Review: New Look Gmail

New Look Gmail: Welcome screenIf you have seen the visual makeover already launched in Google Docs and Google Reader then Googlemail's (Gmail) announcement of the new look won't come as a big surprise.

A revised, less cluttered layout, new colour schemes, new themes, labelling and threading, it all adds up to the biggest change to Gmail in some time.

Designed for a cleaner look, with less 'chrome' (bye-bye borders and controls) the whole thing seems to have been Mac-ified, monochromed and mostly grey. Whilst it's fairly bland, it's also a bit 2007, Web 2.0-Generic.

What isn't so good is that most functional buttons are now icons with no description (mouse-hover for the tool-tips), but occupying the same amount of space. The universal language of icons is neither universal nor intuitive, so this is a step backward.

You can put the colour back in using the new themes, featuring hi-res imagery ("HD Themes" using imagery taken from iStockphoto) - most of which seems designed to make the text more difficult to read .  

What's changed
Taking Google's list:
  • Options at the top
  • Using labels, chat, and gadgets
  • Reading your messages - new views and threading
  • Search and filters - now including Twitter search
  • Settings - collected and simplified
  • Contacts
What this moves toward is a simpler, cleaner, less cluttered look, which has only to be applauded. Gmail to me always looked like an explosion in a fuzzy-felt toy factory, littered with Google Buzz panels, various contact's statuses and a lot of lines. Since Google killed Buzz, that chunk of screen real-estate lay comatose, so something had to change.

What this means in reality is an interface that looks a lot more conventional, like webmail clients the world over. Yes, it is a lot more fluid, or, whats the new buzzword, 'responsive'? When you resize the browser window, Gmail automatically adjusts to the new browser size.  

"You are my density"
Loading up the new Gmail on a big display you notice how much (wasted) space there is. You can change this easily from the settings by selecting between Comfortable (default), Cozy, or Compact views. Power users who deal with a lot of mail every day will most likely prefer Compact as will Tablet users whose space is at a premium. I have to say I don't notice much difference between them, hey-ho...

An immediate feature of the updated inbox is that the navigation panels on the left side – including labels and chat – remain fixed in place as you scroll.

Your correspondents' Profile pictures appear down the left of their messages, a feature which Google says makes it "easier to keep track of who said what." It's a blunt instrument and you don't seem able to resize profile pics yet, so you lose a lot of screen space. Otherwise there are several elements that used to appear along the sides or top of a conversation thread which are now represented by small grey icons, or rolled into dropdown menus. I'm not sure if the change in visual cues is a help or hindrance.

New Look Gmail: SettingsThe net result? Gmail now feels blocky, awkward and unfinished, like a wireframe mockup. Individual items, even in Compact layout, feel large and clunky like Duplo bricks.

The cult of Mac, the whole 'less-is-more' approach, has driven Gmail to become soul-less, bland and unintuitive, all the text labels for controls have gone, but that's OK since most of the controls have gone as well.

Yes, I'm sure we will all get used to it, imperfect as it remains, because we got used to the old version, which had a lot wrong with it, bit as usual, two wrongs don't make a right. You've got a couple of weeks in which to stay with the old interface, but Google says that this option will be removed soon.

Given that Search is the first pillar of Google, no surprise then that Gmail search has been revamped, to include more fields and sources such as Twitter. This actually works, although the layout in certain resolutions is less than optimal.

The standardised interface for Settings is invoked with the now-ubiquitous gear control, wrapping everything neatly - or not - in one place. The control to change the number of messages displayed per page which should be in the top bar, is now hidden among the myriad options in Settings.

To make matters worse, the product marketing which should have come with this, to sell us on the new features and explain why they're so much better, has been replaced by a video by an alleged designer (part-timing as a kids' TV presenter) and some fluffy marketing spiel evidently not read by anyone outside Google's marketing department:

"Focus: With the design changes in the coming weeks and months, we’re bringing forward the stuff that matters to you and getting all the other clutter out of your way." Just appalling.

"Elasticity: The new design will soon allow you to seamlessly transition from your desktop computer to your mobile phone to your tablet, while keeping a consistent visual experience. We aim to bring you this flexibility without sacrificing style or usefulness." How about - 'we'll make the layout the same on all devices'?

"Effortlessness: Our design philosophy is to combine power with simplicity. We want to keep our look simple and clean. But behind the seemingly simple design, the changes use new technologies to make sure you have all the power of the web behind you." That's just pure, meaningless, marketing *BS*.

This doesn't feel like a joined up project so much as a camel - a horse designed by committee. I'm confident the engineering is sound but the impression to the end-user is not pleasant. I'm yet to be convinced it's an improvement over the old interface (which I never liked either), but things move on and hopefully this is an interim release which will be improved betimes. RC