When Google’s mail service launched back in 2004, few would have ever thought that it would end up being one of the best free email services (opens in new tab) out there. People were happy to use Hotmail (aka Outlook (opens in new tab)), but Google eventually proved themselves as worthy contenders in the email space. Looking back, it was an obvious step for Google to take now that we have Google Drive, Android, ChromeOS and so many more apps in the Google ecosystem. Gmail was the start of it all, and it’s come a long way since its inception.
With over a billion users, Gmail become the go-to for free email accounts, whether they be permanent emails or just throwaway accounts for events. You can set up an AppleID account with Gmail, or even direct wedding emails to a specific mailbox, and much more.
So now that we’re sixteen years down the line, how does Gmail stack up to the competition in 2020 with the likes of Outlook and Yahoo Mail (opens in new tab) still nipping at its heels?
Gmail review: User interface and accessibility
- Simple, clean design.
- Focused mailbox is hit and miss.
If you’re a new Gmail user, the sign up process is simple - you just add a full name, date of birth, and a name for the e-mail address. It’s easy enough, but the challenge is finding a free email through the 1.5 billion existing accounts.
When it comes to accessing it on the web, Gmail has a simple layout, inspired by Google’s ‘material’ design mantra that’s across Android, ChromeOS, and the rest of its web apps.
Even though Google added features such as ‘Focused Mailbox’ and better integration of Google Drive to send large attachments, it kept the design clutter to a minimum, so it’s still easy to log in, check the mailbox, and log off. We found this feature to be a little temperamental though and we preferred to leave it switched off.
Back in 2013, Google introduced ‘tabs’, so you can easily categorize the types of emails you were receiving between your primary inbox, social, promotions, and updates. These can be customized however someone wishes, especially if it's being used as a main account for personal or business uses.
There is also integration with Google’s other features, like Google Drive and Google Docs. This means you can quickly access your saved files and documents from your email account. You can even send links to your Google Drive, allowing you to share big files with other people without getting caught by Gmail’s 25Mb attachment limit. This is perfect if you’re sending photo albums to a friend or family member.
Gmail review: Unique features
- Integration with Google Drive, Docs, etc.
- Multiple dedicated apps including G Suite.
The main appeal at the start of Gmail, was a free and accessible email service for everyone, while keeping spam to a minimum. That goal is still being met, but there are features that help tie it into the Google-ecosystem.
Search is something that’s been heavily improved in recent years; you can search for a place in an email from 2015, or filter out messages that have been sent from a work-colleague. There’s even a ‘Undo to Send’ feature, so if you’ve accidentally pressed ‘send’ to a manager you shouldn’t have, you can quickly retract it. Useful, but the design of Gmail helps with the ‘send’ option being so prevalent so you shouldn’t accidentally click it too often.
But there’s also the factor of using their native application, available on the App Store (opens in new tab) and Google Play (opens in new tab). It’s an intuitive app, with the ability to stop an email from being sent, five seconds after sending it, but it can be confused with ‘Focused Mailbox’. This is a feature that ‘helps’ to decide what emails are spam, useful, or of no use. But we’ve found it to be very unreliable, and we recommend to switch this off, so you have the standard ‘inbox, sent, spam’ sections for better control. One more useful feature of it, is a unified-mailbox, so you can add other email accounts such as Outlooks and Yahoo, and use it within Gmail.
But with the main app, it’s had a bit of a spotty history. A few years ago, it was seen as the Android-variant having superior features to its iOS brethren, but after a time, it was seen as lagging behind third-party apps such as Inbox and Spark. Google made the great decision in creating a new ‘Gmail’ design called Inbox in 2015, but in 2019, they discontinued it, instead bringing some features to their own Gmail app and making it on par with the iOS version too. This method has worked, up to a point, but it has been slow at times in syncing email and trying to attach a video when testing it.
Gmail isn't just for consumers; it’s also part of Google Workspace. This business-orientated version of the web apps tis perfect for small-to-medium sized businesses. You can have customised addresses, but Gmail’s backend does everything for them - so an email could be ‘email@example.com’ but it would still essentially be a Gmail account and would function identically.This is incredibly useful if you want to add an air of professionalism to your business communications, and with the beginners’ package (opens in new tab) costing $6 a month, it's affordable too.
Gmail review: Security
- HTTPS and TLS encryption
- Lockdown mode can be annoying
Online privacy has been a growing concern across all devices and applications that we use and e-mail is one factor that we expect to be as secure as it can be.
When Gmail launched, it came with HTTPS out the gate; securing the connection between a user’s PC and Gmail, up to a point at least. There’s also TLS industry-standard 128bit encryption, so the data stored and sent is safe, up to a point again. But Google has been seemingly slow in introducing new features in securing mailboxes. In 2014 they introduced encrypted HTTPS connections when sending and receiving an email, so an attacker couldn’t hijack the connection. It’s welcome, especially in 2020 but at the time it was slow to catch up.
There’s a feature which this reviewer experienced when testing out the throwaway account, called ‘24 hour lockdown’. If Gmail detects what it thinks is abnormal behavior, such as sending multiple emails very quickly, it may lock your access temporarily. This is designed to catch and lock out spammers and bots, but it can flag up genuine accounts on occasion.
When this happened to us, our account became inaccessible for a day, and despite our attempts we were unable to unlock it. The 24 hour clock had begun and it was as secure as Fort Knox. There are ways to unlock a locked account on Google Workspace, but if you're using the web browser version of Gmail, it's frustrating that there’s no way to appeal a lockdown.
Despite this, security is still a great feature of Gmail, and you won’t have any trouble in making your account secure, especially if you have two-step verification switched on.
Should I use Gmail?
Overall, Gmail is a fantastic choice for both individual users and small businesses. You’ll have the mail service alongside Google’s other apps to help manage documents and files, while using Google Drive to help send large attachments that are more than 25MB. If you want something quick, straightforward, and free to use, then Gmail is a great choice. Just make sure ‘Focused Mailbox’ is switched off to, ironically, keep your inbox as focused as it can be.