Mobile Gmail Showdown: The Webapp Versus A Mail Client

Mobile Gmail Showdown: The Webapp Versus A Mail Client

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:


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):reports

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:

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.

Log in to comment on this story!