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August 3, 2010, 11:00 AM ET

All Things Google: Using Gmail and Google Calendar Offline

Offline Mail Icon The Internet is a wonderful thing. It brings us cats, comics, and rainbows. But it also brings us tools, services, and applications that are accessible from anywhere and on any computer. When you're using a web-based email service, it suddenly doesn't matter that you're traveling for ten days and away from your own computer. You can just go to the website using any computer that is connected to the web, and you'll be able to get to your inbox. You don't have to worry about configuring the device or installing software--although you could certainly use portable applications to run the browser of your choice. In this realm of web-based services that are not dependent on your desktop but instead upon the cloud, Google is perhaps king. As we've discussed previously, Google provides tools that allow you to read your preferred RSS feeds, manage your to-do list, do calculations, and get all of your email (even the non-Gmail email!) while remaining conveniently device agnostic.

Being able to get to your email on any computer is incredibly convenient. But what happens when you are on a computer that doesn't have Internet access? Especially when traveling, it can be hard to get on a network. Those who use desktop-based applications like Outlook or Thunderbird might begin to feel smug when those of us who have trusted all of our email and appointments to the cloud suddenly find ourselves without access to it. Fortunately, Google has thought ahead about this problem, and with less than five minutes' work you'll be able to access your Gmail and Calendar whether you are online or not.


To make your Gmail available offline, start by clicking on "Settings" in thse upper right corner of your screen.

Gmail settings

From there, click on the "Offline" tab.

Offline tab in Gmail settings

You will then see a number of options. The most important one, of course, is to choose "Enable Offline Mail for this computer."

Offline settings in Gmail

There are other options for how far back you want your mail archive to go as well as the ability to download all of the messages that have particular labels. (See what George and Amy have had to say about Gmail labels in the past.) You can see that I make sure to grab, among other things, all of the messages that are starred, as well as those that are related to the special issue of a journal on steampunk that I'm co-editing. While you can set your "recent message range" to whatever you would like, Gmail will make suggestions for how long it should be for optimal performance. Once you've arranged things as you like, you simply click "Save." You'll be sent back to your inbox, but be prompted to install Google Gears.

Installing Google Gears

Google Gears is a small browser plugin or standalone executable file, depending on your operating system, that, according to its website, "add[s] new features to your web browser." Within Gmail, Gears allows your computer to download copies of your messages to your hard drive. It is these copies that you will be able to access when using Gmail offline since, logically, if you do not have access to the Internet, your computer cannot get any information from it.

Clicking on the link to install Gears will take you to the stand-alone Gears web page.

Google Gears website

Simply click "Install," agree to the Terms of Service, and then run the installer. You will have to restart your browser once this has happened. When the browser starts again, Gmail will let you know that Gears has been installed. It will then begin to sync your mail and will inform you of how much the process has accomplished.

Information box about syncing mail

You can close this update box and it will continue to sync, which is indicated by the spinning green ball. When this sync has finished, the green ball will be replaced with a green check mark.

You will also be given the chance to create a desktop shortcut to your online mail.

Prompt to create a desktop shortcut

Doing this is not necessary, as you can simply point a browser to Gmail when offline and you'll be taken to your inbox. But it might be nice to have the shortcut.

And speaking of inboxes, what you'll see when your offline is exactly the same as when you're online. The only perceptible change is that you will now have an Outbox added to your left-most navigation column, which is where "sent" messages go when you're offline.

When you're online again, the messages will automatically be sent.

Google Calendar

Making your Google Calendar available offline is even easier than Gmail. Simply click the "Offline" in the upper right of the screen.

Offline button in Google Calendar

If you haven't installed Gears, you will go through the same steps as above. If you have installed Gears already, you will simply click to give it access to your Calendar. Gears will then begin syncing. By going into Settings, you can choose which of your calendars or the calendars you subscribe to to make available when you're offline.

Selecting which calendars to sync

That's all there is to it. Now you will not only be able to check your calendar on any computer in the world, you will also be able to check them while you're unconnected to the Internet. Feel free to tell Outlook users to wipe their smug grins off their faces.

Multiple Accounts and Computers

Many people have Gmail accounts, and more are getting them as more universities incorporate Google Apps for Education. If you have more than one Gmail or Calendar account, you will have to set up offline access for each account. Once you've got Gears installed, however, it's simply a matter of telling the account to start caching your information. And that should take about 15 seconds.

Also, if you're fortunate to have more than one laptop that you use, you also need to note that you will have to install Gears on each computer and activate each account on each computer. You can of course install Gears on computers that are not mobile, which can act as a sort of backup of email and calendar, in case your Internet becomes disabled. But in general, this form of offline access is only something that mobile users will need.


It's worth mentioning two things. First, Google Gears is not available for every browser. In particular, it does not run on Safari or Chrome on Macs that are using the Snow Leopard OS (10.6). Second, it bears mentioning that as of February of this year, Google Gears has stopped development. Instead, Google is putting its resources into developing applications and services that run on HTML5, the next major revision to the HTML standard. But for the meantime, it works and it works well.

What's your experience using Google's offline services? And more importantly, how do you access your important materials when you're offline?

[Images by Author]



1. profwhodrives - August 03, 2010 at 12:20 pm

This is an interesting and useful article.

I have a question/suggestion that is off this specific topic, but related to google more generally. Any chance of an article that runs down google apps as we think about fall course planning? (I have done some of this today as I finalize my syllabi.) How does one integrate these apps into courses?

I am also a new owner of a Droid X and am thinking how I might set up assignments, etc. to make use of my phone on my long drive when I am not driving in my carpool. I would love suggestions.

2. george_h_williams - August 03, 2010 at 12:27 pm

@profwhodrives: We've written many posts about Google. Have you tried searching our archives?

3. samplereality - August 03, 2010 at 12:27 pm

I've been using Postbox (based on Mozilla's open-source email app Thunderbird) for email, both online and off. Postbox/Thunderbird syncs quite easily and automatically with Gmail through IMAP, and it works nicely offline. Postbox/Thunderbird also has an RSS reader and, through the Lightning extension, a calendar that can sync with Google Calendar (or any other network calendar). Both of these parts of Postbox work offline as well, making it, for me, an ideal email/RSS/calendar app (especially given the Google Gears will eventually go away).

4. briancroxall - August 03, 2010 at 12:28 pm

@profwhodrives: That's a good idea for a post--integrating different Google tools into one's course. We've written a lot about this in the past, but perhaps we can do a "From the Archives" revisiting of those materials.

5. profwhodrives - August 03, 2010 at 01:19 pm

I did search and found lots of good stuff. I am sorting through it. I was just thinking you might do a best of to help people out.

Thanks for all your interesting work.

6. emmadw - August 04, 2010 at 09:28 am

Following on from Samplereality's comment - I'm using Thunderbird on its own to backup my Gmail - it has the advantage that I can use Gmail's 'conversations' etc., when in Gmail, but sort by whatever in Thunderbird.

7. sdblogger - August 07, 2010 at 01:39 am

I would like to know if Google has a "schedule email" app or lab. I often respond to emails at 1 a.m. and don't want my students to know that I'm awake at that hour! If I could, I would prefer to schedule my email to be "sent" at say 8 a.m. or 9 a.m.

For my views on student development visit

8. briancroxall - August 30, 2010 at 09:54 pm

@sdblogger Unfortunately, there is no way to schedule emails within Gmail. I've looked for it myself.

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