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Genious Mail? GigaByte Mail? Gavin Mail?
A friend of mine recently admitted that he actually thought Gmail was a private mail address set up by a mutual friend going by the name Gavin. Hmmm, Gavin Mail. Of course, I laughed at him and his muppetry and sent him an invite to join GMail and see for himself. I never did admit to him that when I'd first heard of GMail I'd thought exactly the same thing, especially when the said Gavin sent me an invite to have my own GMail address.
It wasn't until I'd signed up that I realised how foolish I had been, but I'm pleased he invited me and as free web-based mail providers go I've never come across anything quite so funky, feature-rich, easy-to-use, unique and innovative. Not to mention that having a GMail account does seem to give you a bit of a status symbol as you have to be invited to join by somebody you know, rather than just be able to sign up willy-nilly.
So just what is GMail? It's a web-based mail service provided by Google, the world's most popular search engine provider. GMail is currently still under beta-development, hence the reason you have to be invited - it's not freely available to the general public at the time of writing though Google have said it may be something they consider in the future. We'll have to wait and see. Meanwhile, if you want a GMail account you have to know somebody with one, then bribe them with money, beer or sexual favours in order to get them to invite you to have an account as well. Hellooo, GMail account holder here... ;-)
With e-mail being the most-used protocol on the Internet just about everybody has an e-mail address these days, so what is so different about this service to any other free webmail service you've used in the past? The hugely obvious difference to hit you immediately is that GMail offers you 1gb of storage space for your e-mails (that's 1000mb) effectively meaning you may never have to delete an e-mail ever again. Even after four months of continuous use of my GMail account and without deleting anything other than spam I have barely scratched the surface of my available storage space.
Signing up to GMail, once invited, is as simple and clearly laid out as anything else Google offer and your account is ready to use immediately; the person inviting you also getting a notification that you have signed up and your e-mail address automatically dropped into their contacts list.
The interface is crisp and clear and very easy to use. The main part of the screen is taken up with your list of received and read e-mails, the left has a small column dedicated to options available to you including all the defaults such as Compose Mail, Inbox, Sent Mail, Trash and so on. Beneath this are your folders, or labels as GMail refers to them, where you can archive your mails to in order to keep your inbox screen a little clearer. The top part of the screen is predominately dominated by a search facility, typically Google, from which you can either search within your own GMail account to find a specific mail quickly or easily, or find an appropriate page on the web using Google's search facility. Along there are also options to view your Contacts, Settings, Help pages and New Feature announcements, or Sign Out.
With GMail being new, features are still being added and Google ask their members to make suggestions if you think something missing from the service that should be there by default, or that would be a nice-to-have.
Using GMail to compose a mail is straight forward, though despite having a 1gb storage facility file sizes for sending and receiving are restricted to 10mb. Neither does the 'compose' interface have an HTML toolbar like Hotmail does (to provide bold, itallics or colours in your mail), though this isn't something I've found I've missed since using this service. HTML-rich e-mails that are received into the account can still be seen in their original format and this, to me, is more important than being able to send them. It is, however, something on the GMail wishlist and something that I have put my vote down to have added. A spell-checker is included as part of the package and it works very well when you choose this option, allowing you to select an alternative spelling from a list provided or edit the word yourself; it even accounts for American and British differences in English.
Reading mails in GMail is a little different to normal, however, as messages are classed as conversations and you can read them in threads, similar to newsgroups, in chronological order. If you're not used to this it looks a little odd at first, but you quickly get used to it and now I find it extremely easy to read that I often find more standard methods a little difficult to adjust back to. It is possible to switch this method off, however, if you're finding it difficult to read.
The Contacts section can be populated with your contacts' details manually, or you can import from a .csv file exported from your normal mail client or webmail service, including Outlook and Yahoo! Mail for example, and all the different details of the person you want to store in there can be added. A recent upgrade of the service has changed from just having a notes box next to the contact's name in which to put details to actually having categorised fields such as telephone number and so on.
Spam, always a problem in the murky electronic world, is also controlled very well by GMail. A dedicated filter is in place from the word go with a folder for spam mail to drop in to - if GMail believes the mail is spam it will put it there for you to check later. Spam that isn't recognised by the filter can be reported as such and will either be blocked or redirected to that folder on all future receipts; mail inadvertently dropped into the spam folder can be marked by you to not be classed as spam in the future. You have full control.
Google have put together a superb mail service in GMail and as a site it is typically Google: clean, quick and reliable. The service works well in several different browsers, even the Mac browser Safari is officially supported by a recent upgrade to the service. With Google needing to make money from their search engine service, however, GMail will automatically scan the content of the mail you are reading and put what it believes are related sites of interest in the right-hand column. At first I thought this would be intrusive and annoying but I have actually found it to be discreet and, at times, very useful. Only a handful of sites searched from the text are offered to you and they are kept neatly to one-side. They don't detract from the mail service offered but instead enhance it, especially if you have received a mail relating to a specific subject that you might ultimately have needed to search on Google for anyway.
If you're bored with your existing mail provider, fancy a change, need more storage space or just want to move up the echelons of cyberspace, then find yourself somebody who's got a GMail account, offer them something of incredible value, and ask them to invite you to join...