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All Things Google: Gmail Labs

test tubes with colored liquidRecently Jason asked us all about our favorite under-used features in the tools we regularly use. For today’s entry into our “All Things Google ” series, I want to talk about one of mine: Gmail Labs.

Gmail Labs is part of the larger Google Labs, which, according to its FAQ, “is a playground where our more adventurous users can play around with prototypes of some of our wild and crazy ideas.” Labs comes out of Google’s well-known policy of allowing its engineers 20% of their time to develop new ideas. The experiments within Google Labs are the results of people having free time to experiment and improve products in a previously un-thought-of way. And many of these improvements have been made within Gmail.

It’s important to note that everything within Gmail Labs is in a state of being tested. As such, the features can unexpectedly go away without any warning. They might graduate to being a regular feature of Gmail, as was the case with the Forgotten Attachment Detector, which Natalie previously covered. But other Labs tools simply go away and won’t be coming back. This might seem harsh, but if that happens one should just be grateful for the temporary additional functionality. How many other large software developers give you new things to play with in-between development cycles? Truth be told, I don’t believe any of the Labs features that I’ve used over the past year and a half have disappeared on me, but I can’t promise that your favorite won’t go away.

Adding Labs

Every Gmail account—even those on Google Apps for Education—can use Gmail Labs. Simply click on the “Settings” button in the upper right corner of the screen and then choose the “Labs” tab. You’ll then be presented with a list of different Labs features that you can enable on your account. Click as many or as few as you’d like, and then click “Save Changes” at the bottom of the page. When you do this, 9 times out of 10 Gmail will reload so that your new Labs features are enabled. You’ll know that Labs have been activated by the green flask that will have appeared to the left of your Settings button, in the upper right corner.

Gmail Labs Symbol

My Favorite Labs

There are a lot of different Labs features within Gmail, running from games (“Old Snakey”) to translation (“Message translation”) to gesture-based commands (“Mouse gestures”). Some of the Labs will add a new widget to your Gmail and be very visible. Others will simply add a new functionality. In using the different Labs features over the last two years or so, I’ve found a number that I can’t live without.

  • Google Calendar gadget: I’m a devotee of Google Calendar, and this gadget drops a mini calendar within the left column of Gmail. It allows me to see at a glance what’s coming up on my calendar without having to flip to another browser tab. It also allows me to add events to the calendar with a “Quick add” bar that is very good at recognizing natural language.
  • Google Docs gadget: Like the Calendar gadget, this adds a box to my left column that lets me see the titles of the docs that I’ve worked on most recently. Clicking on them opens them in a new browser tab, saving me a bit of time. I can also create new documents from the gadget.
  • Pictures in chat: Gmail is not only my favorite email client, it’s also my preferred IM tool. This feature adds the account picture of those I’m chatting with to our conversation.
  • Right-side chat: If you use Gmail’s chat feature, you will find that the Calendar and Docs gadget get placed under the chat bar. The result is that you might have to scroll further down the screen to see these gadgets (which are supposed to save you time). With “Right-side chat,” you move your chat window to a right column on your screen, decreasing the chance that you’ll need to scroll.
  • Text Messaging (SMS) in Chat: With this feature, you will be able to send and receive text messages from your Gmail chat screen. You enter in a contact’s phone number, and Google sends a text message. It’s important to let your friends know that it’s you who is texting them, however, since Gmail sends the text not from your phone number but from one of their own (they tend to have a 406 area code). Your contact will have to reply to that number—not your own—to have it correctly routed via Gmail. That might sound complicated, but I’ve discovered that the phone number that gets assigned to you is constant and so contacts can save it for future reference. To prevent SMS abuse, you are only allowed to send a certain number of messages to a phone number until that person responds to you via text. SMSing within an IM client might sound silly, but this is my wife and my favorite of them all.
  • Undo Send: Just like it sounds, this Lab gives you a few seconds to undo a sent email.
  • “Don’t forget Bob”: This feature recognizes members of groups that you regularly email and asks if you meant to include someone that you left off. For example, when writing my colleague with whom I’m co-editing a special edition of a journal, Gmail will ask if I mean to include the journal’s General Editor as well. The suggestion is by the address bar of the email and therefore isn’t intrusive in the way that a pop-up would be.

I use many more gadgets than these on a regular basis, but these are my favorites. And there are plenty more that I haven’t had time to play around with or that I haven’t found useful for my work. But they might very well have proved useful to you.

Do you have a favorite Gmail Labs feature? Let us know in the comments.

[Image by Flickr user Horia Varlan / Creative Commons licensed]

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