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Gmail, by Google
Gmail, by Google

Why the Gmail refresh is a pass, but Reader 'needs improvement' Add to ...

In many ways, e-mail is broken. Most people I know spend an unhealthy amount of time drowning in messages, hoping to one day get to the Holy Grail of inbox zero. The one company that makes e-mail somewhat manageable is Google. Ever since the search-engine giant made the service available to the general public in 2007, users finally had better search control, easier archiving and more storage capacity – all for free.

When I first heard about a Gmail makeover, I was skeptical. Lately I’ve been suffering from redesign fatigue. Whether it's diving into a new Facebook look or trying to navigate through a new iTunes interface, sometimes I just want things to stay, well, mostly the same. The Twitter chatter on this rebrand had some users lapping up the new Gmail and others opting to go back to the old look for as long as Google will allow it (this is a “temporary” option).

My fear subsided when I switched over to the latest update, an easy task thanks to a neat little link at the bottom of my screen. The best way to describe the design is that it's somewhat cleaner, softer, with more breathing space. If you're e-mailing back and forth with someone, the messages are also more digestible. The spacing on the nested messages works better and there is also a nifty list of people in the conversation just to the right of the message.

There are also resizing options for your account, including Comfortable, Cozy, and Compact (the first being a good choice if you're viewing your Gmail on a large screen and Compact is an economical presentation on smaller screens). It is also possible to adjust specific areas of Gmail, such as chat since you might use that section most often.

There are also new themes, including high definition (HD) backgrounds that include better looking beaches, tree tops and pebbles. This particular update is not all that dramatic, but the images do look pretty.

More controversially, at the same time Google overhauled Gmail, the company also updated Reader. The reactions to the tweaks for the Web-based aggregator are not nearly as flattering. The most common complaint is over the push toward sharing from Reader to Google's new social network. Instead of distributing your favourite news feeds with anyone, Google wants you to share with your circles on Google+ and not to other services. As technology writer Eric Zeman says, “the social-networking-style feature was a critical reason I use Reader, and now it is gone.” An ex-Google designer has even offered to rejoin Google for three months to overhaul Reader to fix this problem, among others.

While Reader fans revolt, Gmail users like me are adapting well. The new Gmail is like a bang trim instead of a full haircut. In other words, a neat update that makes your look fresher without any abrupt changes. Now if only Google would design a way to answer our e-mails for us....

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