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Pimp Your Inbox By Enabling Labs Features in Gmail

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We recently looked at how you can make it easier to manage multiple inboxes in Gmail using the Multiple Inboxes Lab feature. This is a non-standard feature and it’s far from being the only one available to you. In fact there are numerous hidden features that can help you to get more from Gmail.

Before delving into Gmail Labs to see what’s available, it is important to note that Labs features are, as Google points out, ‘crazy experimental stuff’. You might well find that everything works perfectly, but there is an outside chance that they could break or lock you out of your inbox.

Thankfully there is a safety net – the equivalent of starting Windows in Safe Mode. If things go awry, you just need to visit https://mail.google.com/mail/u/0/?labs=0 to reach you inbox with all of the labs features temporarily disabled, giving you a chance to disable them properly in Settings.

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With this safeguard duly noted, you can browse through what is available. Some labs features are simple affairs that are little more than a new button that is enabled or disabled, but there are some that are slightly more complex and have settings for you to configure.

Enabling Labs

In Gmail, click the gear icon to the upper right of the page, select Settings and then click Labs. The list of Labs features is not excessively long, so although there is a search function you may as well just scroll through the list. Enabling individual Labs features takes nothing more than selecting the appropriate Enable option and then clicking Save Changes at the bottom of the page.

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Many of the Labs are great little time-savers. Enable ‘Mark as Read Button’ and you can kiss goodbye to the extra click required to navigate through the More menu when you want to mark a selection of messages as read. If you want to mark several messages read in one fell swoop you can just click the newly added button that appears at the top of your inbox.

When you delete an email you are usually thrown back to your inbox, but this can be changed by enabling Auto-advance. With the Lab feature enabled, go to the General section of Settings and you can then choose whether you should be taken to the next or preview conversation instead.

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If you like the idea of making Gmail act more like a desktop email client, enable the Preview Pane Labs. To the upper right of your inbox, click the arrow to the right of the new button that has appeared and choose between a vertical split (which will place the preview pane to the right of your email list) or a horizontal split (which places the preview pane below).

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Access Google Features

There are also Labs that make it easier to interact with other Google services. If you make use of Google Calendar, enable ‘Google Calendar gadget’ and you can then opt to replace the chat panel to the lower left of the page with your upcoming events. There’s also a Quick Add option so you can create calendar events without the need to leave your inbox.

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Google Docs users have a few Labs to work with. Enable ‘Create a Document’ and you can create a new document at any time by pressing G followed by W. To make it easier to deal with Google Docs you review, enable ‘Google Doc previews in mail’ so you can view files without the need to navigate away from your email.

In a similar vein to ‘Google Calendar gadget’, ‘Google Docs gadget’  adds a new panel to the area beneath your inbox folders that you can use to quickly search and browse through your Google Docs files.

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Customizing Gmail

Labs aren’t just about new features – they can also be used to customize the look and feel of Gmail. ‘Custom keyboard shortcuts’ does exactly what you would expect – it enables you to define your own keyboard shortcuts so you can get things done faster.

Having enabled this lab, a new Keyboard Shortcuts section appears in Settings. Here you can not only override the default shortcuts, but also define two shortcuts to perform the same action.

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If you have enabled the Google Calendar or Google Docs Labs, you might well find that accessing Chat is slightly awkward. This is where the ‘Right-side chat’ lab comes into play – it moves the chat pane to the right, making better use of screen space.

There are plenty more gadgets that you can enable, but for now, we will just add one more. The ‘Unread message icon’ lab is one that is only available in Firefox and Chrome, and it changes the Gmail favicon to indicate how many unread messages are in your inbox – handy for monitoring emails when you are working in another tab.

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These are just some of the extras that are to be found in Gmail Labs. Try some of them out and see which ones work best for you. Let us know which are your favorites in the comments below.

Mark Wilson is a software fiend and a fan of the new, shiny and intriguing. Never afraid to get his hands dirty with some full-scale geekery, he’s always trying out the latest apps, hacks and tweaks. He can be found on Twitter and Google+.

  • Published 02/17/13

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