Another GLook at the GMail App

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

My spouse uses Yahoo mail. (Shudder! I know.) Recently she complained that there’s no way to open an attachment when viewing her Yahoo mail in Google Chrome on her Windows 7 laptop. She’s right - Chrome forces you to download an attachment to a temporary location before you can open or print it.

I mention this because there are so many mail client options available to us, but few are satisfactory. I use the native iOS Mail app on my iPad and iPhone, the native OS X Mail app on my MacBook, Outlook 2010 on my Windows 7 laptop, and even the command line mail program on some Linux systems. In the past, I’ve tried Gmail in various web browsers, Thunderbird, Windows Live Mail, various GUI mail clients on Unix, even the xemacs mail interface. I always manage to get my emailing done, but I’m never completely satisfied with any client I’ve tried. Not even the original Gmail iOS app.

Google Knows All, Google Sees All

I received an interesting targeted spam email recently. It was sent from Google, telling me they noticed I was emailing from iOS but not using their Gmail app. Apparently, outgoing email from my iPad must contain header metadata identifying the email client, and as my emails pass through Google’s outgoing mail server, Google sniffed the metadata and sent me the spam, which invited me to try their newly updated app. I read a couple articles about the new features, then did something I almost never do - I took the advice of a spam email message. I downloaded the app to my aging 2012 iPad 4 and gave it a try.

Some Cool New Features

The new Gmail iOS app has the ability to undo a send. If you send an email and have second thoughts, do a 4-finger single tap towards the bottom of the screen, and this takes you to an Undo button. There is a hard time limit of five seconds, so if the button isn’t there, you waited too long. Think faster next time. I could’ve really used a feature like this back when I was an impulsive, big-mouthed 20-year-old.

The app provides a similar mechanism to undo a move (label) or a delete.

Gmail also now has swipe actions. In the list of messages, and with VoiceOver off, swipe right or left on a message to archive it. You can change this to Delete in Gmail’s Settings, but you can’t have separate actions for swipe right and swipe left. With VoiceOver on, the swipe task (archive or delete) is available on the rotor Actions menu.

A Better Way To Thread

I have been displeased with how the native iOS Mail app handles threaded conversations since the iOS 10 change. No settings for mail display seem to satisfy me. The Gmail app provides a much better solution. In the list of messages, select a threaded conversation. This expands to all messages in the thread. By default, messages you’ve already read are collapsed and display as headers only, while unread messages are expanded. After you read a message, you can collapse it by double tapping on the message header. This makes it much easier to go from one message to the next in the thread, because you can swipe right or left through collapsed message headers quickly.

Would A Folder By Any Other Name Be Called A Label?

If you’re like me, you have created custom folders/labels to help you organize your messages. One nice feature of the native iOS Mail app is that it learns that messages from a particular sender often get moved into the same folder, so that when you select the move icon, that folder appears at the top of the move menu. The Gmail app lacks this feature (perhaps because they expect you to auto-label using a rule - a solution that is a little too restrictive for my needs), and even with my small handful of nine folders, I found myself really missing this functionality. People who use more folders will find this task even more tedious.

I was also pleased to see that the iOS Gmail app has an interface to let you create new labels and set up rules for them. I use this feature extensively to manage email list subscriptions. It’s buried in Settings, but fortunately the app has a Help feature with good documentation. Having label management built into the app means I don’t have to use Safari to make the change in mail.google.com. This feature may have been there all along, I don’t know. I was just glad to see it.

Below the account button is an icon for the Inbox followed by a column of empty space. If you’re in the All Mail folder or any other folder or label, you can return to Inbox quickly by selecting that button. However, I’ve found no way to customize that area to include button for other folders or labels. I wish this were more like the Mac OS X Mail app Favorites Bar, which you can customize with your favorite folders.

Accessibility

As a low vision user, there are some VoiceOver focus issues. There is an account icon, but if you try to touch it, you just get the thunk noise. However, you can access it with a 4-finger single tap at the top of the screen followed by a swipe right. This takes you to the account button. However, the button doesn’t seem to do anything. Go figure.

There’s also a focus issue when you reply to a message. VoiceOver focus should jump to the message body with the insertion point at the start of the edit area. Instead, initially focus is on the close button. Swipe right a few times to get to the message body and double tap. At this point, your insertion point really is at the start, but VoiceOver doesn’t tell you, which invites a couple double-taps until you finally hear “Insertion point at start”.

There are no keyboard shortcuts. Command+N, Command+R, and Command+Shift+D all have no effect. Google Support has put together this web page to tell you, in one line, that there are no keyboard shortcuts.

If VoiceOver is turned off, you can view a message, then quickly move between messages, with a swipe right or swipe left gesture. I have not found a way to do this with VoiceOver enabled. I would’ve thought 3-finger swipe left/right would do the trick, but no dice.

Finally, getting into the Gmail app Settings is a bit of a challenge, Open the Navigation Menu in the upper left corner. A sighted person will see a list of folders and labels and might not see Settings towards the bottom of the list. It’s even worse for VoiceOver users, because a 4-finger tap at the bottom of the screen doesn’t take you to the end of the Navigation Menu like it should. I found a second 4-finger tap does the trick, or you can 3-finger swipe up to scroll to the bottom. Once you’re there, a couple swipe lefts will eventually take you to Settings.

Attachment Handling

As a test, I sent myself an email with a Pages document attached, and discovered that Gmail opened the document without issue. Maybe this will finally convince my spouse to switch to Gmail and get an iPad. You can save the attachment using the standard sharing icon.

If you open a link in a message, the Gmail app opens a menu with two choices, Google Chrome or Safari. If you don’t have Chrome installed, the menu presents an option to get it from the App Store. You can turn this off in Gmail Settings, under Google Apps. After unselecting the “Ask me every time” checkbox, Gmail uses the browser you select as the preferred browser. I noticed Settings had similar controls for opening a map app, so I unchecked this as well, but honestly I don’t open maps very often.

Notifications

The Gmail app supports the expected notification styles. I prefer badge icons with no sounds, and I configured this in Settings > Notifications > Gmail as expected.

Before publishing this blog, I sent it to AppleVis blogger and Gmail app user Amir for review. He mentioned that push notifications for Gmail accounts in the native iOS Mail app have had issues. Really? I thought I turned push notifications off a long time ago, but perhaps it was just broke. I did some research and found this article stating that push notifications work again under iOS 11. Indeed, after I upgraded to iOS 11, I noticed new message sounds and badge icons on my native Mail app, and I spaced researching this until Amir’s email jolted my failing memory. (Thanks @Amir!) This seems to be working for me again. Let me know in the comments if this has been an issue for you, and how well it’s working under iOS 11.

Summary and Suggestions for Google

The updated Gmail app has some nice features, but also has room for improvement.

  • Add keyboard shortcuts, and please use the same de facto standard shortcuts as the native iOS Mail app.
  • Take action on the accessibility issues noted in this article. The AppleVis community would welcome any improvements in this area.
  • Allow separate actions for swipe left and swipe right. Make both available on the VoiceOver Actions menu.
  • Use the native iOS Mail app as a model to make it easier to move messages to a folder.
  • Consider adding functionality similar to the OS X Mail client Favorites Bar.

I love the way the app handles threaded conversations and really dislike how the native iOS app handles it. On the other hand, I’m a big keyboard user, and if I can’t perform basic tasks like New Message, Reply, and Send with a keyboard shortcut, this might turn out to be a deal killer. I’m still on the fence. But for now, the Gmail app is in my dock and the native iOS Mail app has been relegated to page 4 of 4.

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4 Comments

#1 Informative post, thanks.

Hi,
Thanks for the informative post.
My one main complaint about Apples default IOS Mail App is that I can no longer bulk delete emails. How does the Gmail App handle bulk deleting?

TIA

@SeaNoEvil00

#2 The built-in iOS email app has some serious competition

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Hi Paul,

First off, thanks for the credit -- I'm honored with that!
I switched to the Gmail app some 20 months ago and am very happy with my choice. Unfortunately I'm still having issues with iOS 11 and Gmail notifications with the built-in email app, but the Gmail app works flawlessly in this regard. Like you, the Gmail app is also in my Dock, position 4. Hope to see keyboard shortcuts implemented for the Gmail app soon.

#3 cool, but...

The day applevis discovered gmail... hehehe.Just a couple of comments:-accessing settings is easy. simply tab navigation menu and flick to the last item, or, if you preffer to explore the screen, remember it is not visible, so you need to scroll down before doing it.Another important bug for voiceover users happens when writting a new message using braille screen input: voiceover is unable to read anything when deleting characters or moving the cursor around.

#4 Batch operations

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

I couldn't find a way to make batch operations work (delete, mark as read, move, etc). This is missing for sighted users as well, as near as I can tell. My apologies for failing to mention this missing functionality in the article. I'd love to see that in an iOS mail client. Thanks @SeaNoEvil00.