Google launched Inbox by Gmail into the world back in October: "Inbox is by the same people who brought you Gmail, but it's not Gmail: it's a completely different type of inbox," wrote Google's Sundar Pichai at the time. Available on the Web, Android or iOS, it offers a different approach to email and a new way of powering through your messages.
You can switch between Inbox and Gmail without too much trouble (Inbox creates an extra label or two but that's about it). Underneath, they're both based on the same platform, so you can try Inbox out for a while and easily go back to the old Gmail if you don't like it. Here are the key features you need to know about as you make the switch.
Installing the apps
Inbox by Gmail is accessed via a different URL and a different app to traditional Gmail but you can keep both running concurrently if you want to. If you haven't already received an invite for the service, then head to Google's splash page to request one or hit up your friends and family to see if they have any 'golden ticket' invites to share.
You don't have to do anything special in terms of preparation to get Inbox up and running — there's no need to migrate your emails over or back them up because Inbox will immediately make itself right at home. You could, if you wanted to, use Inbox on your Android device and carry on using the standard Gmail interface on the Web.
Organizing your email
Gmail makes some effort to sort through your emails automatically — based on importance and category — but Inbox takes this further than ever before. Less significant emails are grouped together in what are known as Bundles, ready to be expanded when you're ready to tackle them. You can control how often these Bundles show up in your inbox too.
The interface is markedly different. A lot of the on-screen paraphernalia (like labels) is stripped away to leave an app that looks a lot like Google Now. Important email contents, such as documents, photos or flight times, are displayed in line with the emails themselves — Google calls these Highlights and they're designed to give you an at-a-glance reference to everything you need without opening up individual messages.
Another new feature is the ability to 'snooze' emails to a later time (thanks for the inspiration Mailbox). If you're not ready to deal with a message right now then you can have it reappear at some point in the future. On mobile, you can even snooze emails to a particular location, so they pop back up when you arrive at the office or your home.
Whole groups of emails can be labelled Done at once (the equivalent of archiving them in Gmail), with the emphasis on working through your inbox faster than ever before. Inbox does away with some of the finer detail you get in Gmail to give you a better idea of the bigger picture.
All this can be a little daunting to begin with but you'll soon get the hang of it. Tap into an email message and the familiar reply and forward buttons are still there alongside new entries allowing you to pin, snooze and archive (mark as Done) the message in question.
You can think of pinning messages as starring them — they get 'pinned' to your inbox so you don't lose them in the flow. Up at the top of the app interface is a toggle switch that lets you see pinned messages together with current reminders, and you can think of this screen as your 'to do' list inside Inbox.
From the main Inbox screen, swipe left to snooze emails and right to archive them. If you're dealing with Bundles, these actions are applied to the whole group of emails at once — that's part of the beauty of them. Open up a Bundle from the menu on the left and tap the cog icon to configure how often it appears in your inbox: once a day, once a week or as they arrive.
Create your own Bundles and you can really start to take control of your inbox. From the left-hand menu, tap a label (or choose Create new), then tap on the cog icon. The subsequent screen lets you set whether messages with this label are 'bundled', how often they appear and whether or not you get notifications about them in Android. You can also create labels straight from emails to give Inbox an idea of what the label is for.
So, for example, you can bundle emails from relatives or work colleagues or a particular website. To teach Inbox to label (and therefore bundle) the right emails, you can to move them manually into the label you've created (Inbox will then ask you if you want to do this every time) or set up a keyword or email address filter from inside the label settings.
The Inbox difference
For seasoned Gmail users, Inbox can take some getting used to: it cuts corners, it simplifies operations and it gives you less of the fine-tuning you get in Gmail (such as the option to create a detailed multi-layer filter). But Google is hoping that the next-generation of email users take Inbox on board.
Everything is designed to be more straightforward and intuitive: you can search for "my next flight" and Inbox knows which email to bring up, for example. A lot of the filtering and sorting is done on your behalf rather than asking you to move all of your messages into the right buckets (though there's still the option to do this).
The interface itself is streamlined and condensed into one single column — everything that's not so important is hidden from view until you need it. If you're switching to Inbox from Gmail, then the biggest jolt to the system will be letting the app take more control over how your email is managed. Whether or not you trust it, that's up to you.