Inbox by Gmail vs. Mailbox

When Google launched Inbox by Gmail last week, they released a video for it. In it, “your friends at Gmail” claim they “love” e-mail. They show happy people using their phones and laptops, presumably e-mailing. But let’s face it, hardly anyone smiles when checking their inbox. I have some friends I e-mail with, but most of my personal inbox is filled with newsletters that I can’t really cancel because once in a blue moon they DO seem relevant (but often they’re not). And then there are the order and sign-up confirmations, social notifications and Google Alerts I’ve signed up for. And the personal messages I do get, I usually answer pretty quickly. They’re usually not the ones that get stuck in my inbox.

Inbox by Gmail isn’t the type of app for your personal e-mails, really. It’s mostly for all the other crap. The crap that you need to deal with but don’t really want to right now. Or can’t. It should help you to get things done.

It will try to highlight the important stuff, but initially it may not guess right what is important and what is not… And it will definitely not always categorize your e-mail right if your e-mails aren’t in English. Some bank e-mails got categorized as ‘Promos’. By teaching Inbox what e-mails belong in which category, it starts to work better for you.

Interestingly, it doesn’t really look like a To Do List: it tries to be something of a personal newspaper that folds up unimportant items and tries to help you to decide what to do next.


One of the main features of Inbox by Gmail is lifted directly from that other “Your Inbox is your To-Do-List app”: Mailbox. From the swiping-left gesture you make to snooze a message to the colour the message gets when you do so: it’s all very familiar for Mailbox users. I’ve been using Mailbox for quite some time and I was curious to see what Google would use the whole list management idea.


Here’s some of my findings:

  • Layout: Inbox by Gmail has a richer lay-out. This makes it slightly more complicated to use than Mailbox. Inbox will highlight images from the mail conversation, add avatars and logos where possible. While this lay-out is arguably nicer looking than Mailbox minimalistic message list, it’s also busier and not necessarily allows you to be more productive. In fact, even though the difference isn’t big, it feels like Inbox by Gmail has way more buttons to distract you from the messages you are working your way through.
  • Switching: I prefer Mailbox’ way of switching between your snoozed, archived and Inbox messages. Btw, snoozing messages in Inbox won’t snooze them in Mailbox, instead it will archive them. The other way round as well.
  • List Management: Mailbox’ list management is way easier too — you can only move a message in Inbox to your list if you open it completely. Compare this to Mailbox: a slow swipe will prompt lists to move this message to. Then again, I only use a couple of lists and not very frequently… So maybe I’m looking for a feature that I won’t use that much anyway?
  • Deleting a message: it’s easier in Mailbox. Inbox seems to assume that you want archive every message that you receive (whether that is in a Category or not is up to you). If you want certain notifications not to clutter your inbox when you search, deleting a message is a good way to achieve that.
  • Push notifications: By default, Inbox will not alert you about some messages. You can set per category if there should be a notification for it or not. This is smart functionality that Mailbox doesn’t offer in this way. Mailbox however does allow for Swipe Patterns that automatically archive certain e-mails. I’ve been a bit wary in using those (especially the auto-trash functionality).
  • New tasks: People who want to use Task Managers to get things done might appreciate both Inbox and Mailbox. In Mailbox, the only way to add new tasks not born from e-mails however, is by e-mailing yourself — which seems like a convoluted way to do so. Pressing the ‘+’-button in Inbox allows you to add a reminder that shows up in the list of things to do. This way, Inbox could even replace Wunderlist and related apps.
  • Pinning: Another nice feature of Inbox: you can pin messages and then hide all the other messages. Whenever you start to have a backlog, this means you can hide those messages (eliminating the need snooze messages for a short time) and just view the stuff you’ve previously marked as important.
  • Desktop: Inbox by Gmail takes the web approach for the desktop with a smart and swift website. This is build up as a list and it even feels more like a list than the mobile apps. The desktop app for Mailbox looks more like a standard Mailbox.
  • Inbox Zero: When you reach Inbox Zero, Mailbox displays a photo of the day. Google displays a weather animation, which seems less rewarding so far.
  • Un-Snooze: Inbox by Gmail allows you to un-snooze a message in a certain location. While Mailbox doesn’t have this feature, it does allow you to remind you when you’re working on your Desktop (or Mobile when you already are working with the desktop client).
  • Search: Inbox will search all your e-mail — including the ones that get handled by smart labels I’ve set up. Inbox automatically marks these label messages as ‘done’ (presumably because I’ve told them to skip the Inbox). This might not always be the case, however, because I’ve set up certain labels so that I can ignore these messages when I feel they’re not important. Mailbox ignores all these messages completely and doesn’t even search through your labeled messages.

I could delete all my smart filters, but that would mean giving Mailbox and Inbox by Gmail a whole lot more clutter to handle. The difference would be huge for Mailbox — especially if I keep push notifications for the app still turned on. Inbox by Gmail seems smarter in this instance, since it should filter most of these messages into categories that do not generate a notification by default.

What i prefer?

I’m not yet sure whether I prefer Mailbox or Inbox by Gmail. Right now — keeping in mind I’m still getting used to Inbox — I prefer the simpler lay-out of Mailbox but the notification system of Inbox. I also like the fact that you can add reminders for tasks that didn’t originate from email.

To use Inbox by Gmail, however, I’ll probably need to remove any of my smart filters and labels to be handled by Inbox in, ehm, your Inbox… In fact, Inbox already asks you whether you want this when you visit these labels. This will mean that a lot more messages will end up in my Inbox. And while these are neatly tidied up by Inbox, this won’t look too good in my regular Gmail, whenever I try to use that in the future. Or will I never go back to regular Gmail then? I haven’t yet decided whether to give up my labels…

And there’s something for simplicity… Mailbox app is simpler but it works completely the way you expect it to work. Which I guess is more limited than Inbox in both presentation as feature set for now, but hopefully the makers of Mailbox might respond soon and keep up with their new competition?

I wouldn’t say any of these apps is ready to replace regular to-do lists. It’s both a benefit and a problem for these apps that they live in your Inbox. Because while a lot of tasks are created by e-mail sent to you, people also communicate via other channels these days. Inbox by Gmail at least features Reminders to solve this problem, but a real task manager it is not yet. It’s trying to be an assistant, but while it certainly looks like Google Now, it’s not as contextual out of the box as you might think. It has a lot of potential but for now I’ll probably won’t say goodbye to my to-do apps yet.

Also, I doubt any of these apps will make you love e-mail more. If nothing else, it demonstrates that there are a lot of e-mails that shouldn’t really be e-mails. While the bundling of messages is a step forward for your productivity (and one that Mailbox could take as well), it in facts highlight the fact that our e-mail system is fundamentally flawed. Nothing these apps can do will actually solve that. But perhaps they can eventually make us spend less time in our e-mail accounts looking for something we might have missed, and make us spend more time having fun. Just like the people in the promo video, basically. But probably less pretty. And with more rain. But hey, you can’t fix the weather now, can you?