October 25, 2005

GMail vs. Outlook: the verdict

It's been about a month now since I switched my entire environment from Outlook to GMail, so it's time to do a quick check up.

Since a lot has been said about GMail, I will try to focus on details that have never really been covered and explain in what ways they improved (or not) my email-reading habits.

  • The first thing I noticed in my various labels and filters is that I seemed to receive a lot less email.  For example, where certain mailing-lists used to receive more than fifty messages a day, GMail showed me less than ten on a daily basis.  The answer was obvious, of course:  GMail displays the number of conversations, not messages, which makes me feel like I'm less overwhelmed.  Of course, it's just perception, but perception is important when you are trying to keep up with the deluge of emails that hits you every day.

    Having said that, I wondered if the number of messages was not an important information that I'd like to have (and that GMail doesn't provide), and so far, I am inclined to say I don't really miss it and I can't really think of a case where knowing how many unread messages are in a specific folder would dictate my decision to visit this folder or put off its consultation to a later date.
  • Conversations, conversations, conversations.  This is a direct follow-up to the point above, but no mailer has come close to successfully capturing the meaning of an email conversation.  GMail really nailed it, and compared to Outlook's abysmal conversation approach (no indentation in the threads and you can't even fold an entire thread, only the unread messages), it's a breath of fresh air.
  • GMail's spam filter is working very well.  I tried many spam filters over the years and while there are some really good solutions for Outlook and Thunderbird, GMail's spam filter seems to be the best I've encountered so far,  and I know quite a few people who are using their GMail account as a pure spam filter (and eventually switched completely over).  My only complaint is that it doesn't allow whitelisting (specifying that an email with certain words in the Subject or From will never be marked as spam) but GMail has been good at learning from my actions when I moved false positives out of the Spam folder.
  • GMail's phishing detection is also very good, and is the reason why recommending GMail around me (especially to beginners such as my Mom) is a no-brainer.

    Not only are phishing emails clearly flagged, the URL's they contain are also deactivated.  Outlook will soon provide a similar system, so I hope that some time in the near future, we'll have completely curbed this plague.
  • One of the great impediment to comfortable email reading is quote handling (citing the previous messages of a conversation).  Outlook has one of the worst quoting mechanisms, both in reading (no colors) and writing (very hard to quote an email inline).  Thunderbird was a bit better in both areas (I especially liked the alternating colors depending on who was being quoted).  Again, GMail scores very high on this scale (slightly higher than Thunderbird) because quoted text is hidden by default.  GMail's quoting mechanism is actually very clever since it will show the previous message as a "real" message but will hide its content if it's being quoted again in that same conversation.  It's hard to describe, but it works extremely well.  And of course, showing the hidden content is just a click away.
  • No catch up.  This is one of the things I miss and that pretty much any other email reader provides:  there is no direct "Catch up" button.  Instead, I need to click on Unread to select all unread messages, and then select "Mark Read" from the dropdown boxes.  That's a lot of work if you do it often.
  • No "mark for follow-up" (the ability to tell the mailer to remind you to answer to a specific message by a certain date).  I was using this feature in Outlook quite a bit, and I miss it in GMail.  The Star system is a poor substitute, but it kind of does the job.
  • Resurrection of old threads.  This is another brilliant idea that captures very well how people use emails these days:  you read an email from a conversation, archive it when done and the entire conversation disappears from your Inbox.  Then if somebody sends another message in this conversation, the entire thread is brought back into the Inbox.  Simple and effective.
  • GMail is idempotent.  It's a big word to say that I can read my GMail inbox from pretty much anywhere without any hassle.  It's probably obvious for a Web-based client, but after so many years being shackled to Outlook (and therefore, only being able to read my email on a machine that has Outlook installed, and obviously not an anonymous one), it's also quite refreshing.

Overall, the experience has been tremendously positive and GMail is more than meeting my email needs, which I thought were pretty stringent.  And of course, GMail is improving on a weekly basis, so there is a lot more to look forward to.

Posted by cedric at October 25, 2005 07:42 AM

RE: "mark for follow-up"

You could use a FollowUp label. BTW I really like the labels and that one message can have multiple labels (as opposed to one message being in only one folder at a time).

Posted by: James Stauffer at October 25, 2005 08:04 AM

RE: "mark for follow-up"

There's a lot more time-based stuff GMail could do with email. For example, I subscribe to a lot of Google Alerts, but they are only useful within the first couple of days of receiving them. If I don't read them within a week, then chances are I will never read them.

Same with my planzo calendar - it emails me a list of the appointments for the following week every Sunday. This is obviously useless information after that week has passed.

A general feature for email expiry would be great. A similar mechanism could be used for important email.

Posted by: RichB at October 25, 2005 08:33 AM

Something that I'd like to see is a way to have the spam sorted by how "spammy" it is. My previous email provider (AlienCamel) has a very nice system for dealing with spam. Unfortunately, they won't forward mail from that account, and gmail won't pull from a pop account, so I have no way to tie them together.

Posted by: James A. Hillyerd at October 25, 2005 09:26 AM

Couldn't you do the white listing with a subject line filter and then have it redirect those items to your inbox automatically?

Posted by: Keith Sader at October 25, 2005 12:04 PM

I have to emphasize how silly and dumb Outlook looks like when it *doesn't* sort conversation, and I'm sure it's my usage of Gmail as my main email account that makes me feel like that. I don't know if there's a clear flag in the email protocol that tells if messages belong to the same conversation (is there?), but if the emails have the same subject (give or take a "Re:"), it becomes kind of obvious they are the same thread.

Posted by: Philipp Lenssen at October 25, 2005 12:37 PM

I miss address groups. I'd like to compose an email, and then send it to relatives, or <insert hobby intrest here/>. I wish there were a way to do that in gmail.

Posted by: Roger at October 25, 2005 04:14 PM

I have two labels I use religiously

_Action Required
_Reply Required.

This gives me 'mark for follow up'. But yeah, a catchup would be great.

Posted by: Michael Koziarski at October 25, 2005 04:58 PM

One real problem I have with gmail is the way it handles mail sent by me to me. Let's say my account is foo@gmail.com, and I have a rule that assigns foo+todo@gmail.com to a special TODO label. When I want to send mail to foo+todo@gmail.com, the mail sits in my todo folder, already archived, already read. In other words, there's no easy way to send mail to myself as a reminder, unless I use another email account. Arg.

Posted by: Robert Konigsberg at October 25, 2005 09:14 PM

One real problem I have with gmail is the way it handles mail sent by me to me. Let's say my account is foo@gmail.com, and I have a rule that assigns foo+todo@gmail.com to a special TODO label. When I want to send mail to foo+todo@gmail.com, the mail sits in my todo folder, already archived, already read. In other words, there's no easy way to send mail to myself as a reminder, unless I use another email account. Arg.

Posted by: Robert Konigsberg at October 25, 2005 09:15 PM

Reading your review, I thought about giving gmail a try, but you fail to mention gmail is still not opened to anyone who wants to register (still asking for being invited). I think a fair review should mention that. I might have to pay for Outlook but at least I can get it without having to be part of a club, this kind of things sound a bit ridiculous to me... I guess it is probably not that hard to get invited, but then what's the point of that invitation thing?

Posted by: Chrisophe at October 26, 2005 02:35 AM


The point in being invited is to limit (or prevent) spammers from opening GMail accounts. You will notice it's been fairly successful so far (no spam ever comes from a GMail address) and it's also fairly easy to get an account for a legitimate user anyway (you have entire Web sites that pool GMail invitations).

Anyway, give me your email address and I'll be happy to invite you.


Posted by: Cedric at October 26, 2005 05:59 AM

I know this is wierd, but I am using both G-mail and outlook. The main reason is that G-mail does not have as strong word editing function as outlook.

Also, I like the calendar feature of MSFT office outlook, especially to organize meetings. I am looking forward to Google Calendar, and want to see how it can be integrated with other google products.

On the whole, G-mail is great for private users. However, does Google have a vision that people will use it for their business?

Posted by: HR Zest at October 28, 2005 05:47 PM

One other thing I've noticed about gmail is that you can't have mailing lists and a contact database. For example I usually send my mails to certain people and they are almost always the same, but I have to always write each mail independently (at least there is the (semi-)autocomplete feature.
Unless of course this feature exists and I just haven't found it yet.
Otherwise in general I am quite happy with GMail. Keep it up guys :P

Posted by: G-Cyborg at November 4, 2005 04:19 AM

I've found that making drafts of messages I mean to send works reasonably well enough for managing a 'todo' list.

Just hit reply, add "Say something about how this has already been done before by X", and then save as a draft.

Posted by: Jason Marshall at November 8, 2005 09:59 AM


Well, no need for you to invite me, as you wrote you can easily find gmail invite spooler around, so I used them to be able to give it a try (by the way, I could have been a spammer querying that spooler...). But thanks anyway :)

Anyway, after some testing, I think the problem I have with gmail is that I'm still not ready to use a "entirely store mails on server" solution. Servers might be down very little but once in a while is enought to make me feel unconfortable when it happens preventing me for searching for my mails for example.

I think outlook even in the mail on server case is having a local cache, allowing to search for emails.

Posted by: Christophe at November 10, 2005 05:51 AM


Most of the invite-spooling websites do have a type this number system. It's not so much the spammers, as the spam-bots that automatically set up a whole bunch of accounts for use in spamming.

With regard to online only emails, I agree with you. I prefer to have a downloaded copy so that I can search offline. But gmail provides pop access for that very reason. You can set it up so that you download the messages, and the system auto-archives them. Though archived out of sight they're still online, if you need them, and you have your local copy too.

And as for searching, well, that's what google does best...

It'll be interesting to see how uptake changes in the EU now that the gmail trademark has been lost in the UK and Germany.

Posted by: Brendan at November 10, 2005 12:07 PM

I am basically happy with gmail.
However, recently I have set off their spam detector. I have a huge network of friends, business aquaintances etc.and was doing alarge mailing.
There was no warning and no notification of how I could correct this error.
Does anyone know the limit of messages per day? I cannot find this in Gmail's policy terms.
More urgently, how can I get liberated!?


Stephen Black

Posted by: stephen black at March 28, 2006 11:46 PM

I am wondering how to send my work (outlook) and school email to my gmail account. So that gmail just combines both of them thanks.

Posted by: at August 9, 2006 08:43 AM

Is there a way to import my outlook emails into GMail?

Posted by: Le Which at September 5, 2006 12:39 PM
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