Google unveiled its new-look Gmail this week. And like all new-look web services, it’s sure to piss off as many people as it pleases. At least in the beginning.
The change is part of a sweeping effort to overhaul the interfaces of myriad Google services, including parts of the company’s online office suite, Google Apps. Last month, Google Docs got the facelift. And now it’s Gmail’s turn.
Google will roll out the New Gmail over the next few days, but if you still have the Old Gmail, you can make the switch manually. We made the change yesterday, and well, we’re not pissed off.
If you’ve experienced the recent interface changes to Google Docs, Maps, Calendar, Reader, or Search, the New Gmail will feel rather familiar. The buttons have a flatter look, without shading that made them look round. The text is bolder and more formal. Much of the old Google playfulness has vanished.
In the end, the new design means the service feel less “website-y”, if you will. The pages look more like local applications — which only makes sense. Google is pushing Chrome, Chromebooks, and Google Apps as viable alternatives to Windows and Office. To compete with desktop software, Gmail must feel more like desktop software.
When we clicked the “Okay, give me the new look!” button, our Gmail Inbox immediately grew to almost three times its original size — visually, that is. We use multiple inboxes, and we happened to have 20 emails in our primary inbox, seven in a second inbox, and four in a third. With the new interface, all 31 emails — as well as the partitions between the inboxes — would not fit onto our 21.5-inch iMac display.
Unfortunately, the setting for “Elastic Density” — which adjust the heights of email rows — is hidden. When viewing on Chrome, Google’s own browser, the new interface pushed the options menu off-screen — at least on our machine. We had to scroll to find it — though there was ample room to accomodate it on screen. (This issued reoccured in Safari and Firefox.)
But we found it. In addition to the default “Comfortable” setting, there are “Cozy” and “Compact” options. Cozy gets you back to the tightness of Old Gmail. This isn’t a huge deal, but “Compact” should be the default — as this was the standard set on Old Gmail — and how to make the change should be clearer.
Most noticeably, the options at the top of the inbox have all but disappeared, leaving just a message selection tool (“all,” “none,” etc.), an inbox refresh button, and a “mark all as read” button. Only when you select a message do additional options appear (“Move to,” “Trash,” “Spam,” etc.). This is a slick little shift — but it seems unnecessary. Famously, Google goes for stark versus crowded space. But finding those hidden options may not be intuitive to less experienced web users.
Only a couple minor changes here. The button used to apply labels is now just an image. There’s no text to identify it. But if you click on it, you get the same drop-down menu. Google is shifting towards this sort of text-less button (where text only appears with mouse-over). Again, less savvy users may find this confusing — at least at first.
But on the left side of the page, there’s a nice little improvement. Previously, when you set up a long list of labels — and you weren’t using a browser extension like ActiveInbox to condense them — preview buttons for services like Google Calendar or Google Docs would be shoved off the page. Now, the labels section expands and contracts when you mouse-over it, so those gadgets are visible (until you actually need to click on a label). This is a much-needed improvement. You can also adjust the height of the label window, changing the number of labels you see at one time.
Here, the improvements are welcome. You’ll have to relearn the boundaries between different messages in a thread, as they’ve lost that files-in-a-folder feeling.
Predictably, Google has highlighted user profiles within each thread. Rather than have you mouse-over messages to see profile pictures, each profile is now placed right next to the author’s name. In the past, it didn’t matter much if you didn’t have a picture attached to your Google profile, but now you no-picture folks will look a tad out of place. The setup bring Gmail inline with Google Plus — as you’d expect.
Google also lets you set high-resolution images as a background. We tried out the “Mountains” theme, and apparently, Google selected an image based on our zip code. Since the image picked wasn’t immeditately recognizable as something near San Francisco, we’ll assume that data had some sort of alternative purpose. To each there own, but we’ve always found that an image ghosting in the background only disrupts our concentration when reading emails.
We can’t test every Gmail extension. But we’re big on both ActiveInbox, which organizes labels in a much slicker fashion, and Minimalist, which lets you trim out useless junk from your Gmail (like the “Invite a friend!” box). ActiveInbox seems to have been completely wiped out, except for a few buttons in an open message. We can’t find a trace of it in the inbox, even after trying to reinstall the extension from the Chrome Store (which we realize was pointless). Google does give the optional transition period in part to give third party add-ons time to change over so this could be fixed soon.
But Minimalist still seems to work. If you’re neurotic about your Gmail account — as we are — and want to delete the extra stuff, Minimalist is a wonderful add-on.
A good improvement. Gmail still doesn’t feel like “business email”, in the traditional sense of a desktop client, but the interface does have a smoother, slicker feel than before. AS Google pushing its Apps to the enterprise and serious computer users, The changes will go a long way towards making Gmail feel less like “your personal email” and more like something fit for an office.
Whether any of this matters with real users remains to be seen.