October 21, 2014

Inbox by Gmail

Transitioning from Standard Gmail to Inbox by Gmail

The purpose of this article is to help Gmail users create a mental-map for the transition from Gmail to Inbox by Gmail as well as understand how some common Gmail actions translate to actions in Inbox by Gmail.

The first thing to understand about the new Inbox by Gmail (or just Inbox) is that it is not just a new user-interface slapped on top of the old Gmail.  It is a completely different way to manage one's e-mail account.  It is not intended to be equivalent to Gmail.  It is simpler, with less configurable options, and provides a more consistent look-and-feel across all supported browsers and mobile devices. But it also maintains the core functionality needed by an e-mail client.

People will tend to either love it, or hate it. And that's OK because Inbox by Gmail is not a replacement for Gmail. You are free to use it, or not.

There are of course some similarities to Gmail.  But even where there is overlap, Google will sometimes use a different name in Inbox to help break any preconceived ideas based on one's experience with Gmail.  So while Gmail's category tabs may be similar to Inbox's bundled-labels (labeled messages grouped together and displayed in the inbox), there are differences in how they work and how you use them.

If you approach Inbox by Gmail as a different type of Gmail, you will probably be confused and frustrated.  Similar things seem to have different names, and some of what you are accustomed to in Gmail is missing or works differently.  On the other hand, if you approach it as a totally new e-mail client (pretend it's made by a different company) learning it from the ground up, it will make more sense and probably be very usable. And there are features available in Inbox by Gmail that are not in Gmail. Many will even prefer it to standard Gmail.

But in the end, each individual will have to decide if they prefer the new use-model supported by Inbox or the more traditional e-mail client model supported by standard Gmail.

This article does not teach one how to use Inbox.  It just discusses some of the differences between Gmail and Inbox by Gmail.  To learn how to use Inbox by Gmail the following article is a must-read:   http://gmail-miscellany.blogspot.co.uk/2014/10/inbox-by-gmail-101.html

And yes, the author is well aware of how confusing it is to have "Gmail inbox" (the location), "Inbox by Gmail" (the product), "Inbox by Gmail inbox" (the location), "the inbox" (the location) or just "Inbox" (the product). This is why the product names will italicized (Gmail and Inbox) to help differentiate them from the location (inbox).

Initially Inbox by Gmail is by invitation only. The fastest way to get an invite is for someone who already has Inbox to invite you (each person will get 3 invites). Users can also email inbox@google.com to request an invite. Initially it will require: Android phone (4.1 and up), iPhone (iOS 7 and up), or the Google Chrome browser (v38 and up) on a computer.  If your account has it enabled, you can access Inbox or log into your account using it at: https://inbox.google.com

Overview of Inbox by Gmail

As stated above, this article is not intended to teach one how to use Inbox By Gmail. But a quick overview of the components of Inbox will be helpful in understanding the discussion that follows. The image below is of a representative inbox with a variety of messages and all the component parts labeled. The key to the labels follows the image.

Hint: right-click on the image and "Open link in new window". You can then position the image and the annotation key side-by-side for easier reference.

  1. Open/Close the the main menu which includes a scrolling list of: Labels, Create new (label), Settings, and Help & Feedback.
  2. The currently displayed label.
  3. The messages search bar.
  4. Toggle to display only the messages pinned to the inbox.
  5. Toggle to display/hide recent hangout and chat history. The panel can also be pinned in the right column.
  6. Google product selection panel.
  7. Google+ notifications.
  8. Google account control panel.
  9. Primary labels. Snooze contains all the pending snoozed messages and reminders.
  10. System labels.
  11. User defined bundled labels.
  12. System defined bundled labels.
  13. Unbundled user labels.
  14. Time subsections.
  15. System bundled label with unread messages. System bundled labels each have a unique Icon. Senders with unread messages are bold. The "1 new" indicator shows that there are new messages since the last time the bundle was expanded (some of the unread messages could be old).
  16. A displayed reminder. The "Snoozed..." indicates it is a newly displayed reminder and will go away if the reminder is viewed.
  17. Individual conversation with some unread messages. Senders with unread messages are bold.
  18. Trip notification. Part of the Travel system bundled label which is turned off (you'll notice it's not listed in section "L") so the message shows as unbundled in the inbox. Senders with no picture/avatar use the first letter of their name.
  19. Individual conversation that contains images/attachments. It is part of the Forum system bundle, but it is pinned to the inbox so it appears unbundled.
  20. Purchase notification. Part of the Purchases system bundle, but pinned to the inbox so it shows as unbundled in the inbox.
  21. Bulk sweep icon which will mark all un-pinned conversations as Done. Sweeping can be performed on a bundled label, or on a time subsection in the inbox.
  22. Some frequently used contacts. Hover the mouse over the picture/avatar to see their name pop-up.
  23. Create a new Reminder.
  24. Compose a new message.

Functional Mappings

This table compares some common items, actions and functions between Gmail and Inbox by Gmail. It is not exhaustive, but it should help a Gmail user understand how actions they are familiar with in Gmail map to Inbox. This is especially important because there are a number of things in Gmail that just don't have an equivalent in Inbox. Understanding the differences will save one some frustration looking for something in Inbox that doesn't exist.

Function Gmail Inbox by GMail Comments
Auto-Organization Social, Promotions, Updates, Forums (1) Travel, Purchases, Finances,
Social, Updates, Forums, Promos, Low Priority (2)
As conversations are a collection of related messages, system categories are a collection of related conversations.
User-Defined Organization n/a Bundles (label+filter) (3) Gmail does not have user-defined categories although the Priority Inbox allows for the display of a label which could be assigned with a filter (like a user-defined bundle).
Organization Display Tabs in the inbox Labels bundled in the inbox Bundled labels can be system categories or user-defined.
Saving Messages Archive Done Both result in the message being removed from the inbox.
Marking Messages Unread, Stars, Important Pin Marking messages that need further attention.
Delaying Messages n/a Snooze Snooze hides a message until a specified date/time when it appears at the top of the inbox.
Inbox Format Classic, Important / Unread / Stared-First, Priority, Tabbed Unified (plus bundled labels) The Inbox by Gmail inbox is functionally similar to the Gmail classic inbox, with optional bundled labels, although it looks very different.
Spam Messages Report Spam Move to Spam There is no one-click report spam in Inbox.
Deleting Messages Delete Move to Trash There is no one-click delete in Inbox.
Labels To tag and collect messages To collect messages Labels are not displayed on messages in Inbox so they don't work as visual tags.
Add Label Label menu n/a Inbox does not have a label command to assign multiple labels to a message. (4)
Move to Label Move-To menu Move-To menu Removes current label (including inbox), adds new label, does not modify other labels. Inbox also marks the message as Done.
Filter Creation Settings->Filters, "filter messages like this" (from a message) from a message, from a label In Inbox filters are used to create bundles (label+filter). (5)
Filter Actions Archive, Mark as Read, Star, Label, Forward, Delete, Not Spam, Always/Never Mark Important, Categorize Bundle, Mark as Done Most Gmail actions (like add a star) don't apply in Inbox (which doesn't have stars). In Inbox this creates a user-defined bundle (label+filter) although displaying it in the inbox is optional.
Versions Standard, Basic html, mobile/browser, mobile/app Inbox Inbox has only one version for all platforms.
Formatting Font, Size, Bold / Italic / Underline, Foreground / Background-Color, Justification, Lists, Indent, Quoted Text, links Bold/Italic/Underline, Lists, Links Inbox simple replies (not poped-out) have limited formatting using keyboard short-cuts.
Attachments Local file upload, Drive, Image, Link, Emoticon Local file upload, Link Both support drag-and-drop: single image inline, multiple images or other file types attached.


(1) Settings->Labs->SmartLabels adds: Travel, Purchases and Finance.

(2) Low Priority in Inbox roughly corresponds to "not important" in Gmail.

(3) Any label can be bundled (that is displayed) in the inbox by adding a no-op or null filter (one that does nothing). If the label is named Pending (for example), enter "label:Pending" in the "has the words" field to create the filter. In Gmail, under Settings->Filters, the filter would look like
Matches: label:Pending
Do this: Apply label "Pending"
It is trying to add the label "Pending" to messages that have the label "Pending" on them, so effectively doing nothing. But a label with a filter applying that label is an Inbox bundled label, and can be displayed in the inbox.

(4) It is possible to assign multiple labels to a message with the following trick:
  1. If the messages is in the inbox, use Move To label (assigns the label and marks the message as Done). If it's in any other label, mark it as Done.
  2. Find the message in Done, and use Move To label (assigned the new label without removing any existing labels, and marks the message as Done).
  3. Repeat #2 as desired.

(5) In Inbox Filters can be created for a label or for a sender. You can also create as well as view/edit all filters in Gmail under Settings->Filters.

While viewing most labels there will be a gear icon in the top row (to the right of the search field) that will open the label's settings. There you can add new filters or click existing filters to edit them.

While viewing a message, if you use the Move To command to move it to a label, will will be given the option to "Always Do This". If you click that link it will create a filter that will always apply that label to messages from that sender.

Bundled Labels

So just what is a label bundled into the inbox in Inbox by Gmail? One way to think about it is to take a subset of the conversations in a label (those not pinned or marked as done) and bundling them together under a single entry in the inbox. Expanding the bundled label lets you see all the conversations it contains. Expanding a conversation lets you see all the messages it contains.

There are a couple inbox formats in Gmail which, to a degree, are replaced by bundled labels in Inbox.
  • Tabbed Inbox - The system-defined categories displayed in the inbox tabs are almost identical to the system-defined categories bundled in the inbox. They both represent system-define filters, who's behavior you can modify, which collect similar messages into a specific label. But the filtering is more complex than what a regular user-defined filter can achieve with address or keyword searches.

    They are of course displayed differently as tabs in the Gmail inbox versus bundled labels in the inbox list of Inbox. And as noted in the table above, there are more pre-defined system categories in Inbox than in Gmail.

    Tabs allow one to ignore low-priority categories until a later time. The problem is that you have to remember to check them eventually as they do contain unread inbox messages. Bundled labels can optionally be set to automatically delay appearing at the top of the inbox to either once a day or once a week (for less important categories). They are harder to miss as they appear more prominently in the inbox.

  • Priority Inbox - Gmail's Priority Inbox allows any of the four sections to display the contents of a label (in addition to some pre-defined options like Unread or Stared). And that label could be manually added to messages or assigned with a filter. This makes them similar to bundled labels which is simply a filter assigned label displayed in the inbox.

    A simple label can not be bundled in the inbox. A filter assigned label can be bundled into the inbox. And as noted above, you can add a null-filter to any label thus allowing it to also be bundled into the inbox.

    And similar to how a sub-section of the Priority Inbox can be set to "Hide section when empty", Bundles will tend to sink down in the inbox until a new messages forces it to the top again. But unlike Priority Inbox sub-sections, Inbox Bundles can be also be set to only appear once a day, or once a week making them less intrusive.
If you did not use the Priority or Tabbed Inbox in Gmail, then Inbox bundles may seem confusing or unnecessary. If so, you can turn them off so they are no longer displayed in the inbox. That allows the message to be listed individually in the inbox. This makes the Inbox by Gmail inbox similar to the classic or default inbox in Gmail - a simple collection of all your messages.

Unfortunately the Important/Unread/Starred-first inbox formats do not have an equivalent in Inbox.


We are going to define the use-model as how one views and manages new messages when they arrive in the account. One's activities in an account extend well beyond just dealing with new messages, but for the goal of understanding how Gmail and Inbox compare, this one aspect is sufficient.


There are a variety of options for the Gmail inbox format. This provides a lot of flexibility in the way one can organize and manage both new and old messages in the inbox. This also contributes to Gmail's complexity as it may not be obvious what all the choices are, how to use them, and the ramifications of those choices. The confusion can be greatly increased when changes are forced upon users as the Tabbed Inbox was. The Gmail inbox can be any of the following.
  • Classic (single unified inbox)
  • Tabbed Categories (system-define organization)
  • Priority Inbox (user-define organization)
  • Important/Unread/Starred First
In contrast Inbox provides a relatively simple inbox that really only has one optional component: the inclusion of labels bundled in the inbox.
  • Unified Inbox (with a very different appearance compared to Gmail)
  • Bundled labels (optional)
In effect, Inbox only has one inbox format which can include or exclude one or more bundled labels. If the lack of inbox formats is too restrictive, you may want to keep using Gmail. If you are relieved by the simplification it brings, Inbox may be the perfect choice.

Message Attributes

Gmail provides a wide range of automatic and manual ways to mark messages with various attributes. Most of these can be simultaneously added to an e-mail making its exact status very complex (a given message can show up in multiple locations).
  • Categories:  Social, Promotions, Updates, Forums (automatically applied)
  • Importance markers (automatically applied)
  • Stars (manually added or with filters, multiple colors and shapes)
  • Labels (manually added or with filters)
  • Archive (remove the inbox label)
  • Personal level indicators (enabled in Settings->General)
Inbox provides a smaller set of attributes creating fewer "buckets" to put messages in resulting in less complexity.
  • Categories:  Travel, Purchases, Finances, Social, Updates, Forums, Promos, Low Priority, and user-defined
  • Pin (keeps the message in the inbox)
  • Labels (manually added or added with filters)
  • Done (remove the inbox label)

Message Actions

Considering the above, the options available in managing new messages in Gmail are almost infinite. The inbox may be organized in one of several formats, and then there is a long list of actions you can perform on any specific message.
  • Mark as read/unread
  • Mark as important/unimportant
  • Move to a different category
  • Label (add or change)
  • Move to label (label + archive)
  • Star (multiple colors and shapes)
  • Archive
  • Delete
  • Report Spam
On the other hand, Inbox has basically a single inbox format and a shorter list of actions which can be performed.
  • Move to label (or bundle)
  • Pin (flags the message in the inbox)
  • Snooze (causes the message to reappear as new at a specified date/time)
  • Done (remove the inbox label)
  • Move to Trash
  • Move to Spam
With the exception of Snooze, everything listed for Inbox has an equivalent option in Gmail. But several of the Gmail options do not exist in Inbox.

Gmail or Inbox by Gmail?

So, which one should you use? Most of the above can be reduced to just a couple key points for each product. But remember the comment made at the start of this article: Inbox is not simply a user-interface change to Gmail, it as an entirely new product.
  • Gmail
    • Customizable - multiple inbox formats and message organization options
    • Flexible - many message attributes to manage e-mail
  • Inbox by Gmail
    • Simple - easy to learn and use
    • Consistent - the same user-interface on all platforms
Of course there's no reason you can't use both. You could use Inbox on a day-to-day basis, or on mobile devices, and then use Standard Gmail for more complex activity like creating non-labeling filters, multiple message selection, emptying Trash and Spam, etc. Gmail and Inbox by Gmail are just tools and you should use whatever helps you manage your e-mail the best.

So feel free to continue to use Gmail, switch to Inbox, use both as appropriate, or use neither if you prefer your installed e-mail client. The choice is totally yours.