I’ve been a Gmail user for a long time. After some youthful flirtations with Yahoo!, AOL, MSN and MobileMe I have stayed tried and true to Gmail. Labels, IMAP, lots of storage, nice Google Labs extensions all made it my email “home”. With the release of the latest Gmail for iOS however I have completely given up on the native iOS mail app. Gmail 2.0 for iOS has become my new favorite mobile email solution.
While a loyal Gmail user, I haven’t been as true to my email client. Windows, Mac, and various mobile devices have come and gone. As long as they could handle IMAP* I was good to go with my trusty Gmail account. What that usually meant was being subject to the native email application on whatever platform I was using. With my Mac laptops that was Mail.app, on Windows it was some generation of Outlook.
However I don’t use a laptop for most email these days. I spend more time on tablets, both iOS and Android, and my iPhone than I do pulling out my Macbook. For the longest time I thought the iPhone’s easy setup for Gmail and especially the single unified inbox couldn’t be beaten. I tried Sparrow for a while and just never felt the need to switch or have an “extra” email app on my phone.
When I switched back to the iPhone 5 as my default everyday phone I thought I was going to just live with the built in email app as I’d always done. I’d tried Google’s Gmail app for iOS before but found it slow, not very esthetically pleasing and cumbersome. The new Gmail addresses all those but still has some shortcomings.
First off the app looks great. It leverages the same clean grey/white/read color scheme that Google has been using with Google+ and other apps. The UX is simple and doesn’t get in the way of the email content but still has controls close at hand. Navigation is pretty similar to other email apps in that you can work your way through any label (folder), edit, archive or delete a message or compose a new one quickly. There are alternative views for both portrait and landscape mode and it works really great on both iPhones, the full size iPad and the iPad mini. Rendering of HTML emails is good, and works as well in this app as it does on other Gmail platforms. You can customize, like most iOS apps these days, how aggressive you want it to be in notifying you about new messages and it defaults to using the signature from your Gmail web account which is a nice synchronization.
Yet the app isn’t perfect. Like all email apps I’ve tried on iOS, it doesn’t fully support bluetooth keyboards. You can certainly type on a external keyboard (I use a Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover) when you’re composing or replying, but that’s just the basic case. Over the years when I want to clear out my inbox quickly I use the keyboard cursor keys to move up and down the message list, and the delete key to remove the currently selected message. It’s fast and since my hands never have to leave the keyboard very convenient. On the iPad since neither the cursor keys nor the delete key work unless you’re editing a message that workflow isn’t supported. It’s a huge oversight by the app developers since it forces the users to constantly remove their hands from the keyboard to touch the delete icon again and again.
Gmail 2.0 comes with a great “browser” that opens up links within emails. It’s a nice feature that can save you time when switching apps, but again it’s only about half implemented. There is no way to bypass this mode and open links directly in Safari or Chrome, though there’s a button to do so manually. This means that if you click a link it opens in the Gmail “browser”, you touch to open in Safari and after you’re done when you app switch back into Gmail the “browser” is still on screen. You’ve got to “back” into the Inbox before you can continue. I imagine that the manual option was the only way Google could get “open in Chrome” into the app since otherwise I’m sure Apple would have forced any default setting to Safari. I’m sympathetic but still frustrated by all the extra clicks this process requires.
Finally the app lacks a “download entire message by default” option. Large messages are only partially downloaded into the app. This is great over cellular connections as it doesn’t waste bandwidth for messages you might otherwise just delete anyway, and most of the messages you send (if you’re like me) are short and lightweight. Business mails are almost always full downloaded. Other emails, like newsletters or blog digests that contain a series of story briefs (TechCrunch, VentureBeat, etc) never download completely. So you open an email and click one of the links at the top. Except that since the message isn’t full downloaded that link references a placeholder in the email not yet in the app. The bad link opens the “browser” to a blank page. So here we go again going “back” to the message, scrolling down to the bottom to find the “download entire message button” and then back to the top to find the link to the story you wanted in the first place.
For WiFi connections the default should always be download everything, and Gmail should give the user the option to enable this all the time. It’s another annoying flaw that you can get used to but every time you forget to touch the “download entire message” button first it will drive you crazy.
Those issues are irritating but not so much so that I’m willing to go back to the default Mail app. Overall Gmail 2.0 for iOS is a great app with a cleaner UI, better integration with Gmail labels and support for multiple accounts. If you are a Gmail user with an iPad or iPhone, it’s really worth trying for a few days. You may decide that despite it’s limitations it is much better than the native app.
* I used my last Blackberry, a Bold, around 2011 when I left Screenlife. That RIM still had not truly embraced IMAP and provided a beautiful Gmail solution was beyond me and made the device all but useless, despite the messaging focused Blackberry hardware.