Gmail Labs' 5 best and 5 worst Features

The built-in Google Search is just the latest in a growing menu of experimental Gmail Labs features
  • (PC World (US online))
  • — 02 May, 2009 08:14

Google's announced a new addition to its list of Gmail Labs offerings: a built-in Google Search feature. The option, once activated, adds a Web search box onto the left side of your inbox, letting you get results without having to do the extra work.

Gmail Labs: Integrated Google Search

The integrated Google Search option could prove to be pretty handy for regular Gmail users: Click on a result, and it opens in a new window. Go back to your inbox, and you can easily click to insert the link into an e-mail or chat session.

The built-in Google Search is just the latest in a growing menu of experimental Gmail Labs features. As is often the case with Google's array of services, some are killer additions worthy of the word "awesome," while others are ill-fated flops that seem to have death sentences from day one. With today's strong addition, we thought we'd take a look back at five of the best and five of the worst other Gmail Labs options introduced over the past months.

The Best of Gmail Labs

1. Gmail Offline

Unveiled in January, Gmail Offline lets you access your account without being online. As its name suggests, the option lets you do almost everything you can normally do on Gmail.com. You can even compose and send messages and Gmail will automatically deliver them once you reconnect. It's speedy, too, with the typical server delays no longer in the equation. For anyone using a notebook or other system with an intermittent connection, this Labs feature can become invaluable.

2. Gmail Tasks

Gmail Tasks is a powerful weapon when it comes to standing up to standalone e-mail applications. Its function is simple: It brings a "Tasks" box into your Gmail page. But for anyone sticking with Outlook or another client because Webmail didn't offer all the same options, this could serve as a deal-maker. (Calendar and Docs also became available last fall.)

3. YouTube/Picasa/Flickr/Yelp Previews

If Gmail Tasks matches the standalone clients, this next option one-ups them. Gmail Labs' preview features let you see automatic previews of YouTube, Picasa, Flickr, or Yelp content within an e-mail. Any link to material on any of those sites will be converted into a fully functioning embedded box once you flip this option on.

4. Custom Keyboard Shortcuts

I hate using my mouse. I've set up hotkeys for almost every common task on my computer, using a combination of built-in Windows functionality and custom scripting from AutoHotKey. With Custom Keyboard Shortcuts in Gmail Labs, this same power is built right into the Webmail interface. While Gmail's had a set of predefined keyboard shortcuts for some time, the "Custom" tab lets you remap keys to your own liking, allowing you to build your own hotkeys and make your favorite actions easier than ever.5. Text Messaging in Chat

The appeal of Gmail's Text Messaging in Chat option is obvious. We all know we're getting ripped off with mobile-based SMS rates. Throw the switch on this puppy, and you can send and receive texts from right inside your Gmail window. Take that, AT&T.

The Worst of Gmail Labs

1. Mail Goggles

It's a funny conversation piece, sure, but Gmail Labs' Mail Goggles feature may be one of the least useful options introduced to the service. Designed to keep you from sending messages you'll regret the next morning, Mail Goggles makes you answer a couple of simple math problems before your e-mails will be delivered during late-night hours. Being that you're at a computer, though, you'd have to be pretty inebriated not to be able to find the calculator function and get past the guard.

2. E-Mail Addict

I'm plenty familiar with the idea of e-mail addiction, but Gmail Labs' E-Mail Addict option isn't exactly like rehab. EA, as the kids call it, blocks out your screen and makes you invisible for 15 minutes once you click it on. All you have to do to get around it, though, is hit refresh. This one's nice for its novelty and amusement factor, but its practical application is pretty limited.

3. Undo Send

File this one under "great idea, less than stellar execution": Gmail Undo Send, as you might imagine, allows you to stop a message from going through after you've hit the "Send" button. It sounds useful enough, but here's the problem: You only have a five-second window to use it. When it comes to realizing you've made a mistake in e-mail, five seconds isn't much. Add some extra padtime (or, better yet, the option to specify how much padtime you want), and Undo Send would be brilliant.

4. Suggest More Recipients

Suggest More Recipients will present you with a list of extra people you might want to include every time you're sending a new message. It bases its suggestions on which people you contact most often. I guess if you randomly like adding people onto recipient lists for no apparent reason, this might be for you. Otherwise, it'll just be an added annoyance on your screen.

5. Random Signature

Presumably voted in its high school yearbook as "least likely to succeed," Random Signature appends a random quote onto the end of every e-mail you send. Unless you enjoy including proverbs you didn't even select at the end of every message -- which I'm sure is something your friends and colleagues adore about as much as the 50 "inspirational" e-mails you forward them every week -- you may want to steer clear of this one.

Final Thoughts

To be fair, these Gmail Labs features are meant to be experimental, and they can't all be winners. And hey, maybe my least favorite features are the ones you like best. (Come on, though: Mail Goggles? Is anyone actually using that past the initial one-time checking-it-out-and-laughing point?)

The bigger question, perhaps, is what Gmail Labs is missing. I, for one, would love the ability to reorder mailboxes based on different criteria -- to sort messages by sender, for example, or by ascending date.

Got a wish of your own? Leave it in the comments section below. Just be sure to take off your Mail Goggles before you type. Those things make you look plain goofy.

Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael) or via his Web site, jrstart.com.

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

JR Raphael

PC World (US online)
Topics: Gmail, Google
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