Google Gmail (beta)

Still in beta after 15 months, Google’s Gmail is a breath of fresh air compared with the other Web-based e-mail services. Google made waves back in early 2004 when it announced Gmail’s huge (at the time) 1GB storage limit, 10MB total limit on attachments for each message, and the innovative Conversation view with a powerful search capability. Other competitors have followed suit (on the first two counts, at least), but Gmail now leads in storage at roughly 2.3GB (the amount appears to be growing slowly and constantly) and, in general, still stands tall.

Gmail lets you manage threads of e-mail. Rather than having to sort through your messages and stuff them into folders, only to lose track of them later, Gmail compiles everything in a forum-style Conversation view. Instead of naming folders, you “label” conversations, and you can even give them more than one label in case they fall in multiple categories. It’s a nice way to keep track of an e-mail conversation but could frustrate people who still want to put e-mail groups in folders. You cannot nest Gmail’s conversations, but while AIM Mail, Hotmail, and Yahoo! Mail offer folders for e-mail management, they do not allow you to create nested folders, either. The Search Mail function uses the same technology as the Google search engine, so you can add both keywords and commands to your searches. All of this gives you tremendous flexibility as your mailbox expands.

You need an invitation to join the Gmail beta program, though there are bots on the Internet that make getting around this easy (or you can just ask a friend who already has Gmail to send you an invite). Hold on to your hat once you do, because Gmail is far and away the quickest to respond to your commands. It’s everything you’d expect from Google, given the company’s lightning-quick Internet searches. You can feel the speed with every mouse click.

Gmail is by far the most extensible Web mail service we’ve seen. In addition to Google’s own extensions, such as letting Picasa users exchange large images via Gmail, third-party developers have already built dozens of others. These range from incoming mail notifiers that run inside Firefox to a very clever app that lets you use Gmail as a folder on your PC for storing files. Microsoft has tapped Hotmail inside some of its own applications, such as Microsoft Money, but this pales in comparison to how far developers could go with the service if it were as open as Gmail. In addition, Gmail’s AJAX (Asynchronous JavaScript and XML) Web development approach makes it feel as responsive as a regular desktop application. This is evident in features like type-ahead when filling in addresses (of the competitors reviewed here, only the brand-new AIM Mail does this) and the simple expanding and collapsing of e-mail conversations.

As for the privacy concerns, we still think that people are making a big deal out of nothing. Google simply set up automated scanners that look through your e-mail content in order to serve you relevant ads. (For more details, read our earlier review, “Gmail by Google.”) The other three services all have more conspicuous advertising, even after you pay for a premium upgrade in some cases. Gmail ads, by comparison, are small and barely noticeable, and you won’t see any at all in the main Inbox view.

Google still needs some serious upgrades to play with the big boys, though. Although Gmail’s spam filter worked well on our tests and offers a decent level of configuration options, there’s still no virus scanning or cleaning. Gmail sidesteps the virus problem by not allowing executables as attachments, but we’d still like to see a proper virus scanner. And if you don’t like the threaded e-mail views, you’re better off with another service, because there’s no way to turn them off and create folders instead.

One nice bonus you get for using Gmail is free POP3 access. It wasn’t available at Gmail’s launch back in early 2004, and it’s a welcome addition. You can’t check your other POP3 accounts from within Gmail, however, which is something that Yahoo! Mail lets you do. Gmail’s address book works fine, and there’s a rudimentary address book import function. You can import from CSV files, and that’s about it. But even that is enough to pull in contacts from many popular programs (including Outlook and several other Web-based e-mail services).

Gmail feels like the slick, hip e-mail choice. If you can get used to the Conversation view and aren’t too attached to making folders, you’ll find Gmail a powerful new approach to Web-based e-mail.

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