December 23, 2013

Preparing For Your First Google Helpout

Google Helpouts provide a live interactive platform allowing you to get help from a real person on a wide variety of topics.  Some sessions are free, and some are paid (either a fixed amount or based on the length of the session).  But they all give you the opportunity to speak directly with a subject-matter expert.  If this is your first time using the Helpouts platform there are a number of things you need to do first to prepare.  You don't want any last-minute technical problems getting in the way of the help you desire.

Verify your computer setup

You will need to have a computer with sufficient speed and memory to support a video chat session.  You will also need a broadband internet connection.  And since it will be a video chat, the computer will need to have both working speakers and a microphone.  Most people find a headset mic works best.  The exact setup isn't important just as long as you can hear, and be heard clearly.

For more help on the minimum requirements for a helpout, see the help center article:

Install the Helpout Plugin

Next you will need to install the Google Hangouts plugin which is the platform used by Google Helpouts.  Start by going to and click the blue download button.

This will down an executable installer (probably called GoogleVoiceAndVideoSetup.exe) which you need to run.  It only takes a few moments.

For more help with the requirements to participate in a helpout, see the help center article:

Have a practice Helpout

With the above steps completed, the next thing you will want to do is have a free practice helpout with a member of the Google Helpouts team.  This will allow you to:

  • Test your setup to make sure everything works OK.
  • Experience how you schedule and start a Helpout session.
  • Play with any of the available tools.
  • Ask any questions you have about Helpouts to a Google employee.
  • Completing a practice session will make your first real Helpout session go much smoother.

For more general help with Google helpouts, see the help center article:

Setup Google Wallet

If you are going to use a paid Helpout provider, you will need to have Google Wallet setup in the Google account you will use for the session.  Again, this should be done before the session so no time is wasted with payment issues when you are trying to get started.

Start by going to the Google Wallet page and create an account.

For more help with Google Wallet, see the help center article:

Other considerations

Some Helpout topics will require the host to be able to see documents or setting on your computer.  This is especially true of topics related to computer problems or help with a computer application you use.  This will require you to use the screen-sharing tool in Helpouts.  For the best results you will want to close any unneeded windows or programs before starting the Helpout session.  You may also want to further prepare by opening anything you know you will be sharing during the Helpout so it's available without delay when you need it.

There are a variety of other tools available during a Helpout which you or the host may want to use.

Your first Helpout

So after doing all of the above to get ready, now what?  If you haven't already done so, go to the Google Helpouts site and search or browser for a Helpout you would like to attend. Once you've found a Helpout, there will be several options available:

The host is available now.  Click the button to start the session.

The host is available now, but there's a line.  Click the button to join the queue until your turn.

Click the button to view the calendar of available times to schedule a session.

Click the button to send a message to the host and suggest some potential times to schedule a session.

And don't forget to have fun.

Hopefully this article has provided you with the information you need to prepare for and have a successful Helpout session.  Once you've completed one, feel free to browse the topics available and have more sessions.

December 2, 2013

User-Profile Privacy and Avoiding Google Plus

People are expressing legitimate concerns over Google's push for users to have a user-profile and a Google+ account.  Some of these concerns revolve around issues of privacy because they simply don't want their personal information made public.  Others don't want another social-media portal so they don't want to use Google+ at all.

It's true that there are some cases where a user-profile is now required, for example to make comments on YouTube videos.  Fortunately it's possible to create a user-profile that fulfills the requirements but supplies virtually no actual information.  And using Google+ is totally optional.  Having a user-profile does not force one to use Google+ any more than having a driver's license forces one to drive.

The purpose of this article is to help you create the most restricted user-profile possible as well as eliminate almost all of the impact of Google+ in your account.  This will provide access to any products and services that require a user-profile as well as stop any reminders or nagging to create one.  This may not satisfy everyone, but for most users concerned about their privacy it will provide a good balance between privacy and product access.

Creating a minimal user-profile

While some may not remember that far back, Gmail only required three pieces of personal information when initially creating the account:  your name, your gender, and your birth date.  Your name is used along with your e-mail address on every sent message unless you modify that behavior in Settings->Accounts->Send Mail As.

Of course you are expected to use your real name, but you are not required to use your full name on the account.  The Google+ Profile Names Policy ( states in the section "Can I just use my initials or my first name?" that:

You must provide a two-part name. It’s acceptable for one of these to be an initial, but not both. For example, “Jane Smith,” “Jane S.,” and “J. Smith” are allowed, but “J. S.” isn’t.

This is important since your name is the one piece of information that is publicly available.  If you do not want your full name visible you will want to take advantage of the above option.  And since first names are usually more generic than last names, people typically select their first name and last initial.

There are a couple ways you may be prompted to create a user-profile.  You might see the nag screen that Google will occasionally display.

Or you may be forced to create one if you use a product like YouTube that requires a user-profile to make comments.

You can also do it anytime you want by clicking on your name/address in the upper/right of your Gmail page and clicking the blue "Join Google+" button.

In each case you are required to provide the same three pieces of information you did when you initially created the account. For reasons known only to Google, the name and birth date fields are pre-populated, but you get to select your gender again including the marvelous option of "other".  Those desiring to select "I don't know" should use "other".

Once you have added Google+ you will notice that the upper/right part of each page in your Google account has change from just your name/address to a number of different icons.

Clicking on the +Name (typically your first name) will take you to Google+.  If you hover your mouse over the drop-down menu indicator next to "Home" you will get a drop-down of views to go to.  Select "Profile".  You can also click on your picture/avatar in the upper/right and select "View profile" from the drop-down panel.

From the profile page, click on the "About" tab and you will be viewing your initial user-profile.

At this point everything is undefined except your name, and two items, Gender and Birthday, in "Basic information".  Click on the "Edit" link and use the drop-down menus to set your Gender and Birthday to "Only you" and click the "Save" button.

You can set all the fields to "Only you" if you wish.  In fact, you can edit every sub-category and do that for every item of information.  But it doesn't matter since all the information is blank so there's nothing to show.

You do have to visit the "People" section and click the "Edit" link.  Uncheck the "Show people in..." and "Show people who have added you to circles" options.  Then click "Save".  If you never created any circles, and no one adds you, it doesn't matter.  But it's still best to turn them off.

You are now finished editing your user-profile. To view what everyone else can see, go to the upper right and change the selection from "View profile as: Yourself" to "Public".

Initially your public profile would look as follows, with only your name and gender visible.  Of course this isn't really that bad as there's so little personal information visible.

After the above changes, it will look like the following.  When you lock down Google+ (in the next section) you will also end up removing the Photos, Videos, +1's (not seen here), and Reviews tabs.

Note that if you have a YouTube channel, the public profile will also show a link to that.

So at this point your public user-profile has been reduced to a partial name (first name, last initial) and possibly a link to your YouTube channel.

And before moving on there is one other option that should be mentioned, and that is the use of a Google+ Page which is often used by businesses and companies who want a web-presence not associated with a specific person.  In some cases this could be another way to protect one's privacy.

Reducing the impact of Google+

The next step, assuming you don't want to use it, is to do everything possible to make Google+ go away.  Obviously, you will never make any posts to Google+.  You will not create any circles nor add anyone to a circle.  But you also want to prevent Google+ sending you any e-mail, ever.

Once again, use the drop-down menu on your Google+ page and select "Settings" (the last item in the list).  This will take you to the Google+ page of your Google account settings.

You will start at the top and basically turn everything you can off.  We'll skip a few sections that don't matter or are already off.

  • Who can interact with you and your posts - send everything to "Only you".
  • Who can Hangout with you - click the Customize button and make sure everything is set to "Send request" (which means people can request a hangout which you can ignore).  Also uncheck the "Get notified about Hangout requests".
  • Shared Endorsements - click the Edit link, uncheck the box at the bottom, and Save.
  • Manage subscriptions - uncheck everything.
  • Receive notification - uncheck e-mail notifications for everything.
  • Photos - uncheck everything.
  • Profile - uncheck everything.  Note that unchecking the profile tabs will remove those from your public user-profile which locks it down a bit better.  The only ones left will be:  About and Posts (which will be empty if you never post).  Also particularly note the last entry "Help others discover my profile in search results" as unchecking this one prevents search engines from indexing your profile.
  • Hashtags - uncheck.
  • Your circles - click the Customize button, uncheck everything, and Save.

After completing all this, Google+ has been rendered pretty harmless.  Your user-profile will be available to people you send e-mail to.  But if they view it the only thing they will see is your name (which they would already have from your e-mail address).  If they add you to one of their circles, it doesn't matter.  You'll never see any of their posts if you don't read Google+.  And if you never post, there's nothing for anyone else to see.

You may get notification of events (like being added to someone's circle) in the bell icon in the upper/right of your account, but you can ignore those or click on the bell and clear any pending notifications.

Again, this solution isn't perfect for everyone.  You do still have a user-profile and a Google+ account.  But it does a pretty good job of protecting your privacy and reducing the impact of Google+ on your day-to-day use of Gmail.

October 30, 2013

The New Google Sign In Page

The new sign in page for Google products has created some confusion with users.  The phrase "One account. All of Google." suggests that something has changed with the way Google products are organized or used.  The reality is that nothing has changed with how Google accounts work.  There has always been a single Google account which acts as a container to hold all the other Google products and services like:  Gmail, YouTube, Blogger, Drive, etc.

See this document for more information about how Google accounts works:

The thing that has changed is the format of the new sign in page.  With the new sign in page Google is trying to make it more clear that when you sign in, you are not signing into one specific product.  You are instead signing into a Google account which gives you access to all the products and services you may use.

This is a little extra confusing for Gmail users because you are using your Gmail account to sign in.  If feels like you are signing into Gmail.  But again, you are actually signing into your Google account which gives you direct access to your Gmail account.  You can not have a Gmail account without also having a Google account that contains it.

So "One account. All of Google." could be worded as:  "One Google account sign in.  All of the Google products and services."

The other change is that the page now keeps a list of accounts signed into on that computer so that it's faster/easier to sign into that account on your next visit.  But this does have some down-sides when using a public or shared computer.

The rest of this article will walk through each of the pages one might see with the new Google sign in system, and what you would do on each page.

This page, or one like it, is what you may see the first time you try to sign into some Google product on a computer.  This is basically an advertisement although it doesn't currently show up for all products (some go directly to the next sign in page below).

The key point to remember here is that you are not being forced to create a new account if you already have one.  While it's sort of "hidden in plain sight", there is a blue Sign in link clearly displayed in the upper/right (highlighted on this picture with the red arrow and circle).  Click that link to move to the next page and sign in.

Normally you will never see this page again.  But if the cache and cookies are manually or automatically cleared from the browser, this page may be displayed again the next time one signs in.  This is normal, and like so many other bits of information lost by clearing cookies, something you just have to put up with until this page is no longer being used.

This is the actual page where you sign into your account.  It's pretty straight forward with all the fields labeled.  Enter your information and click the blue Sign in button.

The "Stay signed in" check-box is still available.  But one interesting side-effect is that if it's un-checked, the sign in page will not save the account name in the list of previously used accounts.  This can be handy when using a public or shared computer.

Of note is that the previous "Can't access your account?" link has been replaced with "Need help?"  Click that to start the account recovery process.  For more information on account recovery see:

Also note the line at the bottom "One Google Account for everything Google" which is perhaps a clearer statement of the "One account. All of Google." line at the top.

This is the page displayed when you sign out of your account.  And even though it is displaying your name and account (as the previous system would do), you really are signed out.  This makes it easy to sign in the next time as all you have to do is provide the password.

Note the little pop-up information dialog.  This attempts to clarify that you really are signed out of your account.
  • You're now signed out
  • We've remembered your account on this device to make your future sign-ins easier. Just enter your password to sign back in.
  • Learn more

If you or anyone needs to access a different Google account, simply click the blue Manage accounts on this device link at the bottom (circled here in red).  You will return to the previous sign in page where the account name and password can be entered to sign in.

If you don't want this information to be retained on the computer, clearing the browser cookies should erase the saved account name.

If two or more accounts have been used on this computer, the above page is displayed containing a list of all the accounts it remembers.  Clicking on one of the listed accounts will take you to the previous page where you can enter your password and sign in.

This is similar to what most browsers already do if they are configured to remember form data to auto-fill in the future.  With the old sign in screen, as you'd start to enter an account name a drop-down list would appear of matching names provided by the browser.  Now the sign in screen provides that same list without the need to start typing an account name.

As noted above, if the "Stay signed in" box is not enabled when you signed in, the account name will not be retained on this list.

The "Add account" button is the equivalent of "Sign in with a different account" link.  It will let you access a different account which will be added to this list of accounts for the next time.  It does not link or merge accounts or do anything beyond simply letting you access an account not on the list.  It is, as such, letting you add another account to the list of remembered accounts.

If the "Remove" button from the previous page is clicked this is the page that will be displayed.  By clicking the "X" on any entry you can remove it from the saved list.  Of course if an account is used again later it will be re-added to the list.

And as a reminder, if you have a Google+ account, you can no longer click on your name to sign out.  The little arrow indicating the drop-down panel is also gone.  To sign out, you must click on your picture/avatar to open the panel, and then you can click on the Sign out button.

If you do not have Google+, you will still see your name or e-mail address which you can click on to access the panel.

So hopefully this has removed some of the mystery and confusion over what Google is doing with this new sign in system.  There are some additions, but the functionality is pretty much the same as it has always been.  Just remember that you are signing into your Google account, not a specific product.  And once you have signed into your Google account you have access to all the other products and services you use in that account.

October 26, 2013

My Gmail Is Acting Strange

Sooner or later it happens to most all Gmail users.  Some function stops working, or perhaps a part of the user-interface is missing or doesn't look correct.  There are various of problems or "glitches" that can show up in your account.  The good news is that most of the time there is a simple, straight-forward way to fix them.

If you have spent much time in the Gmail Help Forum you've probably seen long lists posted by people of things to try.  Unfortunately some users will skip these list:  "My problem is much too complex to be fixed by clearing the browser cookies."  Or they will skip some steps thinking:  "There no way any of the Gmail labs could cause this."  But much too often that is incorrect and they fail to fix their problem by skipping something simple they could have tried.

So it's important to follow some check-list like the one below anytime you have a problem in your Gmail account.  With luck, one of the items will fix the issue.  If not, you may be able to narrow the problem down to something much more specific making it easier to identify and fix.  And if they don't help you will have at least ruled out the most common causes of problems.

Of course there are some things these obviously won't help with.  Clearing browser cookies won't help you remember a forgotten password.  If messages you sent to another account bounce with an error, trying it on another computer probably won't help.  And disabling browser extensions is unlikely to help you recover an accidentally deleted message from Trash.  On the other hand, none of these will make things worse so it never hurts to try them if you're unsure of the cause of some problem.

So before you post to the help forum, ask someone for help, or pay for third-party support, make sure you've tried all these simple fixes first.  You should also write down the results of each one and be prepared to share which items (if any) helped with the problem and which didn't.

The following list is basically in priority order.  That is the first items have the best chance of fixing or isolating the problem.  Some items, like clearing the browser cache/cookies, may fix the problem.  Other items, like trying another supported browser, are diagnostic giving you more information about the nature of the problem.  Be careful about skipping any as some side-effects can be subtle and totally unexpected, like a lab causing the Help choice to be missing from the gear-icon menu (Help link gone missing in Gmail).

Clearing the browser's cache and cookies, then exit and re-starting the browser.

This simple item tends to fix more strange problems in browsers than anything else.  Many people make this a normal part of their computer usage doing it on a regular basis.  And it's always the first thing to try if there's something unusual going on with Gmail.

This article provides instructions for several major browsers:

Updated your browser to the latest version.

There are many problems that can be caused by running an older, no longer supported version of your browser.  It is also very important to be using a supported browser with Gmail.  This not only means which browser you are using (Firefox, Chrome, IE, etc) but that you have the latest version.  If your browser is unsupported or out-of-date, fix that next.

Supported Browsers:

Try using another supported browser and another computer.

Many problems are caused by using an old version of a browser that is no longer supported, and often browser will simply act differently.  Testing your issue on several browsers will help you determine if it's browser dependent (only fails on one browser).

Trying a different computer can help you rule out some computer-specific causes.  And you should always test a computer on a different network (like at work if you normally access Gmail at home) to rule out any network/firewall/ISP issues.

This step is diagnostic.  Discovering that your problem only happens in one browser doesn't fix it, it just suggests that it's a browser issue instead of something else.

Disable Internet Explorer's compatibility mode.

If you use Internet Explorer, you need to disable the compatibility mode which defaults to enabled:  The fix will not work unless you also un-check the 3 options at the bottom: "Include Updated Website lists from Microsoft," "Display intranet sites in Compatibility view" and "Display all websites in Compatibility view."  After making the changes restart the browser.

This is clearly a browser-specific fix and is strongly indicated if the previous test showed the problem only present in IE.

Try both the Standard version ( and Basic-html version ( of Gmail.

This is another diagnostic test which can help rule out account problems.  If you are logged into the Standard version of Gmail you can test the Basic version by simply opening its URL in another browser tab.  This makes it easy to do a side-by-side comparison of the problem in each version.

Disable all browser extensions and add-ons.

Browser extensions can cause all sorts of unexpected side-effects.  This is especially true of any extensions specifically designed to interact with Gmail.  One should always try disabling everything that's been added to the browser to see if the problem goes away.  If it does, a little additional testing can usually determine which specific extension/add-on caused the problem.

Related to this test would be testing in an incognito window (Chrome) or running Safe Mode (Firefox).

Disable/delete any browser toolbars (like Ask, Bing, Yahoo, etc).

While similar to the above test involving extensions/add-ons, this one specifically addresses disabling or deleting any toolbar programs you have installed for your browser (they may not show up as an extension/add-on).  Again, you simply want to rule these programs out as a cause.

You can typically uninstall these by going to the Control Panel \ Programs and Features and looking through the list for any toolbars you have seen displayed in your browser.

Disable any labs features you are using.

There are many useful functions available in Settings->Labs.  But as the disclaimer at the top of that page says:  "They may change, break or disappear at any time."  It is important to rule them out as a cause of a problem by disabling them all and re-testing.  You can disable all of them at once by using:

Temporarily disable your anti-virus scanner.

Some problems in Gmail, especially related to missing parts of the user interface, can be caused by an anti-virus program blocking access.  But it’s critical that you also disable any internet or e-mail related extensions/add-ons it has as the blocking may be specific to internet activity or e-mail.

Don't forget to re-enable it after the test.

Disable any other monitoring or internet protection programs (like Net-Nanny).

There are other types of malware, ad-blocking, and child protection suites one may have installed.  Like the anti-virus test above, these should be temporarily disabled to see if the Gmail problem is being caused by their activity.

Uninstall and re-install your browser.

This is related to the above test making sure your browser is up-to-date.  But sometimes if a problem seems to only happen in one browser, it's worth re-installing it on your computer to clear any problems with the installation that may have developed.  If you don't tell the uninstaller to clear settings, all your personal information should still be present after the browser is re-installed.

Supported Browsers (contains links to download various browsers):

Disable Settings->Offline->Offline Mail if you use it.

It's pretty rare for Gmail Offline to cause a problem, but if nothing else is helping it's worth testing.  See:  Settings->Offline

Verify that your computer's system date, time and time-zone are set correctly.

There are some problems with web-site security certificates as well as e-mail time-stamps that are easily fixed by making sure the time settings are correct on your computer.  Do not overlook the timezone setting.  You can typically access this by clicking on the time displayed on the task bar, and selecting "Change date and time settings...".

Delete and re-installing Flash and Java on your computer.

This probably isn't one you'd do unless there was some indication that there was a specific problem with one of these packages.  But again, it never hurts to make sure all the software on your computer is up-to-date and cleanly installed.

Oracle Java:
Adobe Flash:

May 27, 2013

Managing Sent Mail

As many already know, Gmail doesn't use folders to organize messages as many traditional e-mail clients do.  Instead it uses labels.  All your messages are stored in All Mail.  Everything else (Inbox, Starred, Drafts, user-labels, etc) are just "views" into a sub-set of the messages in All Mail.

Labels could be though of as colored sticky or post-it notes that you might apply to physical letters so you can later easily find all the red ones, or all the yellow ones.  For more detail on this see:

Sent Mail is a little different.  It could be thought of as a pre-defined filter that shows you all the messages you have sent rather than a simple label.  While it is possible to remove messages from Sent Mail using IMAP from an email client or mobile device, that is only a temporary change.  At any time Gmail may re-index your messages and cause all sent messages to once again show in Sent Mail.

So, in summary:
1.  Sent Mail is not a label.
2.  Using IMAP to move messages out of Sent Mail is not permanent.

The above behaviors can be a problem for people who like to manage their Sent Mail as if it was a normal label or folder.  They may wish to keep messages sent to other people in Sent Mail until they receive a reply or answer.  That is, the message being in Sent Mail acts an indicator of "action pending" and it's removal from Sent Mail signifies "action complete".

Fortunately, there's a way around the fact that Sent Mail doesn't behave like a normal label.  We can create a new sent label that will do exactly what we want.

The first step is to hide the system Sent Mail label.  Pretend it doesn't exist and never use it again.
Settings -> Labels and set Sent Mail to Hide.
Next we create a new label to hold all the e-mail that has been sent.
Settings -> Labels click Create New Label and name it "MySent' (or whatever you want).
Settings -> Labels and set "MySent" to Show
Settings -> Labels and un-check the "Show in IMAP" for "MySent"
Now we need to make sure all messages we send are labeled with this new label.
Settings -> Filters click Create New Filter
Enter "me" in the "From" field
On page 2, check "Apply the label" and select "MySent"
Click Create Filter
The new filter should look like this in Settings->Filters
Matches: from:me
Do this: Apply label "MySent"
Note that "from:me" works correctly even if you have multiple from addresses configured in your account.

We now have our own label which will hold all the messages sent, and can be managed in any way we want.

Of course the normal rules about labels still apply.  Since there is only one copy of each message (potentially with multiple labels applied), if you delete the message from any label it will be removed from all of them and placed in Trash.  This means you'll probably want to remove the "MySent" label from messages rather than deleting them.

October 30, 2012

Changes To Gmail Compose

Google has released a significant change to the way the Compose, Reply and Forward operations look in Gmail* ( Functionally the process works the same as it always has.  For example Compose is still:
  1. Click Compose
  2. Add recipient addresses
  3. Add a subject
  4. Compose your message
  5. Click Send
But the look-and-feel of the interface is totally different now.

The most obvious difference is that the Compose frame now opens in the lower/right of the GMail window much like a Chat or the Tasks frames do. It does not overlay Chat or Tasks, but pushes them to the left in the same way as when one opens multiple Chats. The other large difference is that the look has undergone a major cleanup with all but the most basic operations now hidden from view. This means that it appears much easier to use for sending quick messages. But this comes at a cost of extra mouse-clicks to access the more advanced features. For those advanced features, the opportunity has been taken to group them more logically - the text formatting tools and the insertion tools have been split, instead of all being together in a single bar, and the cluster of blue links under the Subject box has been cleared away into the appropriate menus.

This means that users with more experience using the traditional use-model may be confused or at least surprised by the new model. The purpose of this article is to walk through many of these differences and attempt to address some of the problems/concerns of this new use-model.

As mentioned above, one of the key attributes of this new use-model is trying to keep the interface as clean and simple as possible. A person writing a simple plain-text messages has everything needed without the clutter of additional capabilities or functions they won’t use. This also includes a degree of information hiding. For example, when one is done filling out the To/Cc/Bcc fields and move on, they collapse to one simple line that lists the receivers. If one clicks on that line it again expands out to individual fields for editing.


When one clicks on the Compose button in Gmail, the compose frame opens in the lower/right corner of the Gmail window. It has the same basic look as a Chat frame or when one opens the Task list. And like Chat and Tasks, the Compose frame can pop-out to its own window. In fact, using Shift-click on the Compose button will automatically open the pop-out window form.

All the traditional functionality available for composing a message is still present, it’s just been re-organized to make the overall task easier for simple messages, and the look cleaner.

A - Minimize the compose frame to the bottom of the Gmail tab in the browser.
B - Pop-out the compose frame into one of three different forms.
   * Click - open in a larger frame centered in the browser tab.
   * Shift+click - open in a new window on the screen that can be moved around and re-sized.
   * Ctrl+click - open in a new browser tab.
C - Close the compose frame. Note: this does not discard the draft and one may find it in the Drafts label and resume editing at a later time.
D - Add one or more addresses to send the messages to. Clicking on “To” (as well as “Cc” and “Bcc”) will open the contact chooser window.  Once added, recipients can be dragged from one header to another, for example to move a person from CC to BCC.
E - Click to open a field to add CC addresses.
F - Click to open a field to add BCC addresses.
G - Click to select from multiple from addresses if they have been previously configured in Settings -> Accounts -> Send Mail As.
J - Enter the body of the message here. If a signature is configured it will already be filled in.
K - Click to send the message when it’s complete.
L - Click to open the rich-text formatting tool-bar with fonts, colors, styles, etc. Many of these have keyboard-shortcuts allowing access without the extra click to open the tool-bar.  To see the keyboard-shortcut, hover the mouse over a formatting control.  For example, Bold is Ctrl-B.
M - Click to attach a file.
N - Hovering the mouse over this spot will cause other attachment and insertion options to appear like insert from drive and emoticons.
O - Click to discard the draft. Despite the trash-can icon, the discarded draft does not go to Trash and will not be recoverable.
P - Click for a pop-up menu with other options, like switching to plain-text or running spell-check. Note that the Canned Responses selection is only available if Settings -> Labs -> Canned Responses is enabled.  Also note that it is possible to add labels and stars while composing a message.

As the header fields are filled in and one moves to the body, the header fields collapse to a non-editable format. To make changes, simply click on the field and it will expand into the editable form again. As in the new Contact Picker, email addresses can quickly be removed from the recipient list by clicking their “x” box while you are in the editable view.

As mentioned above, there are three other forms available for composing a message in addition to the compose frame in the lower/right corner of the window:  a larger frame centered in the browser tab, a new window, and a new browser tab.  These are available from either the Compose button or the pop-out arrow in the small compose frame.
   * Click - open in a larger frame centered in the browser tab. The "Default to full screen" choice in the pop-up menu will make this the default format when clicking the Compose button.
   * Shift+click - open in a new window on the screen that can be moved around and re-sized. This also works with the Compose button.
   * Ctrl+click - open in a new browser tab. This also works with the Compose button.
   * d (with keyboard shortcuts enabled) - open in a new browser tab. This is nice because it automatically puts the focus in the new tab, and when you send it returns you to the Gmail tab.

Additionally, the format bar defaults to the open or displayed state for each of these cases saving a click each time one wants to use it.

Each of these formats is pictured below.

If you have turned on Settings -> General -> Send and Archive the bottom of your Reply window may look like this. Note that there is a default button for Send and Archive, and a second button for just Send.


While viewing a specific message, one may click the Reply button or link to open a reply frame inline with the message. There is also a drop-down menu option to pop out reply to its own window (see below).

The look-and-feel of the reply frame is very similar to the one for Compose.  But it is a little simpler since some of the information is already filled in since it is a reply to an existing message.

1 - The type of response: Reply or Forward.  One can also change the subject header for the message.
2 - The default address taken from the original message. Clicking on it opens all the recipient fields for editing.
3 - Enter the body of the reply here.
4 - Click the “ ... ” to expand the quoted text.  When you first open a reply, if you press the down-arrow on the keyboard once, the "..." will be highlighted allowing you to delete the quoted text with backspace.  But note:  this will also delete any signature.  If configured, the signature will appear below the quoted text. If the "Insert this signature before quoted text in replies..." (also known as Signature Tweaks) in Settings->General->Signature is enabled, the signature will be above the quoted text.
5 - All the same additional controls as available in the Compose frame (see K - P above).

Once the reply is complete and ready to send it might look something like the following.

Any time you want to verify the address being used for one of your contacts, just hover the mouse over the contact name to display the contact's information.


If one clicks next to Reply and selects Forward from the drop-down menu the result will be very similar to the above. As an alternative, one can always click Reply, and then use the control 1 (from the above picture) to change it to Forward.

The only notable difference with a Forward message is that instead of the quoted text being hidden, it’s all visible with the signature appropriately placed. All the same functions are available as above, and a completed message may look something like the following.

Edit Subject

In addition to Reply and Forward, there is a third option to edit the Subject header. The changed subject will cause this message to start a new conversation rather than be attached to the existing conversation.

Selecting this option will not create an in-line frame as Reply/Forward does. Instead it will act like the Compose function resulting in a new message frame in the lower/right. It will act like a Reply in that the To header and the Subject will already be filled in (with the expectation that the subject highlighted and ready to immediately modify). It will act like a Forward in that the content of the previous message will be included and visible just as it is in a Forward. The message body may be modified or added to, and sent when completed.

All the other aspects of the frame are the same as for Compose.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q. Why doesn't it work? I can't even click Compose.
A. The most common cause of problems is using an older, no longer supported browser. Updating your browser or install a supported browser should fix it.
Supported browsers:

Q. How do I turn the new format off?
A. Start to Compose a new message or Reply to an existing one. In the lower/right of the reply frame is a pop-up menu that has the choice to turn off the new compose (labeled as P in the above pictures). This option will only be available until the final release of the new format.

Q. Why is so much stuff hidden requiring extra mouse-clicks to access?
A. It appears to be an effort by Google to keep the interface more clean and simple. For example, the majority of users don’t use text formatting in messages. So by hiding the formatting tool-bar it removes clutter for those who never use it. For those who do use it, keyboard shortcuts provide fast access to some functions without the need to open the tool-bar first.  Hover the mouse over the various formatting options to see what the keyboard shortcuts are.

Q. What are the formatting keyboard shortcuts?
A. You can hover the mouse over a control to see if it has a shortcut and what it is. Here's a list (subject to new ones being added):
<ctrl> + b              Bold
<ctrl> + i              Italics
<ctrl> + u              Underline
<ctrl> + <shift> + 7    Bullet list
<ctrl> + <shift> + 8    Number list
<ctrl> + <shift> + 9    Quote
<ctrl> + [              Indent less
<ctrl> + ]              Indent more
<ctrl> + <shift> + l    Align left
<ctrl> + <shift> + e    Align center
<ctrl> + <shift> + r    Align right
Q. Why are there no indicators for editable fields, I can’t tell where I can type?
A. This is to to keep the look clean and simple. Having indicators on editable fields when they are not being used just adds clutter to the interface. Most everything visible can be clicked on, so it doesn't also need an indicator to say “click here to edit” (for example). And one quickly because accustomed to what can be clicked on making any indicators no longer relevant.

Q. Why was the interface “dumbed down”?
A. Actually, the compose and reply functions still support all the functionality as before, it’s just that more of it is now hidden to keep things more clean and simple looking. It would seem that most e-mail messages are simple, almost chat-like. As such, the controls to change formatting or attach/insert other information are not used that often by the vast majority of people. So a simple interface is appropriate for them (at the cost of extra clicks for the rest of us).

Q. Why is the Compose message frame so small?
A. The frames start small for short messages, but expand as the content does. In addition, the initial size of the frame is related to the size of the browser window (if one uses a larger or full-screen browser, the frame will be larger). And if the box still isn't large enough for your message you can pop-out the window and make it as large as you wish.

Q. Why is the new compose format being released again?
A. For significant changes to products Google will often release them in phases. In October 2012 the new compose format was released as an opt-in feature. That is, you could switch to the new format if you wanted. Currently (March 2013) it is in an opt-out phase. That means all accounts are switched to the new format but there is still an option to return to the old format. Eventually the new format will be the only option available.

Philosophical Musings

So why did Google make this change? Unless you’re a Google employee and part of the Gmail team, it’s probably impossible to know for sure. But we can look at current digital communication trends and recent changes by Google to come up with an educated guess.

The past few years have shown the trend in digital communications to be shifting to shorter and shorter messages sent more often throughout the day. Consider how much time people spend sending/receiving short text messages on their mobile devices compared to how much time they spend reading/writing e-mail each day. The same behavior can be seen with people spending more time reading/writing short updates on social media sites compared to longer more time-consuming e-mail messages.

The trend is clearly moving away from longer e-mail messages to shorter, low-content, and almost chat-like communication. In the case of text messaging, it’s almost real-time (like a chat) with potentially only a brief delay as the receiver pulls out their phone to read and respond.

Now clearly there are people who still use e-mail extensively or even exclusively. But such users are becoming the minority when compared to the total population of digital communication users.

Digital communication is more and more becoming short interactive messages (possibly real or close to real-time) in collections or threads.

So what shifts has Google been making over this same time-frame? Chat has been around for a long time. Google Wave came (and went) as a product which was clearly trying to be a blend of real-time chat and non-real-time e-mail merged together into streams (conversations). And then there’s Google+ which is Google’s entry into the social medial space. Again, it’s primarily used for short messages collected in a topical thread-like structure.

Some may disagree with this, but when the “new look” for Gmail was introduced, one of the changes made was the removal of the outlines around and clear separation between messages in a conversation. In addition there were changes in the amount of header information shown along with more aggressive hiding of quoted content and signatures. All this together creates an impression that an e-mail conversation is more like a chat than a string of independent messages. It’s subtle, but it’s there.

Google’s implementation of digital communication is more and more becoming short interactive messages in threads or conversations (Gmail). There appears to be a pattern here.

This brings us to the recent changes in Gmail. Composing a message now opens a frame in the lower/right (just like Chat) which can pop-out to it’s own window (just like chat) and has most of the formatting and other controls hidden to make the interface very clean and simple (just like chat). Forwarding works the same way.

An e-mail Reply opens in-line in the conversation, and also has a much cleaner and simplified look (just like chat). Finally, the quoted text defaults to hidden under the “...” further adding to the clean/simple look.

One may not agree with or like the changes in Gmail to the Compose and Reply functions. It is also understood that these changes will require extra mouse-clicks to access hidden functionality like the formatting options. But an argument can be made that the changes are consistent with the trends seen in digital communication and one can therefore understand the direction Google seems to be going with them. They clearly aren't “changes for change sake” (as some like to claim) but are part of a larger vision that Google seems to be using in its product designs.

These changes (along with many others in other Google products) also show an ongoing move towards a more consistent look-and-feel both within a given product (like Gmail) and among the family of Google products and services. These changes can be disruptive to individual products (as the black navigation bar at the top of the window was when it rolled out) but the consistency these changes bring is generally positive.

* Gmail is a trademark of Google, Inc. This page is not sponsored by or affiliated with Google.

Images provided by "CWD" (

January 17, 2012

Blocking Senders

E-mail is a great tool for communication but there are times when one does not want to receive any messages from certain senders. There are many potential reasons for this: personal, relational, legal. But the bottom line is that you no longer want to receive messages from this sender in your Inbox.

Blocking a Sender

Some e-mail providers have a system to block or blacklist specific senders. In most cases it's simply an easy-to-use front-end to a filter system: you provide an e-mail address and it builds a filter for you to auto-delete any messages from that sender. The exact same form of blocking is available in Gmail* except that you explicitly create the filter, which of course allows you more control over how it works and what it does with the messages. The down-side is it take more effort than just entering an e-mail address in some field.

Typically you will simply want to delete the messages. But there may be a case where there is some personal or legal reason you need to save these "blocked" messages. In such a situation you might label the messages, archive them (so they are not in the Inbox), and mark them as read. This is an example of why having full control over the filter is important.

So to create a simple blocking filter, do the following:
  1. Go to Settings->Filters
  2. Click the "Create a new filter" link towards the bottom of the page.
  3. Enter the sender's e-mail address in the From field
  4. Click the "Create filter with this search" link.
  5. Check the box for "Delete it".
  6. [optional] Check the box for "Mark as read".
Gmail help article:

It may be interesting to note that Google Apps accounts do have the ability to do blocking: although this can only be done by the domain administrator.

Blocking with a Return Error Message

While the above process will satisfy most blocking requirements, there are times when one may want the sender to know their message was not delivered. That is, you want them to receive a bounced error message.

While there are a few providers that have this capability, it is not something Gmail supports. Even so, it is possible to simulate, or fake a bounced message back to the sender. Just like the above blocking, it involves creating a filter, but it adds the use of the Canned Response capability (Settings->Labs->Canned Response). So with the Canned Response lab enabled:
  1. Compose a message.
  2. Use the "Canned Responses" drop-down menu and select "New canned response..."
  3. Give it a name.
  4. Complete the message content (see below) and save the draft.
Now what should the canned response say? It needs to look similar to a real bounced message. Even so, it's not going to look exactly like one since it is being simulated. I would suggest something similar to the following which is the proper format and contains a correct SMTP error code for a refused message.
Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:
Technical details of permanent failure:
The requested recipient could not be reached.
You do not have permission to send to this recipient.
SMTP Error 550 5.7.1 Requested action not taken: message refused.
Note: you should fill in your correct e-mail address in place of "" to match the correct failure format. There's no problem using your address since they already have the address in order to send the message in the first place. It's not any new information. But if one is really concerned (paranoid) you could replace it with something like "*****" as if the address had been masked out. It just will look that much less like a true bounced message.

An alternative message that's a bit more to-the point about why it failed:
Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:
Technical details of permanent failure:
SMTP Error 550 5.7.1 Rejected, your address is blacklisted by the recipient.
Unlike the earlier message that has some ambiguity, this one clearly says the sender was blacklisted.

Alternatively, you could use the error for a non-existent account which might suggest you deleted it:
Delivery to the following recipient failed permanently:
Technical details of permanent failure:
Google tried to deliver your message, but it was rejected by the recipient domain. We recommend contacting the other email provider for further information about the cause of this error. The error that the other server returned was: 550 550-5.1.1 The email account that you tried to reach does not exist. Please try
550-5.1.1 double-checking the recipient's email address for typos or
550-5.1.1 unnecessary spaces. Learn more at
550 5.1.1 im3si6082088bkc.81 (state 13).

And now create the actual filter:
  1. Go to Settings->Filters
  2. Click the "Create a new filter" link towards the bottom of the page.
  3. Enter the sender's e-mail address in the From field
  4. Click the "Create filter with this search" link.
  5. [optimal] Check the box for "Skip the Inbox (Archive it)"
  6. [optinal] Check the box for "Apply the label" and select one from the drop-down list.
  7. Check the box for "Send canned response" and select one from the drop-down list.
  8. [optional] Check the box for "Mark as read".
Note 1, and this is important, you can not check the box to delete the message because the system will not send a canned response for a deleted message.

Note 2, the optional steps are basically to keep these messages out of your Inbox by placing them in a label of your choice. You can then decide to save them if needed, or every so often go and delete all the messages in that label.

Clearly this system isn't perfect. The biggest problem being that you can't delete the message and also send the canned response. Still, it's a reasonable work-around given that Gmail doesn't have the ability to bounce a messages. And it will satisfy the needs some users have to block a sender with a message so they know they are blocked.

Of course, as already mentioned, it may not fool a more knowledgeable e-mail user. But what can they do about it? If they send a message saying "I know it's fake" all they'll get is another failure report.


It's unfortunate that there are reasons why one may want or need to block a sender from e-mailing to your account. But fortunately Gmail provides the tools to keep such messages out of your Inbox. It may take some self-control to not look at them in Trash if the content may be disturbing. But they can be deleted permanently without opening.

And the workaround for simulating a bounced error return is pretty easy to setup and use. It should work for most cases, and help provide one a level of protection from unwanted contact.

* Gmail is a trademark of Google, Inc. This page is not sponsored by or affiliated with Google.