Advantages Very Fast, Good spam filter, great clean interface and mail system, exclusive
Disadvantages some ads present, still 10MB file limit, naming system
To follow on from my review of the fastest ADSL service in the UK, I decided to write a review of the biggest (and potentially fastest) mail service on the internet. Yes, I am talking about Gmail, the exclusive beta mail system from Google which is under testing and gives a whopping 1GB of space to its users.
So, what do you get?
The biggest feature is the 1000MB mailbox limit. For years people using webmail services have been limited to 2MB, or maybe a genereous 4MB, with UK services giving 6 or 10MB. Now however, firms have realised that storage is getting ridiculously cheap in comparison to what it was only 3 years ago and so have been able to expand their ageing infrastructures.
The first is the ability to search through your mail easily and effectively. Using the google search system that indexes and analyses your mail you get the google search engine's full capabilities, and ranking facilities applied to every piece of your mail. Some people have found exception with the possibility of abuse of this system in data mining and information leeching. If you feel that way, then don't use the service when it becomes avaialble. However, considering how weak mail security is, and how many servers your messages go across it really does not represent anything to worry about.Mail and SMTP was designed when everyone on the internet knew eachother, and it was a small community of professors and students who trusted eachother. The same is not true today and yet people send their mail unencrypted through multiple servers. Google scanning the messages and providing an indexing service will change little to the security of what you send via email. Furthermore, with the recent wiretap ruling in the US declaring that mail messages must be 'tappable' and freely available to security agencies your mail is vulnerable anywhere.
Another noteworthy features is the fact that you can happily use keyboard shortcuts to make everything happen that little bit quicker. That is whether you want to change the status of a message, mark it as spam, archive it, move it, send it, forward it, or even just navigate quickly around your mailboxes without leaving the keyboard.Support is another strongpoint of the Gmail service - you can quickly search for an article that could answer almost anything you wanted to know.
Since the service IS in testing, things are improving all the time. Recently, for instance the service now works with the latest versions of Safari which is good for Mac users. Other features such as downloading your mail via Pop3 or IMAP are in development and will either be free, or be at a 'nominal charge'. That is a shame, but the online interface is good enough for it not to be a problem for now.Using labels to mark mail for a particular purpose also increase general flexibility of finding important messages becuase in addition to the search you can have easy to find groupings of messages that are not static - i.e. you can have a message in more than one context.
Another nice feature is that mail takes on a more conversational aspect - it is not about formal letters and communication, it takes on a forum aspect with threaded messages, whilst collapsing previous replies/messages and showing the most recent. It is a different way of thinking of mail and is far more elegant. email is more discurrsive and flexible than a letter which is static. Hence gmail tries to give that impression, even going so far as to call them 'conversations'.Plus, did I mention that the search function really does work really well? I can't stress that enough really. It just works. The mailtraq system I use at home is very harsh on resources when indexing, but all the work is done by dedicated google servers here. In effect, mail is organised and got at through meta-data and meta-organisation.
The adverts: people have made a big deal of this. Sadly, I don't really agree. I rely on adsense and adsearch to an extent for a small stream of income on my sites and it is always welcome. When seen from a webmaster's point of view, ad's become a necessary evil and adwords are nice becuase you can see them, but they are not obtrusive. They fit into the page very well and obstruct nothing. There are no pop-ups that obscure text - just considerate adverts that DO appear useful. So remember, some people depend on adwords and they made effort to stealth them rather than fill your screen with them.
The search options and filter options are also advanced enough for even the slightest detail of a message to make it traceable. It again shows the power of the indexing system behind it. This is no MSN search!Contacts are also seamlessly added to your list as they mail you, or you mail them, and then autocomplete works as you would expect when sending messages.
The settings tab is also lacking very little. You can change how your name appears, even change the return-path address (rare for webmail). You can also enable the handy shortcuts as well as the labelling system for easy navigation and visual spooting of messages. The last thing of note beyond the obligatory signature box, is the ability to show a small bit of the message - just in case the subject is meaningless.Other options allow you to create labels and filters easily, and finally you can even change all the security stuff - favourite question, personal details, and even permanently remove yourself from the service.
Other nice bits of the interface include amusing messages. When you open up the trash and there are no messages, you are greeted with:
'No conversations in the trash. Who needs to delete when you have 1000 MB of storage?!'
Out of all the tech things I review, Gmail is a very very hard thing to benchmark. Most of the time you will be limited directly by your own connection and the SMTP servers mail has travelled through before it arrives. Mailing performance is near impossible to judge.
Search performance through 1000 messages which I bulk sent myself was nice and snappy too. The spam filter is not perfect though and let in a few bits that I had mimmicked. Despite that, you can mark stuff as spam, send it to the spam bin, and alert the gmail team about it.The service has also performed reliably enough for me to not have to mail the gmail team with anyproblems - so I don't know the performance of their support system.
Despite all this, forming conclusive judgements over performance is simply impossible. At this point in time gmail exceeds my expectations and is as fast as fastmail. However, that could all change once people are allowed to sign up. Hopefully Gmail will have implemented enough load balancing and network interconnects along with fast storage subsystems - only the fastest SCSI will do! This is expensive, and so it will be interesting to see if the performance levels can be sustained for all for free, or the 'nominal charge' will become more than nominal.~~~~~~~~Conclusion~~~~~~~~
Yes, admittedly I have my own mail server at home, and the mailtraq is a nice interface that comes with all the nifty features of spam blocking, advanced message filtering, no attachment limits, no mailbox limit etc. etc. However, such a system is not possible for everyone and is not worth the effort when there are good alternatives around that are available and can be used by anyone without any IT skills. So, in comes Gmail which promises everything.At the moment, it delivers everything, and yet I could easily see it offering less as it fails due to its own success. Such a service works very fast now, but what happens when millions start to use it? Yahoo mail once they upped their limit to 100MB and 10MB per message saw massive performance and reliability problems. Will Gmail suffer the same fate of excessive bandwidth usage? I can't really say unfortunately. For now however, if you do get an invite, enjoy a top notch service with great performance, a great interface and an exclusive @gmail address. As it stands, how can you not love this service?
Well, Gmail is a living breathing beta project, so it is unsurprising that since I wrote this review, things have changed. Here are the most interesting new features:
AS of 2/12/04:
SO, How does all these extra goodies change my outlook?
Not one iota. This is still an amazing service that is getting better every day. As a testament to its success and viability all other firms are following in Google's footsteps.
As I said in my first conclusion, gmail is one thing you should certainly not be without.
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