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Revamped Gmail Looks Nice, But Performs Badly

Gmail's new look

Google is getting ready to roll out a major redesign of Gmail. The new Gmail features the high-contrast, black-and-white design already seen in Google Docs, Google Reader and Google Calendar. Looks aren’t the only thing changing in Gmail; there’s also a much-improved search interface, better customization features and some new hi-res images for Gmail themes.

Unfortunately, The new Gmail is still rough enough around the edges and, worse, slow enough, that Google might want to consider adding the beta tag back to the Gmail logo.

Google showed off the revamped Gmail interface earlier this year, but the company is now giving users the ability to test it for themselves. If you’d like to try it out, just sign in to Gmail and look for a small “Switch to the new look” button in the lower right corner of your screen.

For now the new look is purely optional and you can switch right back if you don’t like it, but eventually Google does plan to roll out the new version to all Gmail users.

Google’s new look, which is slowly rolling out across all its products is somewhat hit or miss. The black-and-white color scheme and heavy use of white space sometimes feels overdone (witness the reaction to the new Google Reader design), but in Gmail it actually works quite well, eliminating some of the clutter and allowing you to focus more on your actual mail.

One of Gmail's new hires backgrounds

Adjust Gmail to fit your screen

Part of the clutter reduction lies in some new customization features. Gmail now allows you to choose how much white space you want to see. Options range from the default, “Comfortable”, which is quite heavy on the white space, to “Cozy” (roughly the same as the old look) to “Compact,” which squeezes even more messages into list view. The white spacing will also automatically shift if you adjust your screen size with smaller screens getting increasingly compact views.

Another improvement in the new Gmail is a much better search interface. Gmail’s powerful search features have always been a big part of its appeal, but using some of the more powerful elements required memorizing arcane terms and operators. The new Gmail surfaces most of these elements in a handy new search form.

The quick search bar remains the same (and all the old operators still appear to work if you happen to have memorized them all), but a new arrow to the right side of the search box will expand a new search form that offers to search by From, To, Subject, attachment, Date and more. It’s the same search tools as before, but with a much better interface designed to help novice users discover the power of searching.

Conversations in Gmail — the features that originally set Gmail apart from the competition — have received a slight makeover. You’ll now see profiles pictures for your contacts (assuming one is available) and the collapsed view offers a bit more detail than it did before. Of course that also means that conversations take up more vertical space, which can be annoying on smaller screens. Sadly, the various white space settings mentioned above have no effect on the spacing in conversation view.

While the new Gmail looks quite nice — cleaner and often easier to use than its predecessor — the bad news is that the new version can be painfully slow. I tested Gmail using both Opera and Chrome over a fast cable internet connection and routinely encountered long delays when moving from list view to conversation view, or when searching for mail. Even something as simple as loading a few icons sometimes took as long as 20 seconds. The new look isn’t yet an official release, so perhaps the slow speeds are simply kinks in the transition process that Google is working out. If not, expect a mini revolt when Google flips the switch for all users.

Opera users should also be aware that the new Gmail has all kinds of rendering bugs in Opera 11.52 (there were also some obvious bugs in Firefox and even Chrome).

If you’d like to see what the fuss is about, but don’t want to commit to the new interface just yet, check out the video below. (Also note that if you do turn on the new look, at the moment you can still revert to old by click the new gear menu and selecting “revert to the old look”.)

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