Now that Google's made some much-needed improvements to Gmail's mobile webapp, should you abandon your smartphone's email client for its browser? Let's find out.
Sadly yesterday's Gmail improvements only apply to the iPhone and Android, so today we'll compare the various options for processing Gmail on those two platforms only. They are: Gmail's mobile webapp (just visit Gmail in your phone's web browser), the iPhone's mobile Mail client (in the iPhone's current release 2.2.1 and the upcoming 3.0), and Android's built-in Gmail app.
Since Gmail offers IMAP, and every self-respecting smartphone platform has an email client that supports IMAP, everyone can get synced labels as IMAP folders, synced sent mail, and read and unread message status. But the features that set Gmail apart from any other email service—like threaded conversations, search, labels, stars, archiving—aren't part of the IMAP protocol. Those are the ones we're going to look at today on the iPhone and Android.
Enough text. Here's a breakdown of those Gmail-specific features, and which ones are available in the client and in the browser on the iPhone/iPod touch and Android.
As you can see, iPhone users who want the best Gmail experience should seriously consider switching from Mail to the mobile webapp in Safari to get Gmail's best stuff.
Conversation Threads: Gmail's threaded conversation view is a nice perk in your web browser, but when screen real estate is at a premium on your phone, it's absolutely essential. On your smartphone, you already have to do too much scrolling and swiping to get your mail—why do more? Mobile Mail on the iPhone/iPod touch doesn't support Gmail's threaded conversation view, but the Gmail webapp and native Android client do. Users with busy inboxes will save their fingers lots of work with this feature alone. To see the difference in screen real estate usage, see the image to the left. In the space of what would be five messages in a regular IMAP client (maybe six without the extra line previewing the body and showing the label), Gmail's webapp displays a dozen messages collapsed into threaded conversations.
Labels: The biggest drawback to the new mobile webapp is the inability to remove or assign labels to messages, a possible dealbreaker for those who like to file their Gmail on the go. You can "label" mail in any IMAP client by moving it into the corresponding IMAP folder. If labels are more important to you than threaded conversations or search, this may be the one reason you'll stick with Mail on the iPhone.
Android's native Gmail client has full label support, with the ability to assign or remove multiple labels to any message, as shown on the right.
Search (with advanced operators): You've got 7GB of Gmail stored in the cloud, but if you can't look up that one message you need buried in your archives from your phone, what's the point? Currently there's no email search in iPhone 2.2.1, but iPhone 3.0 promises limited search. Gizmodo reports, "The search in [iPhone 3.0]Mail doesn't support the message content yet." Not having tried the 3.0 release yet ourselves, we're not sure what that means, but it's probably that Mail will be able to search IMAP message headers (from, to, and subject) only, which just isn't good enough.
If you're processing Gmail from the webapp or Android's client, you have full access to your entire mail archive along with Gmail's advanced search operators. That means that when you're headed out to the restaurant to meet your friend Jane, but you forgot where you decided to go three weeks ago, you can search your Gmail for from:Jane dinner to pull up the address on your phone. Whether or not your IMAP client offers email search, it doesn't support advanced operators like from:, to:, subject:, label:, has:, and +/-.
Batch Actions: One of the best new features of Gmail's mobile webapp makeover is the "floaty bar", a menu that stays fixed at the top of your browser screen as you scroll down that lets you archive, delete, report spam, or star a particular message or group of messages. This coupled with the ability to check off multiple threads in web-based Gmail makes batch processing a bunch of messages in your inbox super-easy.
Mail on the iPhone and iPod touch also supports selecting multiple messages and acting on them all in one shot (see this video demonstration). Batch processing is the one place where Android's native Gmail app falls short—you cannot select multiple messages and act on them at once.
Offline Access: Because the revamped Gmail mobile webapp uses Google Gears on Android and HTML 5 on the iPhone, you can now read and compose email even when you're not online in your mobile browser. Android's native client also includes offline capabilities. When you're in Mail on the iPhone and iPod touch, you can read already-downloaded messages and compose new ones.
Push Email: Nothing's changed in this area, but it's worth mentioning. Since the mobile Gmail webapp requires that you launch your browser to check mail, there are no automatic push notifications when new messages arrive. Android's Gmail app offers up-to-the-second push, but vanilla iPhone Mail/IMAP does not. (However, Adam walked you through how to set up push email using a third-party solution last year.)
Archiving and Report Spam: You can "archive" email using Mail on the iPhone and iPod touch by just dragging and dropping messages into the "All Mail" folder, but you can't report messages as spam. True archiving and spam reporting are available in both the mobile webapp and Android's Gmail client.
As with all technology choices, your preferred mobile Gmail method depends on which features matter to you, but yesterday's update made firing up a web browser on your handset to check email a lot more attractive.
What's your preferred method for processing Gmail on your smartphone? Let us know in the comments.
Gina Trapani, Lifehacker's founding editor, is totally impressed with the mobile Gmail webapp but is sticking with Android's client. Her feature Smarterware appears each week on Lifehacker.