Some words on Google+, Gmail forwarding, other miscellany

Over the past few weeks, Google has rolled out some new services and updated some existing ones. In this blog post, we’ll take a look at Google+ and the new Google layout tweaks, as well as the option of UIUC Gmail forwarding.

Gmail forwarding
While incoming undergrads are set up with Illinois Gmail accounts, students in GSLIS still by default use the Express email system, which in this day and age can feel a bit limiting.  Many students elect to forward their email through Google’s web-based client in order to access its sleek interface, huge storage space, and plethora of other benefits. Migrating yourself to Gmail requires only a few clicks, but there are a few things to consider when you make the move.

The positives:
+Organization: Gmail provides you with plenty of options for sorting your mail. It’s simple to add labels to messages and quickly sort your mail by class, project, club or whatever other descriptor is useful. You can also create rules to automatically label messages based on their subject heading, who they’re from or anything else that could help you automatically filter messages. Gmail’s threaded message view is also useful for placing a message in context and visualizing all correspondent’s contributions to the conversation.

+Space: The old Express email quotas were a meager 100MB. Gmail grants you roughly seventy times as much space, allowing you to hold onto all of your mail, pictures, music or whatever else you have shared with your friends.

+Chat: A double-edged sword. Gmail automatically adds contacts you frequently send mail to to your chat buddy list. Sometimes it’s nice to have the option to switch modes between sending lots of short emails back and forth and get more done through instant messaging. Gmail lets you do this within the normal interface, without making you share the AIM handle you made in eighth grade or launch a separate chat program.

The negatives:
-Chat: Get stuck doing a group project with classmates you didn’t pick? Those people may start showing up on your contact list. Then they may see you online and decide to strike up a conversation, whether you like it or not.  Fortunately removing contacts from your chat list isn’t difficult.

-Confusion: If you are importing your express email account into a Gmail account you also use, you now have mail from two different accounts being aggregated in the same place. You also have the option of sending your mail from two different accounts. This can create some confusion as you may accidentally send mail from the wrong account. Setting a default “from” address can make this easier, as well as creating automatic labels that will color code the mail you receive in your separate accounts. You may want to keep your school and personal life separate, so combining your inboxes adds a step to that.

While this is a big endeavor encompassing a number of services, it looks a whole lot like Google trying their hardest to get their act together and play catch up. The idea of anyone outpacing Facebook may be hard to believe but with half a million new Android devices activated every day, each with an account attached, Google has a better chance than anybody else to take the throne. When I said that Google is playing catch-up, I meant that not a whole lot here is new, but it’s mostly things that have yet to hit the mainstream. Huddle looks a whole lot like Blackberrry’s popular BBM service, and similar to the new messaging system built into Apple’s forthcoming iOS 5.

Hangout, their multi-user video chat offering has a number of counterparts like the web-based TinyChat, as well as Skype and iChat. These services often sound nice in theory, but in reality are plagued by lag, causing friends to talk over one another and have trouble communicating.  Hangouts manages the problem of everyone talking at once by automatically switching the main video screen to whoever seems to be talking.  In a test chat, I found it very manageable to have a conversation with six of my friends, spread around the country. In addition to the usual video/audio/text options here, you can also choose to watch videos on Youtube as a group.

Google+ Hangout

Two specific new items did picque my interest: Circles and Takeout. Facebook offers something similar to Circles by letting you put together lists of friends and assign them different clearances to what information you share with them, but the interface was off-putting enough that I was never interested in putting in the work to categorize all of my friends. With Circles, there is a nice graphical interface, letting you drag and drop and see all of your groups neatly represented at once. Takeout, something likely inspired by privacy concerns stirred up by Google’s own Buzz and other social network’s reputation for shady privacy violations, allows you download your personal information and take possession of it if you should choose to delete your Google+ profile at any time. However, Takeout is not being advertised as part of their new services, so it may not be effective in encouraging users to take control of their own privacy and personal information.

As someone who was reluctant to join Facebook my first foray into social networking, I am entering Google+ with caution. What I see so far looks promising, and if kept simple and clean, could prove to be a great exit for users growing tired of Facebook.

Google layout changes
Along with Google+, Google is rolling out a slightly tweaked look across its suite of services.  Users of Google Calendar, Maps, Voice, etc. will notice some differences.  Buttons that previously had text now have icons, font sizes have changed a bit and a few other aesthetic changes have been made.  Bringing this layout to your Gmail is an option under “Mail settings” -> “Themes” -> “Layout” or “Layout (Dense).”

Early reviews of this layout are mixed.  Having your Gmail layout match the rest of the Google suite is nice, but some other ITD/Help Desk staffers have found its larger font sizes and spacing a hindrance when the goal is to wade through piles of mail as fast as possible.

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