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Gmail Hacks

by Wei-Meng Lee
01/25/2005

Gmail, still officially in beta, is the best free email service available today. Recently I had the chance to test the Gmail system and was pleasantly surprised by the capabilities of Google's web-based email client, apart from its humongous storage space of 1GB. Making extensive use of client-side scripting, Gmail delivers a compelling user experience that beats the other web-based email systems.

In this article I will show you some of the cool features in Gmail and share some of the tips and tricks to get the most out of it.

Labeling Mail

Conventional email clients allow you to archive email messages in folders. While this is useful, there are times when an email may logically belong in two separate folders. For example, an email that discusses a project and reviews vacation plans should logically belong to the Project and Leisure folders, respectively. However, current email clients allow your email to be archived in only one folder.

Gmail allows you to apply tags (known as labels) to your email. Figure 1 shows the interface in which you create labels. Think of labels as "logical" folders--email messages are grouped logically instead of moved physically into a folder.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Creating labels

To apply a label to a message, click on the check box next to the message, and then click on the More Actions drop-down list box and select the relevant label (see Figure 2). In this case, I am applying the Presentations label to the message.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Applying a label to a message

You can apply more than one label to a message. Figure 3 shows a message with two labels applied, Presentations and Project.

Figure 3
Figure 3. A message with two labels

To view messages tagged with a particular label, click on the label name (see Figure 4); all messages tagged with that label will be displayed.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Viewing messages with a particular label

Searching for That Email

Not surprisingly, the real power of Gmail lies in its search technology. Searching messages in Gmail is quite simple and, in most instances, highly accurate.

At the top of the Gmail page is the search text box (see Figure 5). Type a word, and Gmail lists all messages containing occurrences of the word (including in the To or From field).

Figure 5
Figure 5. Searching in Gmail

If you want to narrow your search, you can click on the "Show search options" link in Figure 5, to reveal more options (see Figure 6).

Figure 6
Figure 6. More search options

Power users may want to take a look at the advanced search syntax. (Note: In order to view this you'll have to have a Gmail account and be logged in.) Using advanced searching, you can type your search query directly into the search text box, saving you the trouble of delving into further search options. For example, the query from:smith subject:windows in:anywhere will search all messages that were sent by Smith and whose subject line contains the word windows.

Keyboard Shortcuts

One of the frustrations of using web applications is that a lot of shortcuts commonly available in Windows programs do not exist in many web applications. Gmail, however, has keyboard shortcuts--but you'll need to turn them on. By default, the keyboard shortcuts are not enabled; you need to turn them on explicitly. To do it, click on Settings at the top of the page and select the "Keyboard shortcuts on" option (see Figure 7).

Figure 7
Figure 7. Turning on the keyboard shortcuts

Click on the "Learn more" link shown in Figure 7 to find out more about the shortcuts. For example, pressing C will allow you to compose a message directly. If you press the slash key, the cursor will be positioned at the search text box.

Importing Contacts from Outlook

If you are planning to start using Gmail as your daily email client, you should import your contacts list from your current client. I have a long list of contacts in Outlook Express; fortunately, Gmail allows me to import my contacts through the CSV (comma-separated values) file format.

To import the contacts into Gmail, you first need to export your contacts list in your email client. Remember to export the list using the CSV format. Once that is done, you can import the contacts by clicking on the Contacts link (see Figure 8) and selecting your contacts list file.

Figure 8
Figure 8. Importing a list of contacts

The really nice thing about importing your contacts is that from now on, you can simply type the name of the message recipient and Google will automatically pop up a list from which to choose (see Figure 9).

Figure 9
Figure 9. Choosing from a list of names in the contacts list

Starred Messages

Gmail also uses the starred message concept. A starred message is one with a special status that makes it easier to find. To "star" a message, click on the star icon next to the message (see Figure 10).

Figure 10
Figure 10. Starring a message

Once a message has a star, you will also find it listed in the Starred folder (see Figure 11).

Figure 11
Figure 11. Listing all starred messages in the Starred folder

I don't find this feature that useful. But do share with me how you would use this feature; use the talkback column at the end of this article.

Marking Messages as Spam

To mark a message as a spam message, click on the check box next to the message, and then click on the Report Spam button (see Figure 12).

Figure 12
Figure 12. Marking a message as spam

Once a message is marked as spam, you can view it in the Spam folder (see Figure 13). From now on, all messages sent by Smith would be marked as spam automatically. In general, you should check the Spam folder occasionally, because messages more than 30 days old will be purged.

Figure 13
Figure 13. Viewing the spam message in the Spam folder

To unmark a message as spam, click on the check box next to the message and click on the Not Spam button.

Creating Filters

One interesting feature in Gmail is the ability to create filters to categorize incoming messages. For example, you can create a filter to automatically tag a label to messages sent by a particular user. Or you can categorize the messages according to the presence of (or the lack of) certain words.

To create a filter, click on the "Create a filter" link (see Figure 14).

Figure 14
Figure 14. Create a filter by clicking on the link

This example shows that for all messages Smith sends to me containing the word presentation (see Figure 15), Gmail will automatically add a star and apply the Presentations label (see Figure 16).

Figure 15
Figure 15. Specifying the criteria for the filter

You can also make use of this feature to arrest new spam messages that Gmail's spam filter fails to catch.

Figure 16
Figure 16. Choosing the action for a filter to perform

Using the Gmail Notifier

One useful utility that you should download if you are using Gmail is the Gmail Notifier, also currently in beta. The Gmail Notifier resides in the System Tray and pops up a message whenever a new email arrives, saving you the chore of manually checking for new messages in the web browser. It is very similar to MSN Messenger, which pops up a message whenever a new email arrives in your Hotmail account.

Figure 17 shows the Gmail Notifier in action when it detects an incoming message.

Figure 17
Figure 17. Detecting an incoming message

You can right-click on the Gmail Notifier icon in the System Tray and view your various options (see Figure 18).

Figure 18
Figure 18. The options in the Gmail Notifier

Summary

In this article, you have seen some of Gmail's features. Google has done an incredible job of making the Gmail client user friendly and at the same time powerful. As Gmail is still in beta stage, we may see more innovations as Google gets ready to roll out the system publicly.

Wei-Meng Lee (Microsoft MVP) http://weimenglee.blogspot.com is a technologist and founder of Developer Learning Solutions http://www.developerlearningsolutions.com, a technology company specializing in hands-on training on the latest Microsoft technologies.


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