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Gmail Labs: The great and the small

Want to extend the functionality of Google's e-mail service? Check out these great applications.

If you're a Gmail addict, as I am, you probably know that Gmail Labs is home to a bunch of good and bad add-ons that either extend the mail client's capabilities, change how it works, or make it a bit more entertaining to use. In the long (and growing) list of Labs apps, there something for almost everyone.

Which to use? Some of the apps are great. But, be warned: several are not.

The Great

Gmail
Canned Responses cut down on e-mail time. Don Reisinger/CNET Networks

Canned Responses
Canned responses is Gmail's best function for someone who receives a lot of e-mail. I use Canned Responses often because it allows me to create a series of automatic replies and after clicking the "canned responses" link in a compose form, I can send responses to readers telling them I've read their message and will reply shortly, or to PR folks to ask them not to contact me in the future.

In essence, Canned Responses cuts down on the time you need to waste writing out the same reply for a bunch of e-mail queries, and makes it easier to sift through the important stuff. It's fantastic.

Old Snakey
"Old Snakey" is fun and convenient. Google

"Old Snakey"
"Old Snakey" is Google's version of the age-old classic that, once enabled, will allow you to get away from your work for a while by pressing Shift + 7 while in Gmail.

Once you enable "Old Snakey," the game will be brought to the forefront, over your in-box, and allow you to move a "snake" that you control with your arrow keys over a block without hitting the walls and obstructions. It starts out simple with a short snake and slow speed, but it rapidly increases speed and the size of your snake as you pick up more blocks. That's when the game gets really fun.

Title Tweaks
Title Tweaks is Gmail's latest Labs add-on. It changes the order of the elements in the browser title bar so "Inbox" followed by the number of unread messages will be placed in front of "Gmail."

Gmail
Inbox first? You bet! Don Reisinger/CNET Networks

It's a simple addition, but as someone who opens a slew of tabs, which reduces the size of my mail tab so I can only see "Gmail" instead of the entire title, it's a must-have utility. After enabling it earlier this week, I've already witnessed a significant decline in the amount of time I spend switching to Gmail to see if I've missed any messages, since "Inbox" followed by the number of unread e-mails is always displayed. It's a streamlining tool that you really should enable.

Google Docs Gadget
The Google Docs Gadget is another one of those lightweight add-ons that you probably won't notice all that often until you need it. But when you do need it, you'll be happy it's there.

When you enable the Google Docs Gadget, a small field in the left pane is displayed showing all your recently opened docs, starred documents, and most importantly, a quick search function, which allows you to find other docs that may not be displayed. As someone who would rather open a document quickly in Google Docs than wait for Word to load, I open quite a few files each day in Google's tool. With the help of the Google Docs Gadget, I have easy access to them if I want to go back. It's such a useful tool that I'm surprised Google hasn't already made it a default feature in Gmail.

Mouse Gestures
I'm usually not a fan of using my mouse to control an application, but Gmail's Mouse Gestures actually comes in quite handy when I want to scroll through different messages without going back to my in-box.

Once Mouse Gestures is enabled, it allows you to right-click and move your mouse to the left to go back to a previous message or right to go to the next message. If you keep holding the right button down and move the mouse up, you'll be brought back to the in-box. I was suspect at first about the feature's usefulness, but I find now that I use it all the time. With this simple tool, I can instantly scroll between messages and get through them much sooner than if I used Gmail in the conventional way. It's that ability to make things quicker that appeals to me.

The Useless

Superstars
Starring items makes my life on Gmail much easier. It allows me to quickly and easily determine which messages I want to come back to later and it makes it simple to find important e-mails.

Superstars
Superstars isn't so super. Google

But when I tried Superstars, I didn't see any reason to use it. In essence, Superstars adds more star icons so you can create more groups of e-mails. When I started creating blue stars for reader e-mails, red stars for editor messages, and check marks for family e-mails, it became too unwieldy, so I disabled the feature. One star is fine with me.

Random Signature
Maybe it's me, but I thought random quotations died a slow and agonizing death after the Web 1.0 bubble burst. Did I miss that memo?

I guess so. When I was looking through Gmail Labs earlier this week, I found Random Signature, which places random quotations from world luminaries into each e-mail you send. I enabled it for a while to see how many quotations crop up and was impressed by the diversity, but I felt foolish sending messages with quotations in them. It seems so old school (and useless) to me.

Email Addict
When it was first released last year, Gmail's Email Addict add-on caught the attention of folks who wanted to get away from Gmail for a while. As a Gmail addict, I just don't get it.

When you enable Email Addict, the tool automatically displays a message saying your e-mail is inaccessible for 15 minutes after prolonged use, forcing you to "take a break" from Gmail. I don't quite understand the logic. If you're using Gmail, I'm guessing that you're doing so because you need to correspond with others. Do you really want to be locked out of a service for 15 minutes for no good reason at all when you have work that needs to be completed? I don't.

Hide Unread Counts
I like knowing when I have an unread message in my in-box and I like to know how many there are. That's why Hide Unread Counts is useless to me.

Once enabled, Hide Unread Counts does precisely what you would expect it to do: it hides how many messages you still haven't read. I'm still trying to figure out why anyone would want to hide unread messages, but have yet to find a reason. Privacy, maybe? Either way, it's not for me. I want to know when I get messages and how many are outstanding.

Default "Reply to All"
As someone who e-mails groups of people constantly, the last thing I want to do is reply to all of them without realizing who I'm sending the message to. And with the help of Default 'Reply to All', I could get myself in trouble. Quickly.

As you might expect, Default 'Reply to All' changes Gmail's default setting when you reply to a message to Reply to All. In some cases, that's a useful feature, but in others, especially when you want to comment on something to just one person in the group, it's a mistake. That's why I leave it off. I can see that it might be useful and there are times when I wish I did have it on, but I'd much rather control when I reply to all, rather than mistakenly send a message intended for one person to the entire group. There's nothing wrong with covering yourself.