April 30, 2007

Make Gmail better

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Many people have embraced Google's Gmail service due to its slick interface and ample storage -- but like any application, Gmail leaves a few things to be desired. To trick Gmail out to your specifications, take a look at Lifehacker's Better Gmail, a Firefox extension that brings all sorts of extra goodness to Gmail.

The scripts included with Better Gmail are all available separately as Greasemonkey scripts -- but who wants to hassle with hunting down Greasemonkey scripts and installing each one separately? Better Gmail bundles several useful scripts all in one handy, easy-to-use package, and you don't actually need Greasemonkey installed to use it. Even better, you can turn each script off or on for complete control over your Gmail experience.

Because Lifehacker is unlikely to be on your list of approved sites for installing software via Firefox, you'll probably want to just download the file and install it from your desktop. Download the file, and then go to File -> Open File (or just press Ctrl-o) and choose the file you just downloaded. It should have a name like bettergmail_0.3.xpi, though the version number will change over time. Firefox will walk you through the install. You'll then need to restart Firefox and browse to Gmail to see what you're getting in the way of improvements.

Better Gmail is under rapid development, so you'll probably see new features and updates on a regular basis. I installed the 0.2 version at the beginning of a week, and Better Gmail was updated to 0.3 a few days later. It's now at 0.5. Firefox will let you know when updated versions are available, and Better Gmail can be updated using the Add-ons update process.

Better Gmail includes about 20 scripts in one easy-to-install package. To turn features on or off, go to Firefox's Tools menu and choose Add-ons, and select the Better Gmail extension, and then click Preferences. You'll see a tabbed dialog box with several scripts, and a button next to each for enabling or disabling that feature.

Let's look at some of the functions that make Better Gmail a must-have extension for anyone who spends a lot of time using Gmail.

A number of desktop clients allow you to create virtual folders from saved searches. For example, you might want see all email sent in the last week, all email that is sent to a specific list, or maybe all email with a specific term in the subject. Gmail doesn't allow saved searches by default, but Better Gmail brings two methods of saving searches.

The default method saves the search via a cookie saved on the computer -- so when you log into your computer you'll see searches that you've saved, and the most recent searches that you've performed. The saved searches appear as a yellow box on the left side of Gmail's interface. This method's primary drawback is that searches are saved on only one computer, so if you use Gmail at home and work, you won't have access to the searches you perform on your other computer unless you sync your cookies or something like that.

The other saved search feature uses a little trickery to save your search as a contact in Gmail, so it's saved across sessions. Both methods allow you to use Gmail's search operators to search by sender, recipient, whether a message has an attachment, a message's label, and so on.

My favorite feature is the Gmail macros. Gmail is already usable with only the keyboard, but the Gmail macros add features that make Gmail so much easier to use, like going to the inbox or to a label folder by just typing G and the first few letters of the label.

You can also mark messages as read from the keyboard, report a message as spam, and even add or remove labels without having to touch the mouse. To see a full list of available macros, press h, and the program will display the shortcuts in an overlay that hovers over the Gmail page.

The attachment icons feature adds an icon to each message in the Gmail inbox that has an attachment, depending on the type of attachment; if you have an email with a PowerPoint attachment, you'll see a PowerPoint icon, and if you have an email with a PDF attached, you'll see a PDF icon.

Are you a Google Reader fan? If so, you no longer need to leave Gmail to read your favorite feeds. The Better Gmail extension essentially embeds Google Reader within Gmail. Just click on Feeds, next to your Inbox and other Gmail folders, and you'll see the Gmail feed within Gmail's message area.

Note that you'll see your account information twice, in the upper right corner of the screen and in the upper right corner of the message area. This is because the script seems to embed Google Reader inside Gmail's message pane, rather than integrating its content within Gmail itself. It's convenient, but a fully integrated solution would be better. It would be useful, for instance, if you could star a message in Google Reader and have it show up within Gmail's starred messages as well, and it certainly would be nice to have search within Google Reader.

Another feature included with Better Gmail is a force HTTPS script. While you log into Gmail using a secure connection, the default is to then redirect the browser to an unsecured connection. If you're security-conscious, this isn't ideal. The force HTTPS script ensures that you connect over HTTPS every time you log into Gmail.

How many times have you forgotten to send an attachment with an email? Better Gmail has a modest fix for that as well. It includes a script that looks for keywords, like "attachment," in the body of your email to see if you promised the recipient that you'd include an attachment. If it sees a keyword, it gives you a second chance before a message is sent to include the attachment. It's not perfect -- it doesn't catch other keywords like "include" that might indicate an attachment, but if you train yourself to say "attachment" when you want to include a file, it might save you some embarrassment down the road.

Gmail has some handy filtering capabilities, but they're not as powerful or as easy to get to as you might want. Better Gmail includes Filter Assistant, which allows you to access Gmail's filtering directly from a message (rather than going to the "create a filter" page), and it populates the From and To headers of the filter criteria automatically with the To and From headers of the message you're looking at, which makes it much easier to create filters.

If Gmail's interface isn't your cup of tea, you can enable the Super Clean script, which displays a theme that's arguably a bit easier on the eyes than the standard Gmail interface. This one isn't enabled by default, so you'll have to enable it via Better Gmail's preferences dialog. I actually prefer the default Gmail skin (though I'd prefer something in green) but if you want something a bit more ornate, the Super Clean look might be for you.

After you spend enough time looking at the Gmail interface, you might start to get tired of seeing the same elements over and over -- like the spam count, or the invite box, since everybody in the world can sign up for Gmail now. Better Gmail includes scripts that hide the spam count and invite box, if you'd like to unclutter Gmail a little bit.

Finally, if clicking a message takes too long for you, Better Gmail allows you to right-click a message and see the entire message in an overlay rather than browsing to the message. At the top of the display is a toolbar that allows you to archive the message, leave it unread, or trash it.

All in all, Better Gmail really does make Gmail better. If you're a Gmail power user, install Better Gmail with all due haste. You'll have more fun with email than you thought possible.

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