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Inbox by Gmail review: Personalized email with a learning curve

Google's new standalone email app gives Gmail a fresh new approach to organizing and reading your emails.

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Sarah Mitroff
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Sarah Mitroff

Managing Editor

Sarah Mitroff is a Managing Editor for CNET, overseeing our health, fitness and wellness section. She's written for Wired, MacWorld, PCWorld, and VentureBeat.

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8 min read

Editors' note, June 23, 2014: This review has been updated to include features included in the latest version of Inbox by Gmail.

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7.2

Inbox by Gmail

The Good

Inbox's fresh design and clever categorization system makes it so you'll spend less time organizing your emails and more time reading, responding and moving on quickly.

The Bad

Although you can schedule grouped messages to appear in your inbox daily or weekly, you cannot specify the time they show up.

The Bottom Line

Inbox is fantastic for corralling your messy email inbox, if you're willing to let Google do the hard work for you.

Inbox by Gmail (iOS|Android) is a step toward the future of intelligent email. It uses Google's smarts to organize your emails by topic, with the hope of making your inbox more streamlined. It does this by categorizing every email you receive, as either an important message that deserves space in your inbox, or as a less important update that can be lumped into a folder with other message like it.

Google introduced this concept for Gmail in 2013 with the tabbed inbox, where messages are automatically grouped into labels such as Promotions, Social, and Update. Inbox takes it further with a new design and more labels, all in the name of helping remove clutter from your email.

I've lived with Inbox for months now and it's completely replaced the regular Gmail app on my phone. Not only is it visually appealing, it's also full of features that help you find every message you need, when you need it. Despite all of its pluses, with Inbox you give up the control to organize your email using your own system. That won't jibe with everyone, but if you're willing to let Google take command, the app will reward you with smarter and cleaner inbox.

The app was once invite-only, but now it's free for anyone to use both on the Web and mobile. Unfortunately, you need to have a Google account, because it doesn't work with non-Gmail email accounts, like Yahoo or Exchange.

Go hands-on with Inbox by Gmail (pictures)

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What it does differently

Most email services funnel all of your incoming messages into a single inbox, essentially a folder of unorganized emails in chronological order. You can often move emails into separate themed folders you create yourself, or set up filters to do this automatically.

Inbox seeks to organize each message you receive before it hits your inbox, automatically moving it to a folder (in this case called a bundle) without you moving it there. It categorizes every message you receive to see it if fits a theme, like travel or purchases, and then lumps it together with similar emails. This is what a filter does, but in this case, Google is creating that filter for you. Everything else that the app deems important but doesn't belong in a category shows up in your inbox as normal. This approach helps cut down on the number of loose messages in your inbox and helps you skim it more quickly.

Your new inbox

Influenced by Android Lollipop's Material design, the app is equal parts colorful, clean and cheerful. The best example appears when you empty your inbox and you're greeted with a bright blue screen and a yellow sun.

Your inbox is in chronological order, with messages from today at the top, followed by older emails. It's a mixture of individual messages which Gmail deems the most important, and bundles, which are folders of similar messages color-coded for easy skimming. Though I don't mind the chronological order, I'd like the option for other views, perhaps with the bundles at the top and individual messages below them or vice versa.

For each email, Inbox will show a the first few lines of text, and, where available, highlights from the message, including attached images, documents, or videos, helping give you some context. Some messages even have actionable links to track packages, view tickets or respond to calendar invites. All of this information is at your fingertips in your inbox, so you don't even have to open the message to see it, and I've found that to be one of the most helpful parts of the app.

At the bottom of the screen, there's a simple compose button. Tap it to start a new message, and you'll also get shortcuts to email the three people you've emailed with most in recent memory, and to create a new reminder (more on that later). All of the app's other tools, including settings, email labels, and the spam and trash folders, are stashed away in the slide-out menu.

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Your inbox is designed to be simple and clutter-free. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Bundles of mail

If you're like me, you get a mixture of personal messages, promotional emails, account updates, and social alerts every day. Google is smart enough to recognize these emails and group them together in new themed labels called bundles.

The app comes with seven standard bundles; Trips, Purchases, Finance, Social, Updates, Forums and Promos. When a new email comes in that fits one of these themes, Inbox automatically sticks in that bundle, which then appears as a folder in your inbox. You can tap to open that folder and view the emails in it. This is designed to cut down on clutter, by keeping similar, likely less-important messages grouped together, so they don't get in the way of more important emails.

Though Google does the heavy lifting categorizing your emails, you get some freedom to customize this process. First, you can move emails in and out of bundles to help Inbox learn what should go where. When you first starting the app, you'll find that it takes some coaching to figure out which emails belong in which bundles. It's a tedious process at first, by in just a few days Inbox starts to get it right.

You can also create your own bundle by giving it a name and selecting what kind of messages you want included. The setup process is very similar to creating a new Gmail filter, and it can be very helpful if you get many emails from a specific sender or with certain keywords. Finally, you can choose to delete any bundle, but any emails that would otherwise go there will simply show up in your inbox individually.

Bundles are a very powerful part of Inbox, helping organize your messages. Each bundle has its own set of settings, letting you schedule when bundles arrive in your inbox or trigger a notification. For instance, you can set your Finance bundle to appear every morning at 7 a.m., or only once per week. Or, you can have the bundle appear every time there's a new message. The scheduling feature is neat, but there is one big downside -- you can only select "once per day" or "once per week," and there's no way to adjust the time it will arrive. The default is 7 a.m. for daily, and Monday at 7 a.m. for weekly. I'd really like the chance to schedule some bundles to arrive in the evening when I have time to deal with them.

Swipe it all away

Inbox wants you to treat your inbox as a to-do list, doing something with every message and ultimately clearing out your inbox frequently. Ideally, every time you open the app, you'll respond to important messages and mark them as done, snooze messages you don't want to deal with now and delete the stuff you don't need.

Inbox uses gestures to help you manage your mail faster, and they are dead-simple to use. You swipe right to mark a message as done, archiving it away, or swipe left to snooze it, which I'll explain below. If you'd rather delete a message instead of archiving, you can change the swipe gesture in settings to send messages to trash. For a faster approach, use the Sweep feature to mark all of your messages as done and remove them from your inbox at once.

Tap and hold any message to bring up the bulk edit controls, where you can batch delete, archive or snooze emails. With those bulk edit controls, you can also pin a message, which keeps it in your inbox and prevents it from getting cleared away accidentally. If you pin a message, you can toggle the tiny switch at the top of the screen, with a pushpin icon on it, to view only your pinned emails and reminders.

Snooze for later

Taking a cue from apps like Mailbox , Inbox lets you clear out messages from your inbox and have them reappear later, when you're ready to deal with them. This is the Snooze feature, and it hides away a message in your Snoozed inbox (accessible in the app's menu) and then puts in back in your main inbox at the time you designate. That could be tomorrow, next week, "someday," or you can pick a specific time or place for it to reappear, such as when you get home.

I particularly like the Snooze feature for travel-related emails, such as a hotel reservation confirmation. I can hide that message until I arrive at the hotel, and then it will appear again, ready for me to use. It's also great for newsletters that I don't have time to read until I'm relaxing at home at night.

Since you cannot schedule bundles to appear in your inbox at an exact time, a good workaround is to just snooze it in your Inbox to reappear at a better time.

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You can add reminders for everything and Inbox will offer suggestions as you type. Screenshot by Sarah Mitroff/CNET

Reminders at the top

Another robust part of Inbox is reminders. The same reminders you create with Google Now now coexist with your email, showing up at the top of your inbox, and you can create new reminders in the app too with the compose button.

Google's natural language processing kicks in here, offering suggestions as you type, based on context. I'm blown away by just how intelligent the suggestions are, pulling in phone numbers from your contacts, suggesting bill reminders from your email, or grabbing show times for a movie. Google has thought of the most common reminders you may have, letting it autocomplete what you need as you type. Inbox also lets you create new reminders when viewing an email, which is handy.

If you scheduled a reminder for a specific time or place, it will appear in your inbox when it's supposed to, while reminders that aren't time-sensitive will stay there at all times.

Final thoughts

Inbox by Gmail is a totally new take on email from Google, with tons of powerful features and that's why I like it. The key features I love from Gmail, such as archiving and labels, are still there, but they're smarter. Inbox does the hard work of categorizing my messages for me, and with a little feedback from me, figures out where new messages should go. I even like that I can schedule groups of message to pop up every day, though I really wish I could pick the time they appear. All in all, I never feel like my inbox is too much work to manage, despite the fact that I get hundreds of messages everyday.

The downside with the app is that Inbox has a built-in strategy for managing your emails that works best on its own. Anyone who already has a system for organizing their emails will likely find themselves fighting Google's system. You get some control to adjust the system, but it's not always enough for email power; users. If that's the case, stick with Google's equally useful Gmail mobile app for Android and iOS.

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7.2

Inbox by Gmail

Score Breakdown

Setup 6Features 7Interface 7Performance 8
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