Why I think Inbox by Gmail is still the best mail service at the moment

Many of my friends know I’m a big fan of Inbox by Gmail for years — I was in the first batch of invited users for its closed testing in 2014 and I, as a product person, also see Inbox as one of the best-designed products ever.

However, unsurprisingly Google is going to shut down Inbox in March this year due to the high similarity to Gmail service. In prepare for this change, I’ve tested the 2 most-recommended alternative mail clients for the past 3 weeks and now I’d love to share the testing result and what I learned.


What is Inbox

For those who are not aware of this service, Inbox is an email service developed by Google and was officially released to the public in 2015. Interestingly, though Inbox was also built by Gmail team but from the very beginning, Inbox is not seen as a replacement for Gmail because the interface and experience of Inbox are totally different. I’d say:

“Inbox is a whole new way that Google introduces of helping you handle emails more efficiently”

Here is the official introduction video of Inbox:


What are the killing features of Inbox?

Inbox might look like ‘another mail service from Google’ but it actually has more:

  1. Smart search
  2. Get-things-done concept integration (pin/ snooze/ archive/ reminders)
  3. Smart bundles
  4. Smart email assistant

Smart search

It auto pull out all my orders history from Kobo and I don’t even need to view the mails

It’s not a new thing to search for an email in Gmail or other mail services, but in Inbox you can search for information directly. The search feature in Inbox enables you to use natural language to pull out the most relevant answers from tons of mails you have without you opening that mail itself.

GTD in email service

The call-to-action buttons in Inbox are like the ones you can see in the task management system — snooze, archive (done), pin and delete.

Mostly you only need to take 5–10 seconds to process these emails and decide which category they should go to — is it important? is it urgent? or is it done already? The process makes ‘zero inbox’ more possible.

Smart bundles

It’s a bit similar to Gmail’s ‘Inbox Sections (tabs)’ but it sorts emails in a more organized way. By default it has ‘travel’, ‘purchase’, ‘Social’ etc categories and automatically organizes your emails in these more useful folders. For example, if you want to quickly view your recent flights booking, you can find it in the travel category without presetting any label or folders manually.

Smart email assistant

It is my favorite feature in the Inbox service and also the biggest reason why I can’t get rid of it at the moment — with this smart email assistant (Google Now), every mail can be sorted efficiently and correctly without any manual work from you.

Left — trip bundles for you to quickly view all the information related to that trip; Right — Mobile view of trip bundles. You can see it automatically groups flights, hotel booking together if it detects it’s in one trip

Let’s say you get the mail about flight booking.

Inbox helps you to put this mail into ‘travel’ category and find all the relevant hotel bookings, visa application or even flight check-in notifications from this trip and bundle them together for your reference. This design is extremely helpful when you want to quickly find some information on your phone.


Inbox v.s Gmail v.s Spark experience (iOS)

For the past 2 weeks, I tested Gmail and Spark apps — which are listed as the best alternatives of Inbox, on my iOS device. This is not really a comprehensive comparison write-up but more from my personal preference and the experiences I care about.

Mail organization:

Spark has the smart inbox as well and it automatically sorts the mails into ‘Unseen’, ‘Pinned’, ‘Newsletter’ and ‘normal inbox’. However, you can’t customize the categories for Finance, Travel related emails but can only follow the ‘smart rule’ they provide. For example, my flight booking confirmation got put into ‘newsletters’ category in the Spark app…

Of course you can set up your own rules to highlight the mails with specific keywords but Gmail also has the same feature. Gmail gives you a bit more flexibility — depends on how you set the inbox sections in Gmail web client, you can set up different folders such as examples below:

Settings can be adjusted in Gmail web client
  • ‘important (starred)’, ‘unread’ and ‘everything’
  • ‘social’, ‘primary’, ‘promotions’ and ‘forum’
  • ‘unread’, ‘starred’, ‘everything else’

Inbox is the king in this area with the smart detection of mail contents to help classify these mails into correct bundles.

Mobile usability experience:

  • Swipe gesture

Swiping to choose which action users would like to take is extremely important in mobile experience — imagine that most of the users use one hand when browsing the mails during commute — the app itself needs to ensure users can still use key features on mobile devices.

Gmail doesn't allow users to customize the swipe gestures on iOS devices (why?) and now swiping to left and right both lead to ‘archive’ action.

Gmail on iOS only has ‘archive’ for left and right swipe

Unlike Gmail, Spark has 4 different actions tied to ‘swipe’— ‘left short’, ‘left long’, ‘right short’ and ‘right long’; nonetheless, this turns out that I need to pay extra attention when I use swipe gestures since it’s hard for me to tell the difference of ‘long’ and ‘short’ swipes when quickly browsing my mails.

Spark supports 4 different swipes in their iOS app
Spark allows users to set up swipes with different apps integration

Inbox only has ‘archive’ and ‘snooze’ for swipe gestures so either you read the mail and trash it immediately or you save it later for further follow-up actions. You don’t really need to ‘pin’ mails that often as a commonly-used gesture for every mail.

inbox experience of swipe to left/right
  • Bulk edits

All services (Gmail, Inbox and Spark) can do bulk edits on mails in their apps but the experiences are slightly different. Spark app is a bit lagging when selecting multiple items compared to Gmail and Inbox.

Inbox allows users to archive a category directly from the main inbox view without opening the bundle

In addition to that, Inbox is the only app can do bulk swipe — you can swipe and archive the whole bundle (category).

  • Smart reply

Gmail and Inbox both have smart reply feature that will provide you some suggestions based on the mail content. I don’t see the same feature in the Spark app to get the suggested replies based on the content but Spark has their own feature called ‘quick replies’ — it looks like a template (canned replies) library for you to choose from when replying mails.

Apparently Inbox and Gmail share the same smart module for suggested reply yet Spark only has preset template library for replies

However, I can see the quick replies feature in some of the mails but not all mails — I don’t really know what exactly triggers it in the Spark.

User Interface of Apps:

Gmail and Inbox appearances are pretty similar but Inbox has ‘pin’ icon at the upper-right corner for users to quickly switch to important items.

Personally I think Spark interface is a bit ‘unclean’ due to the different smart sections on main inbox page, but also need to call out that Spark is the only app that has calendar shortcut.

Reminders:

Gmail doesn’t have in-app reminders so users can only snooze emails but not able to set up any specific message for the snooze.

You can only set the reminder when replying mails in the Spark App

Spark has follow-up only reminders. Because of this, the entry point to set up reminders in the Spark app is on the page when you reply to an email message — which I feel a bit weird.

Inbox provides suggested actions when you set up reminders

Inbox reminder is more flexible and not limited to ‘follow-up’ scenario. You can pin any email and set up customized message for yourself.


Gmail v.s Inbox experience (Web)

(Note: Spark doesn’t have native web product)

User Interface

Left: Inbox ; Right: Gmail

In terms of User Interface of these two websites, the layouts look pretty similar but you can tell the visual difference between ‘labels’ and ‘bundle’ concepts in Gmail and Inbox.

On top of that, Gmail allows you to collapse certain sections but you can’t take the same action in Inbox, yet it’s easier to see the time order in Inbox due to its design.

Search

Gmail can return all the relevant mails with keywords but Inbox gives you the key information directly from the mails

As you can see from the screenshots, I wanted to check what my frequent flyer membership numbers are in both Gmail and Inbox; in Gmail, it returned me all the emails with relevant keywords but in Inbox, it gave me the membership numbers directly.

This applies to hotels booking, flights, addresses, membership numbers, online shopping packages, restaurant reservations and many more.

Bundles/ Smart folders

In Gmail, you might have ‘primary’, ‘social’, ‘promotions’, ‘updates’, ‘forum’ tabs which are similar to Inbox’s ‘Bundles’. However, at the same time you turn this tab feature on, you also give Google the chance to show the ads in your inbox.

That might be the WORST thing I can imagine in a mail client!

Really? Showing ads in my inbox when I already have tons of junk mails to deal with?

Closing thoughts

Gmail still lacks Inbox’s reminders integration, smart bundling and the integration of Google Now (Smart Assistant service of Google) at the moment, and I believe these three killing features are the key points for Inbox users. But Gmail is the closest one to Inbox.

Of course, there are more features that I don’t have enough time to walk through in the Inbox and also, perhaps there are many hacks I don’t know about Gmail and Spark — please feel free to comment below to let me know.

The main reason I love Inbox is because it focuses on the basic but core vision of the mail service: ‘manage mails efficiently’. Inbox might not have as many features as Gmail does, but it does an amazing job in what it promised to do —

“Inbox helps you get back to what matters in your inbox”