managing Gmail conversations

Gmail Labs offers a whole lot more than the five I’ve described. You can customize keyboard shortcuts, display appointments from Google Calendar, and stop a message seconds after you sent it. You can even put the old Beta notice back into the Gmail icon.

I really like Gmail’s conversation metaphor (an enhanced type of e-mail thread); it’s one major reason I switched to Gmail in the first place. By keeping each original message and all its replies together as a single unit, Gmail shortened the inbox list and logically connected your various mail discussions. The result made managing e-mail much, much easier.

But you can’t separate a message from a Gmail conversation, nor can you put one in. Gmail is only a program, after all, and occasionally it links a message to the wrong conversation. Gmail doesn’t offer any way to correct these errors. When a message lands in the wrong conversation, there’s nothing you can do about it.

So this is the lab I want to see: Remove from/Add to Conversation. I hope someone at Google is reading this.

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Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net.
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Lincoln Spector

About Lincoln Spector

Lincoln Spector writes about computers, home theater, and film and maintains two blogs: Answer Line at PCWorld.com and Bayflicks.net. His articles have appeared in CNET, InfoWorld, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other publications.