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Getting the most out of Gmail

Multiple accounts in one inbox, online backups and more

The essential guide to IT transformation

So long as you don't mind the company indexing all of your mail and keeping it forever – plus the odd, easily-ignorable advert - Gmail is one of Google's handiest services. It's got probably the best interface of any webmail system, it scales down well onto smartphones and so on, but it does rather more besides. You can use it to consolidate several email addresses into one; send messages from Gmail that appear to come from non-Gmail accounts; use it to convert a POP3 account into an IMAP one; to enable web access to accounts that don't offer webmail; to keep multiple email clients in sync; and finally, as a live online backup mechanism for email from almost any provider.

Account names

Obviously, you need a Gmail account, and if you don't already have one, a lot of apparently-available names are no longer available, as Gmail effectively ignores dots in email names. You can only have j.bloggs@gmail.com if jbloggs@gmail doesn't already exist. On the positive side, though, if people forget where the dots in your name are meant to go, you'll still get it; email to j.bloggs, j.b.loggs or j.b.l.o.g.g.s will all go to the “jbloggs” account. You can filter on this if you wish, but there's an easier-to-remember way.

You can add notes into your email address by adding a plus sign followed by more text. This isn't specific to Gmail – it's a fairly standard internet mail feature, but not everyone knows about it. Gmail (and many other email providers) ignore a plus sign and anything following it in the name – the part of the address before the "@" symbol. So email to jbloggs+alice@gmail.com will go to the “jbloggs” account as normal, but you can filter on the part after the plus. This means you can give out an effectively infinite number of different email addresses to different people, companies, websites or whatever, but they all go into your normal inbox. This way you can track who uses what address where – or if they pass it on to third parties.

Consolidation

One of Gmail's handier but less-well-known features is that it can act as a single unified inbox for up to five other email accounts. It can collect mail from other email providers over POP3, with specific support for Yahoo, Hotmail and various others, and optionally deliver it into the main inbox with your other mail, tagged with a specific label, or tag it an archive it, so that it effectively appears in a subfolder.

As is sadly often the case, you just need to be using the Standard view – you can't set up collection from other accounts in Basic HMTL view – and go into Settings | Accounts and Import.

Beware that there are two different account-import functions. The first, TrueSwitch, at the top of the screen under “Import mail and contacts”, is intended to be a one-time thing for those moving from an old account to Gmail. It imports existing messages and contacts and continues to collect mail for 30 days, then stops. If you want to continue to use the other address, avoid this option.

The one you want is "Check mail using POP3", the third section of the page. Gmail is smart enough to know the POP3 server settings for lots of email providers, so for many accounts you can just enter your email address and it will work out to what server it needs to to talk to retrieve your mail.

On the second screen are the options for what to do with the mail it collects. Gmail will suggest a label of your old email address, but if look at to the bottom of the drop-down list, under "New label", you can enter your own. If you are collecting from several, if you call them all (something) followed by a slash and a shorter name, such as "POP3/AOL", "POP3/Hotmail", "POP3/Yahoo" and so on, these will appear in a folder hierarchy if you use an IMAP client to access your Gmail. Tick the "archive" option at the bottom if you want them banished into a subfolder.

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