Remember when everyone operated a portal and offered a free e-mail account with a web interface? Yahoo, Netscape, Excite, Lycos, etc. The storage wasn’t anything spectacular by today’s standards – typically less than 10MB, but since then storage on these free e-mail accounts really hasn’t grown in step with the drop in prices of storage hardware. The number of freely available webmail services has also dwindled, and while there are still quite a number, most are certainly not backed by the kind of money behind the original set of dot.com companies. Enter Google. First they displaced the leading search engines to the point where their company name has evolved into a verb, and now with Gmail, they just may do the same with webmail.
I’m sure you’ve already seen a few reviews of Google’s Gmail since it first made its appearance in the summer of 2004, however, I’m a believer in different perspectives, and this review also doesn’t look at Gmail in isolation, but compares it to 2 other high-volume free webmail services: Yahoo! Mail and Microsoft’s Hotmail.
Perhaps the biggest buzz about Gmail was and is its storage: 1GB when it initially debuted. This was in stark comparison to Yahoo’s and Hotmail’s 100MB. This prompted Yahoo and Hotmail to increase the capacity on their free mailboxes to 250MB. [Update May 2005: Yahoo just increased their free storage to 1GB.] Additionally, for a fee, both Yahoo and Hotmail offer more storage and other features. Both Yahoo and Hotmail offer 2GB of storage for approximately $20/year. Just recently in March 2005, Google upped the ante again by increasing Gmail’s storage to 2GB and hinting that may not be the last such increase. In fact, they have been constantly upping the total space in Gmail accounts. At last count (May 20, 2005), it was 2211 MB. Incidentally, in late 2004, and this isn’t a gag, a motorcycle magazine called Hellacious Riders began offering a free 100GB webmail account. I’m not going to cover their service in this review for a number of reasons, including a poor interface, it is factors slower than the others, the fact that technology is not the main line of business for this company, not to mention that I could not even send an e-mail to the account. They have also not established that this new service will still be around in a few years.
|Free Storage||2GB and rising||1GB||250MB|
|Additional Storage||N/A||up to 2GB for $19.99/yr||up to 2GB for $19.95/yr|
|POP3 Access||Yes (over SSL)||Yes (with upgrade)||Yes (with upgrade)|
Table 1: Features Compared
Organization & Search
If you’ve used any webmail service, you will already know that it is modeled on the typical e-mail client. There are folders or mailboxes including the obligatory Inbox, Sent and Trash folders, and in today’s folders, the Spam or Junk folder. You also have the ability to create your own folders and move your messages around to your heart’s content. Gmail differs on the last point. You can not create your own folders in Gmail, a ‘feature’ that I couldn’t wrap my head around initially. Instead, there is a folder called “All Mail” where the mail from your Inbox goes when you download it using POP3S (POP3 over SSL) or you archive it. Gmail relies on Google’s search technology to allow you to find any message simply by searching for it.
But people like me still want to categorize things and Gmail does offer a feature called “labels”. Labels work somewhat like folders in that you can create your own and you can assign a label to a message in a similar way to placing a message into a folder. For example, under Yahoo or Hotmail, I might have a folder called “Finances” in which I would file e-mails from my bank, brokerage and mortgage company. Under Gmail, I would have a label called “Finances”, and when such e-mails came in, I can select them and apply the Finances label. (Alternatively, I could automate it using Filters.) But if those messages are in my Inbox, they wouldn’t move, but I would see the word “Finances” pre-pended to the subject lines of the appropriate messages. The custom labels appear on the left navigational column of the Gmail interface and clicking on one of them will show you all such labeled messages in both your Inbox and All Mail folders. One advantage of this system is that a message can be assigned multiple labels. I realize that it is possible to copy a message in the other services to multiple folders, but this requires more steps and duplicates the e-mail.
Effectiveness of Search
Certainly, once you have hundreds or even thousands of e-mails, the ability to search is a lifesaver.
Both Yahoo and Hotmail offer the ability to search your messages that is quite similar to a typical e-mail client. Yahoo gives you a Search box at the top of the interface that searches senders and subject lines, while its advanced search screen gives you many more options. Surprisingly, Hotmail’s search is limited to the From, To and Subject fields only. Gmail simplifies things completely – the search box is featured prominently at the top of the screen and by default, a search will look through From, To, Subject and the Body fields of your messages. Typically, that’s all you need, but in case you want to search your trash or by date, the advanced search screen lets you do that and a few other things.
So far, I’ve accumulated approx. 1600 messages in my Gmail account totaling over 145 MB. Any search I perform over a high-speed connection is typically returned in less than 2 seconds. By comparison, it takes almost a minute for my PC-based e-mail client (Thunderbird) to search for the term “configur” in the bodies of all of my e-mails (totaling 166MB on disk).
However, I have found at least one thing lacking in the search effectiveness, but on the other hand, I’m sure this aids in the speed of the search. Here’s an example: I vaguely remembered that I received an e-mail that talked about “configuring”, but I couldn’t remember the tense of the word used, so I tried to be smart and only typed in the stem of the word “configur”. The result? The search came up empty. The search terms must match words in the e-mails exactly. Gmail does not offer alternative spelling suggestions the way that Google searches do. This highlights the differences in approach (and results) between Gmail and a conventional e-mail client. There is no clear winner – it depends on how you approach filing, searching, time management, etc.
This is only a cursory examination of the spam filtering capabilities of these webmail services, since my test environment is somewhat skewed as I use an e-mail forwarding service [POBox.com] that does a pretty good job of filtering out most of the spam I receive. All 3 services perform automated spam filtering on any and all mail they receive. Yahoo has had spam filtering for their e-mail service for a number of years now and I have found it to be quite effective – it is a little aggressive in what it filters, so that there are a few false positives, but that suits me fine. The false positives are typically newsletters, and I can’t recall an instance of a personalized e-mail from an individual being incorrectly tagged. Over the past 8 months, I’ve found Gmail’s spam filtering to be about the same capability as Yahoo’s. In both cases, I can click a “Not Spam” button to move the false positive(s) to my Inbox.
My experience with Hotmail’s default settings was disappointing. To date, I’ve received over 500 messages in my test Hotmail account. The majority of them were tagged as spam! And in order to move them over to my Inbox, I needed to answer a question for each message. Hotmail takes the ‘friend or foe’ approach to spam filtering by default. You would need to have a whitelist configured ahead of time in order to make use of their middle-of-the-road setting. Only the lowest setting prevented me from needing such a whitelist.
By default, images are not displayed in e-mails, until you click a link explicitly allowing it. This protects against spammers detecting whether or not your e-mail address is legitimate. Since it can be annoying to have to repeatedly click a link each time you wish to see the images in an e-mail from the same sender, there is now a feature where you can allow all images from a particular sender to always be displayed.
A problem that is related to spam is the one of phishing. Apart from the usual ability to send your webmail provider a note saying a message is spam by clicking a button/link, Google also allows you to report Phishing attempts with a single click. So the next time you get a fake e-mail asking for eBay/PayPal/bank account information, click away.
As is the norm with the Internet, a community instantly sprang up around Gmail. There are newsgroups and websites dedicated to discussing Gmail: its bugs, tricks, tips and rumors. Of course, Gmail has quite an extensive list of help articles including ones on troubleshooting. This is certainly the case for Yahoo and Hotmail as well. All three provide e-mail support as well, and while I’ve never had to use it, you shouldn’t necessarily count on them, especially when it comes to free products.
Yet More Gmail Features
Gmail supports message Drafts, a feature that is common in most e-mail clients, but not in webmail applications.
While this feature description would fit under the Organization and Search section, it is unique to Gmail, and I can’t think of an analagous feature in either Yahoo Mail or Hotmail. It is called ‘Starring’. In any folder/label view, each line containing the sender, subject and message intro also contains a star icon. You can ‘star’ any message you’d like by clicking that icon. You can view all of your ‘starred’ messages quickly by clicking the “Starred” link on the left nav panel. Personally, I haven’t used this feature very much as I’m better served by Labels. However, I can easily see this feature being used as for To Do lists or Important items. It is certainly quicker than clicking the Actions drop-down menu to select a label.
For the more adventurous and/or advanced user, you can choose to ‘receive’ your Gmail mail via your RSS reader, write your own programs to access and/or manipulate your Gmail via the Gmail API, and even use your Gmail account as a filesystem!
One thing that is sorely lacking in Gmail is explicit virus scanning on attachments. Both Hotmail and Yahoo provide this feature – attachments are scanned and certified virus-free before you are provided with a link to download them. However, knowing how quickly Google updates its products, this should be in the making. In the meantime (or possibly permanently), executable files can not be sent or received from/by Gmail.
Overall, Gmail is a welcome new webmail application and a stellar example of what a well-crafted web application can be. If you haven’t been lucky enough to get a Gmail account, find one of your friends who do and ask them to send you an invitation. You won’t regret it.
[ PS> If your friends don't want to send you a Gmail invite, your friends at Gizmos for Geeks will! Just register for an account and send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Hurry, we don't have an unlimited number of invites. ]
What’s Sucky: No virus scanning on attachments.
|Drafts, report phishing, speed, keyboard shortcuts, storage space, fast searching, labels.||Wow. This bears repeating – Gmail’s speed takes it to a level above the typical Web app.||Pretty solid, although there are still a few things that need to be ironed out with support for different browsers.||Come on – it’s free! This is worth so much more than that.|
|Get an account. Try it out. It’s worth the switch.|