Editors' note: Until Google completes beta testing and releases a final version of Gmail, we will withhold our final judgment and our Editors' rating.
Google's introduction of the Gmail Beta--a free Web-mail service--has gotten the company a lot of attention, not all of it positive. Gmail's 1GB of mail storage several years ago sent Yahoo Mail and Hotmail scrambling to keep up. Now that Gmail offers 2GB, however, Yahoo Mail offers unlimited storage. And Gmail's controversial scheme of scanning your e-mail messages to deliver targeted text ads has put some privacy groups on alert.
Signing up for Gmail requires providing a name, a login, a password, and a security question, then viewing a one-page description of the service. All Web-mail sign-ups should be this simple.
At first glance, Gmail looks like most other Web-mail services, but it offers some clever touches that turn normal Web-mail conventions on their ear. For instance, instead of organizing messages by creating new folders, Gmail lets you assign multiple labels to each message--such as work, important, or follow-up needed--and leave them in your in-box.
Rather than treating messages as discrete bits of information, Gmail groups them as conversations, so you can always go back and explore the message thread to see what someone else said without hunting through old e-mail in your in-box. When you receive a new message in the thread, the whole thread moves to the top of your in-box. Each e-mail thread in your in-box appears as a single e-mail. No longer will you have 30 messages, one after the other and all with the same subject line, clogging your in-box as a group of your friends debate which bar to go to after work.
With Gmail, you need never throw anything out. Just archive messages to move them out of your in-box. They'll wait patiently in the depths of Gmail's gig of free storage, yet they can still be easily found via searches. If you are worried about old e-mail messages coming back to bite you, rest assured that, though Google encourages archiving, Gmail does let you permanently delete messages--it just takes an extra click.
Not surprisingly, Gmail's e-mail search tools are second to none. You can search for messages by sender, recipient, subject, text, file attachment, or date; you can look by label or search all of your mail, including the spam and trash bins. Just as easy is importing addresses to your Gmail account. It was even faster than with Yahoo Mail.
Gmail offers a host of attractive features, such as built-in instant messaging, POP3 access, and mobile options. If someone sends you an MP3 file, Gmail will pop up a discrete audio player so you can listen immediately. It even detects addresses written in your e-mail messages and then makes a suggestion to map them in Google Maps. We expect to see more integration with other services, such as Google Calendar, added in the future.
The most controversial aspect of Gmail is its advertising model. Instead of sandwiching ads around your in-box, Gmail scans the content of incoming messages and inserts relevant text ads and site links alongside them, which can lead to some interesting juxtapositions. For example, a newsletter from Blockbuster sent to our test account was accompanied by a text ad for competitor Netflix; a piece of Nigerian 419 scam e-mail was accompanied by a link to the Philadelphia Regional Financial Center. Not all messages have ads; Google's FAQ page says the service won't insert ads or links to mail containing "catastrophic news." (Our tests tend to bear this out.)
One area that needs improvement is Gmail's spam filter, which stopped only about a third of the sample spam we forwarded to our account. There's no way to change spam settings or set up lists of blocked or approved senders, yet, either, though you can click buttons to tell Gmail when it has missed spam or trapped a legit message by mistake.
Support options are similarly limited during the Gmail's beta testing: you can send feedback to Google, but it doesn't guarantee a response. We received a response to a question in just less than three weeks, which leads us to believe that Gmail support is in beta testing, too.