There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

After a long courtship, I recently pledged my everlasting love for Gmail, forsaking all other email systems (well, almost) in favour of Google's free, web-hosted service.

But as in any relationship, my passion for Gmail is constrained by practical concerns. Although it possesses many excellent qualities, Gmail is far from perfect. Fortunately, I've uncovered some strategies that will give my walk down the aisle with Gmail a good chance of yielding a happily ever after.

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Read, label, archive

Most email users dream of an empty inbox - evidence that we've read and deleted (or filed) all incoming messages, and are now free to take the rest of the day off. Because Gmail offers you more than 5GB of storage, the only messages you need to delete are those you never want to see again.

To banish pieces of email from your inbox but keep them handy, add a check mark beside them under Select on the left side of the screen, and then click Archive. This step hides messages from plain view without expunging them (there's more on archiving below).

To make your archived messages easier to find later, use Gmail's labels to categorise them by topic, project, sender or any other criterion that make sense to you. Most email programs let you sort your mail into folders, but Gmail's labels improve on folders in one powerful way.

Instead of requiring that mail go into only one folder at a time, they let you assign Gmail messages to multiple categories simultaneously. For example, a single properly labeled message that pertains to both Project A and Project B will appear in the collection of messages labeled 'Project A' as well as in the 'Project B' group.

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Assigning Gmail labels

To categorise a message, open it and choose one of the labels on the More Actions drop-down menu, or check one or more messages in one of the message list views, and then choose the label from the same menu.

Alternatively, to create new labels on the fly, choose New label from the menu. To view or modify your labels, first choose Settings, Labels in the upper right-hand portion of Gmail's interface; this will open a page where you can rename or remove individual labels, view a list of messages tagged with each label, or create a new label.

Unlike deleting a folder in a standard email program, deleting a label doesn't wipe out the messages tagged with that label, so feel free to delete any labels you no longer need.

You can also remove labels from individual messages without deleting the labels themselves. First, open a single message or check multiple messages in the mail list; then choose More Actions.

Scroll to and select the unwanted label beneath the 'Remove label' heading. To find messages no longer tagged with a label, click All Mail in the far left pane to see the list of every message stored in your account.

Gmail's inbox is just another tag that incoming messages receive by default. Should you mistakenly archive a message (which strips it of its 'Inbox' tag), you can return it to your inbox by clicking All Mail, selecting the message, and clicking Move to Inbox.

A similar method enables you to retrieve messages that you inadvertently send to the Trash folder.

Gmail's handy habit of grouping email conversations into message threads also means that messages you've archived will pop back into your mailbox as soon as someone else posts a response to an earlier message in the thread.

If you no longer have any interest in the conversation, prevent it from reappearing in your inbox by checking it, and then choosing Mute from the More Actions menu.

Gmail

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Fetch mail from other accounts

Although you probably have one primary email account, you may regularly receive messages at more than one address.

You can configure Outlook, Thunderbird, and other email programs to download messages from all of your accounts, so that you can see all of your email in one convenient location (get Thunderbird here). Not surprisingly, Gmail lets you do the same thing, allowing you to centralise all of your mail in Gmail's inbox.

Besides reducing your likelihood of forgetting which account has the message you're looking for, this practice ensures that all of your mail will pass through Gmail's excellent spam filter. For instructions on how to proceed, see "Use Gmail as a universal inbox".

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Label Gmail automatically via filters

One of the biggest obstacles to emptying your inbox quickly is the need to scan and prioritise incoming messages.

Having all of your email in one inbox is great, but it does complicate the task of sorting the messages that require immediate attention from those that can wait. One solution is to have Gmail automatically do the prioritising for you by applying filters to incoming mail.

The easiest way to create a filter is to open an example of the message that you want Gmail to act on, and then choose More Actions, Filter messages like these.

Gmail will display the filter criteria that it has chosen in the sample message (often the From: address), along with a list of messages in your account that the filter would detect.

Add or remove criteria by altering the contents of the various fields provided, and click Test Search to see how your changes affect the search results.

Gmail

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Creating Gmail filters

When you are satisfied with your filter's search criteria, click Next Step to determine what actions Gmail should take on the matching messages. Two obvious actions are Skip the Inbox (Archive it) and Apply the label.

Check both of these, and select a label from the drop-down list. If you'd like to apply the filter to the messages in your test search results too, check the Also apply filter to... option and then click Create Filter to shunt incoming messages that match your filter criteria directly to a folder.

You can create filters that forward messages to other email addresses, apply Gmail's star flag, mark messages as read, or delete them--in effect hyper-prioritizing, delegating, or utterly ignoring specific projects or people before they arrive in your inbox. You have the power. Use it wisely. To view, edit, or delete your filters, choose Settings, Filters.

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Gmail digs IMAP

Gmail's web interface has many admirers, but you may prefer to access your account via a standard email program, such as Outlook, Outlook Express, Thunderbird, or Apple Mail.

Gmail has long allowed users to download its messages to such email programs by using the Post Office Protocol (POP3) standard, in which the program downloads a copy of each message to your PC, and optionally deletes or leaves a copy of the message on the mail server.

The service recently added support for the Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) protocol, in which the mail program leaves messages on the server, downloading a copy for local viewing only when needed.

One key benefit of IMAP is that your inbox, sent mail, and sorted mail folders (or in Gmail's case, labels) look the same no matter which PC or program you use to access your mail - a boon for anyone who uses a combination of home, office, portable, and public computers. IMAP is also perfect for accessing your mail from cell phones and other devices with limited storage (for instructions, see "Three Ways to Use Gmail on Your Phone").

Before you can read Gmail in your mail program, you must make some decisions. First, choose Settings, Forwarding and POP/IMAP and specify either POP3 or IMAP. For POP3, select Enable POP for all mail or Enable POP for mail that arrives from now on.

Choosing the first option will cause your email program to download everything it finds in your Gmail account, which could tie up your computer and its Internet connection for some time, depending on how many messages you have in Gmail and whether they contain large file attachments.

Choosing the second option leaves past communications in Gmail and starts your POP3 downloads from the present moment. Next, you need to decide what should happen to the messages in Gmail after you've used your mail program to download them from the When messages are accessed with POP menu.

Given Gmail's near-unlimited free storage, I recommend avoiding the 'delete Gmail's copy' option and instead choosing 'archive Gmail's copy'. The other option, 'keep Gmail's copy in the Inbox', leaves Gmail's mail list unaltered by your POP3 downloads. Click Save Changes to enable POP3 in Gmail. To enable IMAP, select Enable IMAP and click Save Changes.

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

IMAP and POP3 support for Gmail

Next, configure your email program to send and receive mail via your Gmail server: Choose Settings, Forwarding and POP/IMAP, and click Configuration instructions in either the POP or IMAP section of the page for details on how to configure your software.

For a POP3 configuration, the server for incoming mail is pop.gmail.com on port 995 using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security; and the server for outgoing mail (which uses the Secure Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP) is smtp.gmail.com on port 465 using SSL or on port 587 using the newer Transport Layer Security (TLS) protocol. Don't enable options to log on using Secure Password Authentication.

For an IMAP configuration, the incoming mail server is imap.gmail.com on port 993 using Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) security; the outgoing mail server (which uses the Secure Mail Transfer Protocol, or SMTP) is smtp.gmail.com on port 465 using SSL or on port 587 using TLS.

Whether you choose IMAP or POP3, as soon as your email program connects to the Gmail server, it will find and display your Gmail labels - including 'Sent Mail', 'Spam', and 'Starred' - as folders.

If you choose POP3, creating or deleting folders in your mail program won't affect your Gmail labels, but deleting a folder will also delete the files contained in the folder from the Gmail server (just as you'd expect). If you choose IMAP, creating or deleting folders in your mail program will create or remove the corresponding label on Gmail, because that's where the folders/labels actually reside.

Deleting a folder doesn't delete the messages it contains - just as deleting a label in Gmail doesn't delete the messages tagged with it.

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Chat with your AIM buddies

Gmail has long included an integrated chat feature that connects you to other Gmail users via the Google Talk network.

To start an instant message conversation with another user, just expand your contacts list, hover the cursor over the Gmail contact you'd like to chat with, and click Chat. (For voice chats you must download the free Google Talk application.)

Google recently added support for AOL Instant Messenger to Gmail's Chat feature, so now you can banter with your AIM buddies without having to launch AOL Instant Messenger (this is especially handy if your company's firewall blocks regular AIM traffic). To log in to AIM via Gmail Chat, click the arrow next to Chat's status field (or click the Options link at the bottom of your contacts list), and choose Sign into AIM. Enter your AIM screen name and password into the dialog box that appears, and click Sign in. Your AIM buddies will now appear in your Gmail chat list.

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Improving on near-perfection

Even if you're expert at wrangling Gmail's advanced features, some things in the webmail service need fixing.

For example, when you click a mailto: link on a web page, why doesn't a new message open in Gmail? When you're looking for an important spreadsheet, wouldn't it be great if you could see what kind of files were attached to messages in the list display, instead of seeing just a paper-clip icon?

And why isn't Google's excellent Calendar application integrated with your Gmail page?

There's much more to Google's free email service than an inbox. Here's how to turn Gmail into a major productivity booster.

Better Gmail scripts

These and many other missing features have inspired a gaggle of volunteer programmers to write dozens of Greasemonkey-compatible Javascripts that customize Gmail's interface in Firefox, as well as applets that change the service's behavior in both Firefox and the Opera browser.

Better Gmail is a one-stop collection of 25 of the best scripts that you can enable and configure through a single dialog box.

Firefox users must first install the Greasemonkey add-on. Opera incorporates its own scripting environment compatible with Greasemonkey scripts. As we went to press, the scripts in Better Gmail had not been updated for compatibility with Gmail's recently revamped interface.

Until that happens, you can switch back to the earlier Gmail interface by clicking the 'Older version'link in the site's upper-right corner.