My Top Five Labs Features

This entry is part 36 of 35 in the series Green Belt

In this post I cover several of my favorite and most useful add-on features to standard Gmail that keep me productive and organized.

For those of you who are new to Gmail or perhaps haven’t explored the labs features, here’s a little background. Gmail has a collection of features they like to test out. They think they are useful or fun, but don’t put them in the main product unless they’ve proven that they are widely adopted by the public. The features or functionality of labs features can change at any time without notice. The name “labs” comes from the fact that they are still in the proverbial research and development lab.

You can get to the Labs features two ways. The first is to use the gear icon in the upper right corner of your Gmail screen next to your name and select Labs. The other way is to choose Mail Settings from the same gear icon, and select the Labs tab on the mail settings screen. Both menu options get you to the same place.

Once on the settings screen, use the radio buttons next to any of the labs features to enable (or disable) them as you wish. As of this podcast release, there are 56 labs features. I have well over 30 enabled at the moment, but have tried them all at one point or another (including some that have gone in to the mainstream product.) In no particular order, here is my top five list and why.

  1. Background send – This labs feature frees me up a few more seconds while the system delivers the message in the background. This is particularly handy with large file attachments. When I process my inbox, I like to go fast. Background send helps me fire off a message and go on to the next one.
  2. Google voice player in mail – A very handy feature for those with a Google voice account. When someone leaves you a voice mail, the poorly interpreted transcript is emailed to you with a voice mail file attached. With this lab enabled, a handy player displays so you can listen to the voice mail right in Gmail without having to download the file or use another application.
  3. Nested labels – What can I say? I like to label certain messages either automatically through Gmail filters, or manually. While some people like to just archive everything and leave finding old mail to the powerful search, I find it helpful to use some tags to not only spot important messages in the conversation index (colors help with this), but also narrow down my searches later by including a label. Nested labels help reduce the clutter on the left side of the screen by grouping together common themes in a collapsable hierarchy. I can group labels such as the organizations or groups I’m involved in, my podcast related messages, or projects I’m working on.
  4. Undo send – I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sent a message only to realize I forgot to include a file attachment, a recipient, or an email address microseconds after hitting the send button. The Undo Send labs feature puts a link at the top of the screen that gives you up to 30 seconds to re-edit that message. This is one of those labs features that was so popular, the Gmail folks put it right in the General Settings tab.
  5. Authentication icon for verified senders – Today, you need to be concerned about security and fraud protection. This little lab gives you a peace of mind when viewing your conversation index and messages. To date, ebay and PayPal are the only known verified senders I’m aware of. They also happen to be two of the biggest targets for fraud. Someone will send you a message that looks like it’s from one of these sites, asking you to log in and verify your settings, but it takes you to a site that looks like ebay or PayPal, but isn’t. It gets your login and password and you’ve just given up your access without realizing it by clicking on a link in your email. With this labs feature on, you know that the little gold key means the message is really from a trusted source and not a fraudulent one.

While there are a lot of labs features, these are just a few that I find most useful. I’d love to hear which ones you find useful or entertaining.

One final note, all of these labs features are designed to work with a desktop browser. I have not done extensive testing on a mobile browser such as an iOS or Android device.

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Priority Inbox

This entry is part 35 of 35 in the series Green Belt

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Gmail is attempting to make your email easier to sort through by releasing a feature called Priority Inbox. I have to admit, at first I was skeptical of how this feature would work since I’m one of those people who generally keep their inbox to 10 items or less. A few times a day I go through my inbox and archive the reference information, delete the things I don’t want to see again, take action on the quick items, and mark the other actions for later action. That seems to work fairly well. “What value do I get with Google guessing at the importance of my incoming messages?” was my first thought.

Let me back up a bit. When your account is enabled with this feature, you will see a red message in the upper right by your login name indicating Priority Inbox has been turned on. If you like, there is a short video in the pop up window that helps explain the benefits of priority inbox. Click the “Try it now” button in that same pop up window. Once enabled, Gmail does a few things. First, it creates a new link on the left called Priority Inbox. The regular Inbox is still available just below that link. Second, it goes through your mail and makes some guesses at what mail is important to you and labels them as Important. Finally, the conversation index is divided in to four sections. By default, three of these are turned on. They are for messages labeled Important, Starred, and Everything Else. You can change these and even add a fourth section by going in the Settings under the Priority Inbox tab. You can also tweak a few of the other priority inbox settings from that same screen including the option to not show the priority inbox at all.

Like spam filters, the priority inbox needs to learn what’s important to you. Gmail has one of the best spam filters around and it’s these same methods that help learn and identify important email as well. If it gets something wrong, you can use the new + and – tags on the button bar just above the conversation index to help it get smarter. After only a few days and a few keystrokes, I’m noticing a marked improvement.

It is possible to abuse the priority inbox if you mark too many things important. What does “important” mean? That’s up to you. If you mark too many things important and find that 95% of all of your email is ending up in the Important section, then it has lost its value.

One other thing about priority inbox, I noticed that the shortcut keys g-i take you back to the priority inbox if you have it enabled. There doesn’t appear to be a shortcut for the standard inbox while priority inbox is around, but if you find one, let me know about it.

One final note, Google Voice has added email notifications for missed calls. This is not so much a quick tip, but an FYI . While this isn’t terribly useful for people with Android phones who see the missed call on their handset, it is nice if you are on your desktop where you can have the missed calls noted in your Google Voice inbox or emailed to you.

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Default Email Program

This entry is part 34 of 35 in the series Green Belt

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One of the things that has annoyed me about web-based mail services like Gmail is when I click on an email link on a web page or document, the computer starts up Outlook, Mac Mail, or some other locally installed mail app instead of my favorite – Gmail.

If this issue has bothered you, then I have a solution for you. This podcast covers the steps necessary to make Gmail your default email program for the big four browsers, Firefox, Chrome, IE, and Safari. Some solutions require additional software be installed. Links to those applications are provided in the posting on the website.

Firefox users have the easiest time. Just open Preferences for Mac Users, or Tools> Options for Windows users, then select the Applications tab from the top. In the search box, type mailto and change the selection to read “Use Gmail”. If you use more than one email program, then you can choose “Always ask”.

I would think Chrome would have been the easiest since it’s a Google product like Gmail, however at this time your best bet is to install an extension called Mail Checker Plus (http://bit.ly/bUs51I). Mail Checker Plus also has some nice features to let you preview messages, and indicate how many unread messages you have on the toolbar.

Mac Safari users are also required to install an additional piece of software called Google Notifier (http://bit.ly/bYxrC7). Once the software is installed, the trick is to go in to the preferences in the Mac Mail app (not Safari), and change the Default email reader option to Google Notifier. Sorry, I don’t yet have a way for Windows Safari users to do this trick.

Internet Explorer is probably the most complex solution to use Gmail as your default mail application. It’s actually a little more complex than I have time to cover here so I’m only going to mention that the best solution I’ve come across is a free third party application called Affixa Basic (http://bit.ly/cT8BIR).

I subscribe to the KISS, or Keep it Simple Stupid, philosophy. If there’s an easy way to do something, use that. Firefox is my choice if you like an easy way to click a link and open Gmail.

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Nested Labels and Message Sneak Peak

This entry is part 33 of 35 in the series Green Belt

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For years, Gmail has been touting that labels are more flexible and powerful than folders for organizing your messages. This is because any given message can only be filed in one folder at a time, but in Gmail, you can apply more than one label. The complaint I’ve heard most frequently is that labels lack the ability to be nested like folders. Good news all you organized people – Gmail now has a labs feature called Nested Labels.

You enable nested labels like any other labs feature by first clicking the Settings link in the upper right corner, click the Labs tab, scroll down until you find Nested Labels, click Enable next to it, scroll to the bottom and click Save Changes.

To create a nested label, you first need to create the top level label first if it doesn’t already exist. For my example, I’ll create a label called “Podcast”. Again, I go to Settings, then click the Labels tab, and scroll down to the labels section. I’ll type the label “Podcast” in the text box that reads “Create a new label”, then click the Create button. To create a sub-label, I use the name of the existing label, a forward slash, then the name of the sub-label. For this case, I type Podcast/Gmail, then click Create. Your nested label will immediately show up on the left. Like normal labels, you can add colors as you like. You can nest labels as many levels deep as you like. One warning, you cannot create the a new label and a sub-label at the same time. If you try to create a new label “Podcast/Technorama” before creating the Podcast label, you’ll end up with a top level label called Podcast/Technorama rather than a Podcast label with a Technorama label under it.


If you setup nested labels then turn the labs feature off, it’s nice to know that you don’t lose any information on the conversations you labeled. The label structure is represented literally as you typed it when you created the nested labels. For example the Gmail label under Podcasts, is displayed on the left as Podcast/Gmail. Right below it is Podcast/Technorama..

Another new labs feature is called Message Sneak Peak. When you enable this labs feature you can right click on any conversation on the index to see a preview of the conversation without leaving the conversation index. If the conversation has more than one message in it, you can use the arrow keys in the upper right corner to scroll through the various messages. If you have shortcut keys enabled, you can use the ‘h’ key to bring up the sneak peek window also. Use ‘j’ and ‘k’ to move to the next and previous message and Esc to put the sneak peek window away.

Update: 12-April-2010 – I am REALLY enjoying using nested labels (despite my better judgement to keep things flat). While I had to tweak some filters to apply the new labels, migrating conversations from an old label to a new label is SO simple. Just click the label on the left, click All to select all the messages (if there are more than fit on a single page of display, use the link to select all of them.) Use the “Move To” feature to apply the new label and remove the old one. When I got that done, I went to Settings> Labels to remove any unwanted labels (where it displays 0 Conversations.) Very cool.

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Drafts

This entry is part 32 of 35 in the series Green Belt

Gmail-Drafts
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When you think of drafts in Gmail, you probably think of the auto-save feature that comes along periodically, or the fact that you can save your draft and come back to it later to complete and send. Those are terrific features and I’d like to add a couple more neat ways to use drafts to be more effective with Gmail.

The first way is to use drafts to save notes. This idea was originally conceived before the introduction of Gmail tasks. While not as elegant and organized as Tasks, it can be used in a different way. The basic idea is to start composing your notes in a mail message, and save it as a draft. One idea is to save multiple copies, let’s say one for work ideas, one for home ideas, one for special projects, and so on. With the rich text formatting, Gmail makes a pretty nice note taking system, especially when you factor in Gmail’s search capability also looks in the Drafts folder.

The second neat way you can use drafts is for temporary file storage – even beyond the 20 MB limit! Let’s say you want to copy a file from one machine to another, but you don’t have a thumb drive, or an account with a file sharing service like DropBox. Begin by composing a message, attach a file of nearly any size, then click Save Now to save it as a draft. Login to another computer, login to your Gmail account, go to the Drafts folder, and click on your file attachment or right-click and select Save link as… to download your file to the second machine. When you are done with that draft, you can click Discard to have it removed completely.

Remember, drafts can be used for more than just a handy way to restore your work if your connection is interrupted. You can keep organized notes and file transfers using the same standard Drafts features.

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Google Buzz

This entry is part 29 of 35 in the series Green Belt

Gmail-Buzz

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This past week Google introduced a new feature called Buzz. Buzz is Google’s cannonball in to the social media space. It features some of the benefits of Twitter like quick messaging, some Facebook like media sharing, and some from other social networks.

Buzz is very appropriately named when you consider all the press generated following its release. Unlike many Google products in the past that have typically been released gradually or as an opt-in feature like labs, Buzz was automatically released to millions of Gmail users on Tuesday Feburary 9, 2010.

While it is easy to start using it, many pundits are saying that Google forgot to think through privacy aspect of the product. Unlike some social media sites that start you with no information and connections, Buzz uses your Gmail contacts as a base for who you are following and who is following you. Initially, Buzz allowed others to see who was following you, who you were following, and some parts of your profile that you may not have intended to share.

To Google’s credit, they reacted quickly. Within a couple days (and lots of feedback) they added some options to allow you to control the visibility of your profile and follower information. If you’re the type of person who is concerned about privacy, you might want to wait before using Buzz. On the other hand, if you’re like me, and have been on the Internet for 25 years, then the horses left the barn a long time ago. With that in mind, there is no way to actually “turn off” Buzz in Gmail. It is integrated right in to Gmail which Google, at least, touts as an asset.

Here’s a step-by-step approach to get started with Buzz.

The first time you sign in to your Gmail account after Buzz has been enabled, you are taken to a screen that advertises Buzz is available with a message “New! Google Buzz in Gmail”. At the bottom of the screen is a blue button reading “Sweet! Check out Buzz.” When you click on the button, you’re taken to the Gmail interface only instead of your inbox, you are brought to the Buzz tab just under the Inbox.

Again, if you don’t feel comfortable with the maturity of the product yet, don’t click the blue button. Instead use the link “Nah, go to my inbox.” If you clicked the blue button by mistake, don’t worry. Just use the Inbox link to get back to your friendly mail.

The place where your messages usually are located is replaced with several items. First, there’s a text box that works much like Twitter, Facebook, or any other sProtect who is able to see who you follow and who follows youocial network. This is where you place the message you want to share. If you try to post a message there right away, Google will prompt you to create your profile (see Figure 1). Pay particular attention to the checkbox that reads “Show the list of people I’m following and the list of people following me on my profile”. This is one of the enhancements Google made two days after Buzz launched to help protect you and your follower’s privacy. If you’ve already setup a Google Profile, you can find this setting and more near your photo.

Just above the text box are links. Clicking your name displays how the public views your profile. The Edit link lets you set your profile and share other items from other social networks like Flickr, your personal blog, and other sites. Below the message box are some helpful instructions to get you connected to other people and get started posting your Buzz messages. Once you start following people this area lists their updates in Buzz, and other social networks.

When you want to post something to Buzz, just type in a text message. You can control who sees the message by using the dropdown list next to the Post button below the text area (see Figure 2).
Select who you want to view your message

If someone comments on your Buzz, the response shows up in your Gmail inbox. You can reply to the Buzz message right from within Gmail like a regular email message. If you don’t want the responses showing up in your inbox, you can create a filter that operates on the label “buzz” to automatically archive or delete them. Listen to the Gmail Podcast on filters and labels for more information how to manage your messages.

Keep in mind, Buzz is still in its infancy despite being deployed to millions of people on its initial release. Things are likely to change rapidly over the next few weeks and I suspect I’ll need to redo this episode.

From what I’ve seen so far, Buzz is as a good social network it just has a little maturing to do. If you’re concerned about privacy, wait a while and stay tuned to the Gmail Podcast and blog for continued updates.

That’s all for this time. Comments, suggestions, or questions can be sent to gpodcast@gmail.com or check the website for full information and archives of all previous Gmail tips at chuckchat.com/gmail. And don’t forget about the short listener survey on the website. I really appreciate that so many of you have already done it and encourage more to do go and fill it out. It helps me understand who is listening and what I can do to provide you more valuable information on the Gmail Podcast.For more great information between the podcasts, follow me on twitter at gmailpodcast. I have no affiliation with Google other than as a satisfied Gmail user. Thanks for listening, and don’t forget to write.

Update: 14-Feb-2010 17:12 – There IS a way to turn off Buzz. There’s a tiny link in the footer messages below the conversation index that says “Turn off buzz”. It removes your buzz tab. Your profile and any existing Buzz conversations remain intact in the event you want to turn it on again in the future.

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Mark Unread From Here

This entry is part 30 of 35 in the series Green Belt

markunread1This episode is sponsored by GotoAssist. Try it free for 30 days.

If you belong to one or more mail lists that have lots of traffic, I recommend the labs feature “Mark Unread From Here”. This handy labs feature allows you to mark messages from a certain point in the conversation as unread.

Here’s how a typical conversation goes with me. I receive one or more messages, open the conversation, read them, and then archive the information. Later, I find the conversation has re-appeared in my message index with several new messages. If I open the conversation again, it marks all of the new entries as read, however I might not have time to read all of them. I may only read two or three – because I typically get distracted with embedded links to read, watch, or listen to something.

If I go back to the index, Gmail is going to mark all the messages in that conversation as read, when in fact, I may not have read them all. If I mark the conversation as unread, it marks all messages unread. That’s where the labs feature “Mark Unread From Here” comes in handy.

Enable this feature in the standard way by going to the Labs tab under Settings. Mark Unread From Here is near the bottom. Click the enable radio button and then choose Save Changes at the bottom of the screen.

Now when you open a conversation with many unread messages, use the Reply (or Reply To All) button in the upper right corner of any particular message and choose “Mark Unread From Here”. The remaining messages are marked unread, while the previous ones are marked as read. Alternatively, you can use the Expand All link, just above the sponsored links on the right, to show all the messages that may have already been read and collapsed. Using the Mark Unread from Here feature acts like a bookmark for a specific conversation, allowing you to come back later and finish reading the conversation right where you left off.

One final note, Google engineers are reporting that Gmail mobile now loads 2-3X faster than it did just a few months ago. For iPhone and Android users, the app is up and running in less than 3 seconds.

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Merge Duplicate Contacts with One Button

This entry is part 28 of 35 in the series Green Belt

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Gmail has added a feature to the contacts screen to allow you quickly find all duplicate contacts in your contacts database. Until I hit this button, I thought I was pretty good about managing my contact, but I found that out of more than 1600 contacts, I had 163 with more than one entry.

You’ll find the new magic button by clicking on the Contacts link on the left, then in the main window labeled “My Contacts”, there are two buttons labeled “View Suggestions” and “Find duplicates”. After you click the Find Duplicates button, a list of all contacts with more than one email address is presented. Review the list and uncheck any contacts you want to leave alone. Click the “details” link next to each contact to see which addresses Gmail has found for this person, or use the “expand” link at the top of the list to show the details for all duplicate records. Use the collapse link to shrink them back down to a list of names.

After you have reviewed the list, click the Merge button to combine the multiple email addresses in to one contact. Verify the operation worked as expected by looking up your contacts and noting that there are now multiple email addresses for that person. Choosing a name when you compose a message is the same as if the contact was not merged. Start typing the name and all available email addresses are displayed.

If you’ve been considering using Gmail as your central contacts database, this feature makes it easy to keep everything together and then sync it with your phone or other portable device. To find out more about syncing your contacts, search for the term sync on the Gmail blog at chuckchat.com.

Here’s today’s quick tip – Use the question mark key (?) to see all the shortcut keys Gmail has to offer.

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More Storage

This entry is part 27 of 35 in the series Green Belt

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This week, Google announced they have slashed the pricing on additional storage. If you’ve been using Gmail for a long time, you probably remember when it was introduced with 1GB of storage. Compared to the 10MB my ISP was giving me at the time, 1GB was a comfortable upgrade – and it was free. Later, Gmail increased the storage to 2GB where it stayed for quite some time. A couple years back I ran out of space so I archived everything to my local PC and wiped it off Gmail to start over. If I had only waited a few more months I would still have all my original email online. Today Gmail offers in excess of 7GB of free storage, yet some people still manage to fill up their mailbox.

This week Gmail lowered their pricing on additional storage. You can purchase an additional 20GB for only $5 (US) per year. Additional increments are also available at similar pricing.

What’s nice is that the storage is shared between Gmail andPicasa, their online photo manager, as well. Picasa defaults to 1GB of storage so the extra space for your photos makes a nice upgrade at a reasonable price.

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Docs Preview and Got The Wrong Bob

This entry is part 26 of 35 in the series Green Belt

Welcome the Gmail Podcast, a collection short hints, tips, and tricks to help you get more from your Gmail account. I’m your host, Chuck Tomasi.

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Let’s say you’re a typical Gmail user and your colleagues send you links to a Google document, either a spreadsheet, presentation, or regular text document. Typically, you would click the link to open the document in Google Docs. That’s a little cumbersome when all you need is a quick peek to get a few facts or figures. That’s where the labs feature called “Docs Previews” comes in handy. Like any labs feature, you can find it under setttings, on the labs tab. Enable it and save your settings. Now when you get a link to a Google doc, an option will appear on the bottom of the message to preview the document, almost as if it were an attachment. Sorry, it doesn’t allow you to preview actual Microsoft document attachments like Excel or Word.

docs-preview
Another handy labs feature that can save you from some potential embarrassment is called “Got the wrong Bob?” This feature looks at the patterns of recipient groups you have sent to and tries to prevent you from including the wrong one.
For example, I normally send email to Kreg S, Victor C, and Steve H, about a surprise party we’re planning for Steve R. Well, it’s Saturday morning and I’m feeling a little tired from a long Karate workout the night before. I start typing and the automatic insert changed the order of my lookups for some reason so my quick typing gets me Kreg S, Victor C, and Steve R! It would be a bit of a problem if the mail went to Steve R instead of Steve H – obviously, it would ruin the surprise. Fortunately, I’ve got “Got the wrong Bob?” feature turnd on and it shows a red message just under the recipient box that says “Did you mean Steve H instead of Steve R?”
Again, like all other labs features, you can find “Got the wrong Bob?” under the labs tab of the settings screen. As a side note, be aware that the labs feature formerly known as “Suggest More Recipients” has been changed to “Don’t forget Bob”.
That’s all for this time… Comments, suggestions, or questions can be sent to gpodcast@gmail.com or check the website for full information and archives of all previous Gmail tips at chuckchat.com/gmail. I have no affiliation with Google other than as a satisfied Gmail user. Thank you for listening, and don’t forget to write.

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