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Faking it

The next trick, linked to collecting mail from other providers, is pretending to send from them as well. This is the second section of the “Accounts and Import” screen. You can enter other email addresses, and once you've sent a verification email to that account to prove it's really you, a drop-down box appears at the top of Gmail's message-composition form to allow you to choose what address the message should seem to come from. If you wish, you can use the other, non-Gmail address as your default one, so no one need know your Gmail address.

Set Gmail to collect from the other account and use its address as the default outgoing one and you can use the Gmail interface to read, send and respond to mail from another account while actually using the Gmail servers. If you have just one account and it has a decent webmail interface, there's not much point, but it's very handy for amalgamating multiple accounts into a single inbox that's accessible from desktop, laptop, phone or internet café. True, inbound delivery is a little slower – Gmail only polls other accounts every half an hour or so – but it's free and it allows you send email even when you can't use your ISP's SMTP server – for example, when using a portable machine elsewhere. It also works with Google's free Java Gmail client for various phones, of course.

IMAP

Unlike many free email accounts, Google also offers IMAP access to Gmail accounts free of charge, so if you set Gmail up to collect from Hotmail or Yahoo then use IMAP to access Gmail, it effectively gives you IMAP access to POP3-only email accounts for free. The big advantage of IMAP is that all your email stays on the remote server, meaning that multiple clients can connect to a single account and they will all see the same common inbox, which stays in sync between multiple clients. (With POP3, email downloaded on one machine is not accessible to others, unless you tell the client to leave it on the server, resulting in your inbox gradually filling up and often becoming very slow to access.)

So, for example, you could use Outlook at work, Thunderbird at home and an IMAP email client on your phone– or the free Google client – all accessing the same mailbox, and all of them will see the same list of messages and the same ones as read or unread.

You can also use IMAP access and Google's SMTP server with a non-Gmail outgoing address. Google collects your mail from your ISP, you collect it and also send using Gmail. This effectively means that all your email, incoming and outgoing, is backed-up on the Gmail servers, while you continue to use your mail as normal.

Keyboard shortcuts

The Gmail web interface is pretty slick, although different to desktop clients. It also sports various keyboard shortcuts, if you enable them under Settings | General. For a quick reminder, press the question-mark key. Everyday ones are things like J and K for the previous and next message, and hitting Tab followed by Space to send, but there are also some functions that don't have on-screen buttons. For instance, if you're reading a thread from a mailing list that keeps popping back into your inbox, pressing "m" to Mute it will banish it forever.

Add-ons

For Mozilla users there are a profusion of scripts for the Greasemonkey add-on to add new features and facilities, but if Gmail is your primary address and you don't use a client, the Gmail Notifier is rather useful at least for Windows and Mac users. As well as notifying you of incoming mail, it also allows you to set the Gmail webpage as the default handler for "mailto:" URLs – meaning that your Mac or Windows box will no longer try to open an email program when you click on email links. ®

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