Power Up Your Gmail!

Category: Email

Don't be afraid of that little gear on your Gmail screen... you can use it to organize your inbox, reduce the time you spend reading junk mail, and customize Gmail to work in ways that make your life easier. Read on to look at some of the fun and useful settings you can customize. I'm sure you'll learn something to make your Gmail experience even better!

Customizing Gmail: A Quick Tour of the Settings

I started using Gmail back in 2004, and over the years, I've shared lots of tips and updates on the evolution of Google's Gmail. This article peeks inside that little gear-shaped icon in the upper-right corner of your Gmail interface. Are you ready to teach your email some new tricks? Let's get started by clicking the gear icon, and then clicking on Settings. Then we'll explore the most useful settings on each tab.

General Tab

Maximum Page Size: Sets the maximum number of contacts or conversations (message threads) that will be displayed; handy for smaller screens or slow connections. Defaults are 50 conversations or 250 contacts. I have a large monirtor and like to minimize clicks, so I max out my inbox to show 100 messages at a glance.
Customizing Gmail Settings

Browser Connection: Make sure it’s set to “always use https” so that your Internet connection to Gmail is encrypted and secure from all but the most sophisticated eavesdroppers. In May 2014, Google made ALL Gmail sessions encrypted. See The Big Problem With Wifi Hotspots to learn why this is important.

Default reply behavior: Set this to “reply” and not “reply all.” Then your boss won’t get your snide remark that was intended for only one person on his mailing list.

Stars: Colorful, eye-catching labels for messages. The default assortment is one yellow star, but you can add more star types and colors; just keep clicking on the star in a message header to rotate through your available options. Some of the "stars" are actually squares, but they all work the same. I like to use the purple "?" and the red "!" to flag items as questions to be answered, or of high importance. Stars can also be search criteria, e. g., "has:yellow-star" or "has:red-bang".

Desktop notifications: When enabled, this option puts popup alerts on your PC’s desktop whenever a new email or chat message arrives, so you don’t have to keep checking your browser. Note: this option is for Chrome browser users only, and you must be signed into Gmail in Chrome.

Signature: Create a signature that will appear at the bottom of emails you create, and can also be inserted into replies, to indicate quoted text that was written by you.

Snippets: The first few words of a message, similar to the snippets displayed in Google Search or Google News. Turn snippets off to see just the subject lines of messages.

Vacation responder: Write a message that will be sent in response to all incoming messages, telling people you’re not available and (optionally) when you will return or who to contact in your absence. If one person sends multiple messages while you’re gone, the vacation response will be sent no more often than once in 4 days. The downside is that you're alerting the world that you're not home, and your house is guarded only by goldfish. With the ability to check email on mobile devices, I feel that the vacation responder is less useful now than in the past.

Inbox Tab

Inbox type: Select “priority inbox” and unread messages and messages marked “important” will be displayed first, followed by starred (read) messages and then everything else.

Select “default” inbox type and you’ll see Google’s latest innovation: up to five Categories of mail (Primary/general; Social media such as Facebook notifications; Promotions from Groupon and other marketers; Updates including e-bills, bank statements, etc.; and messages from Forums to which you may belong. Categories appear as tabs on your inbox page. Turn off all Categories to display everything in your inbox the traditional way.

The trouble I see with Categories is that an “unread messages count” is displayed only on the Primary tab. You get no prompts about unread Social, Promotions, etc., messages, so you must remember to check those tabs occasionally or you may miss some things.

Accounts Tab

Send Mail As: edit this option to send new messages and replies from any of several email accounts you may own. This gives you the ability to change the "From:" line in your outgoing messages.

Check mail from other accounts (using POP3): Gmail can pull email from up to 5 other email accounts you own, even if they’re not Gmail accounts, and display all your mail in Gmail.

Grant access to account: Specify trusted Gmail users who can read and send email on your behalf. Good for delegating email management at work or while you are out of touch. Also good for accidentally granting access to your ex-girlfriend. Be careful with this one.

Filters Tab

Gmail filters are powerful tools for sorting and tagging, filing, deleting, forwarding, and otherwise managing incoming email automatically. For some bizarre reason, the “create new filter” link is at the bottom of this tab page instead of at the top where it belongs. Read about the rich tools available in filters here.

Forwarding Tab

Add an address to which incoming Gmail messages will be forwarded automatically. Specify whether the original message should remain in your Gmail inbox, be deleted, or be archived after a copy is forwarded. (Alternatively, create filters that forward messages that match specified criteria).

Labs Tab

This tab is a playground and showcase for Gmail features that are still in development. I wrote a whole article about some of the fun things you can try in Labs. (http://askbobrankin.com/gmail_on_steroids.html)

The gear icon on your Gmail page is easy to ignore; most of the time, for most people, Gmail just works. But you should familiarize yourself with these and other settings options. If you use Yahoo Mail or Outlook.com (the replacement for Hotmail), you can probably find some similar settings and customization options there. Explore and experiment!

Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "Power Up Your Gmail!"

Posted by:

25 Jul 2013

One of the best features of Gmail is the aliasing feature it provides for creating disposable email addresses to be used for registering for other sites.
Let us say you want to purchase some fish from a website called fish2fry.com but they require you to register with a email address.
Let us also say that your gmail account name is 2fishysmellingcat@gmail.com
Now by adding a plus "+" sign just before the at (@) sign, you can create a unique email address, like this >> 2fishysmellingcat+fish2fry@gmail.com.
and later you can filter all future emails that fish2fry.com sends you (or those other sites that fishfry decides to share your email address with).

Posted by:

Dave S
25 Jul 2013

I cannot figure out WHY Google has yet to allow us to sort the columns of the inbox by sender. Or have I somehow just missed how to do this?

Is there some reason on the way the gmail is designed that it can't do it or have the developers just not considered it an important feature?

EDITOR'S NOTE: The reason is that Gmail (like Google) is built on SEARCH technology. "Search, don't sort" use to be the Gmail mantra.

Posted by:

Sandy Papavasiliou
25 Jul 2013

I became a bit lost in the comment from pseudoid concerning the "+" sign. Can you explain it again please? It sounded interesting.

Posted by:

26 Jul 2013

Hi Bob,
Nowadays, Android phones and tablets, strangely enough, are mainly designed to be used with Google Accounts therefore "Vacation responder" is not really useful anymore, or was it ever?
I've NEVER used it for one reason, if I (or anybody) receive(s) a Spam email. The responder would only confirm that the email address works and therefore you obtain more SPAM.
I just send an email to friends saying that I'm away from Date X to Date Y

As for the comment from "pseudoid" about adding the " + " sign, this is quite correct, but (yes there's always a but, sometimes I have found that a site will not allow you to add the plus sign when signing up to a news letter.

Posted by:

06 Aug 2013

Dear Bob---Your article on POWER UP YOUR G MAIL was very interesting and informative.When the different features are used only then we will see why this article is so useful. Keep up the good work.

Posted by:

01 Sep 2013

Attachments to a Gmail email have to be added individually within Internet Explorer 9. IE9 is singled out specifically for this restriction. It used to work with earlier versions and works in IE10.
Whilst other browsers apparently offer better features these days and lots of people would like to see the end of Internet Explorer, IE was full of innovations 9-10 years ago; not least support of Web Fonts which could be created via the WEFT program; also programmable background colour transitions, text transformations and PowerPoint-type page transitions, plus being able to "get under the hood" when composing Outlook Express emails.
This latter feature certainly isn't possible with Gmail; in order to produce a formatted G-mail one has to prepare the HTML elsewhere, publish it in a browser (even IE!), then use Ctrl+A and drag the message onto the Gmail compose-message interface.

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