Getting the most out of Gmail
Multiple accounts in one inbox, online backups and more
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.
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 email@example.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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. ®