Much like its browser cousin, Chrome, Google’s Gmail e-mail service has changed its product category. Gmail joined the webmail fray in 2004 and kept its public beta designation for an incredible five years. The service’s innovative conversation view, minimization of spam, and fluid interaction with other Web sites has gained it many devotees as the cool e-mail to use. But it suffers from an unlovely text- and link-heavy interface, and it lacks many social and other tools available in the recently updated Windows Live Hotmail (Free, 4.5 stars) and Yahoo Mail (Free, 4.0 stars) Web apps. Perhaps this is why Gmail is still far behind those two in U.S. and worldwide usage, according to numbers from Compete and Hitwise.
After the single-page signup, a Congratulations page shows the service’s features, and then you can take a first look at your new inbox. If you keep the default "Stay signed in" checkbox checked, once you sign up and log in, every time you go to gmail.com, your inbox will load quickly, with a progress bar showing as it loads. One option that’s also checked by default may be a privacy concern to some—"Enable Web History." This keeps a record on Google servers of any Web browsing you’ve done for 180 days.
Gmail’s interface has all the charm of a spreadsheet—lots of text, lines, and links. There are no tabs like you find in Yahoo Mail to help organize replies, searches, and more, and no preview panel, such as you find in the new Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, and AIM Mail. Clicking on an e-mail entry in Gmail means your inbox view disappears, and some of us like to have that list in view while skimming through e-mails. Just finding the Forward button in Gmail can be a scavenger hunt, and the thin ribbon indicating there’s another message in the conversation pales next to Hotmail’s clear implementation of conversation view.
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