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Review: Google Inbox too complicated to be useful

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App tries to reinvent email, but it’s not clear that the reinvention is necessary.

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GOOGLE INBOX
THE GOOD: Handy features, like the ability to create reminders right in the app.
THE BAD: Busy layout, too many new features at once.
RATING: A A A A

I’ve been using Google Inbox, the new email app for iOS, Android and the Chrome web browser, for the past few days… and that’s about as long as I think I’ll be using it.

That’s not for a lack of handy, time-saving features, but rather because it’s too different. And that difference gets in the way of it being truly useful.

Google is touting Inbox as the future of email, an app designed without several decades of baggage weighing it down. To that end, it introduces several useful innovations:

  • Bundles: Google Inbox messages are grouped into similar topics, such as promos, purchases and travel. It’s a feature that has existed for a while in Gmail on Android phones in a more limited form.
  • Highlights: messages show their most pertinent information, like dates and times or attachments, in the actual stream without having to open the email itself.
  • Reminders: rather than switching apps to create a reminder to do something, you can do so right at the top of Google Inbox. You can also “pin” important messages there for viewing later.
  • Snooze: if an email comes in and you don’t have time to read it right away, but you don’t want to lose it in the pile, you can basically have it resend itself at a later time.

The individual features are handy in their own circumstances and collectively they probably do represent the future of email. The problem is that all of them together, right now, is too much to handle.

Compared to a regular email app, which generally consists of straight, horizontal lines of text, Google Inbox is a veritable dog’s breakfast. Circular icons, attachment images and lots of white space combine to create an overly busy layout. I initially thought it looked like Facebook – that busyness might work for a social network and its rich media, but not so much for email, where bare-bones information is more important than bells and whistles:

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Google Inbox’s features are also a lot to chew on. I might have been tempted to use them one at a time, and then slowly turn on additional features, but as it is they’re thrown at you all at once. It’s hard to know where to start.

It reminds me of an analogy for robots I once heard from an executive of Roomba maker iRobot. Cars or planes, he said, don’t become entirely autonomous overnight. They become robotic one step at a time, with users absorbing each new automation before another one is introduced. You’d think that Google, a pioneer in robot cars, would know that.

The other problem with Google Inbox is that it’s an all or nothing proposition. If you try it out on your phone, it’s going to affect your email wherever you use it.

One feature, for example, allows you to check an email as “done,” at which point it’s whisked away for safe-keeping and stored out of sight somewhere. But if you look at your old-fashioned Gmail inbox on a device where you don’t actually have the Inbox app running, that message is gone. You have to run a search to find it in your archives. In that way, Inbox nudges you to use it either everywhere or nowhere.

It’s possible and maybe even likely that Google will indeed blend all these features into Gmail itself, and email as a whole will slowly but surely become easier to manage. But as it stands, I’m not convinced of the need to wholly redesign the concept.

Email works well as it is, the only real problem is there’s too much of it. Messing with a long-established system that many people are accustomed to, as Google Inbox does, isn’t the answer to that dilemma.

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2 Comments on Review: Google Inbox too complicated to be useful

  1. I stopped using it seconds after installing it.

    Never mind not supporting Exchange, Outlook or Yahoo mail accounts, it doesn’t even support Google Apps email accounts! Something which the old gmail app does.

    Since I have no choice but to daily use all 5 types of email accounts, a client that can support all 5 in a unified mailbox is a must.

  2. I kind of like it. I certainly don’t have the same requirements as Ed so that may be why it’s not so offensive to me. I found, for me, it helps to keep an open mind when trying out a radically different interface for something I’m already using. Inbox is iconoclastic so you need to work with it without making assumptions. This can be challenging for something that we’re so used to using a certain way, like GMail.

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