Google has all but dominated the email world with Gmail, ever since its introduction in 2004. Because it’s free to create and use a personal account, and because G Suite is so cost-efficient and attractive for businesses and professionals, there aren’t many competing email services that can say they’re in the same league (apart from Outlook and with it, Microsoft Exchange).
Accordingly, if you didn’t already know it, you might be surprised to learn that Google has a second email interface: Inbox (sometimes referred to as Google Inbox, or Inbox by Google).
So what’s the real difference between Gmail vs. Inbox?
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The Basics: Gmail vs. Inbox
Let’s start with the high-level view. Inbox isn’t exactly a new or different email service. On the backend, everything is still the same; you use the same email account for both products, rely on the same servers, and have all the same existing emails and contacts when you’re switching between platforms. Instead, Inbox offers a different design and a different suite of features.
On mobile devices, you can find both a “Gmail” app and an “Inbox by Gmail” app. I encourage you to try both as you consider these differences. You can also view the desktop differences here: Gmail vs. Inbox.
History of Gmail vs. Inbox
Gmail first started back in 2004, and has been the dominant Google email product ever since. Google doesn’t disclose exact user numbers for either Gmail or Inbox, but the strength of the community indicates that Gmail is still favored. Gmail also receives ongoing attention from Google, with a radically redesigned version of the app being made available earlier this year (2018).
Inbox came along in 2014, starting as an invitation-only platform and going public in May 2015. Since then, it’s been updated almost continuously, with new features and slightly updated designs.
Overall Design: Gmail vs. Inbox
The most noticeable difference between the two platforms is their design. You’ll see the difference immediately.
Aesthetically, Inbox by Google is much more colorful and icon-heavy. Depending on your personal preferences, you might find it to be excessively cartoonish, or much more charming than the traditional Gmail interface.
Both Google email clients have a left-side menu that allows you to access different folders and categories, though the new Gmail design makes these icons more minimalistic. In Inbox, the “Compose” button is in the lower-right corner, rather than the upper-left, and you’ll find a handful of similarly innocuous location changes.
You’ll also notice that most of your emails have a circular icon to the left of them, indicating the sender with a headshot, logo, or similar symbol. For some users, this might be a helpful feature (like for salespeople trying to put names with faces). You’ll also see your emails in Inbox grouped by time periods, like “Today,” “Yesterday,” and “This month” by default.
Still, the overall layout isn’t that much different between the two. Both platforms offer everything you’d expect from a modern email management client.
The bottom line: Ultimately, there isn’t much a difference here, but you may have a personal preference for one over the other.
Organization: Gmail vs. Inbox
Both Gmail and Inbox offer some default modes of organization. Most notably, Gmail comes with a handful of tabs known as “Categories” at the top of your inbox, which collect emails belonging to categories like Social notifications, and Promotions.
Inbox has something similar, but instead of being collected in tabs at the top, they’re bundled in folders to the left. You’ll find a different selection of categories here, as well, including Trips, Purchases, and Finance. Inbox will automatically group emails into the appropriate category here, but you can also see them bundled together as line items in your main inbox.
With Inbox, you can also create your own bundles. Click “Create new” in the left-hand menu, and you’ll have the option to create a custom bundle, complete with your own rules for what belongs in that folder. Technically, this setting is available in Gmail, too: you can create your own labels and/or categories, and use filters to ensure the right emails get to the right destination. However, one major distinction here is Inbox’s periodic delivery; you can set different bundles to hit your inbox at different intervals. For example, you might choose to receive your Social emails once a week, but receive Finance emails once a day.
Inbox is also centered around the philosophy of Inbox Zero, with the ability to mark emails as “done.” Rather than relying on the read/unread distinction, marks, or stars in the traditional Gmail app, you can mark emails as “done” in Inbox; this moves emails out of your inbox, without really deleting them. It’s ideal if you love the feeling of checking off emails like you would tasks on a task list, or if you crave the idea of seeing an empty inbox at the end of the day.
The bottom line: If you already have a good organization system in place, Inbox might disrupt it. Otherwise, each platform has a slightly different philosophy when it comes to email organization, so make the choice that best suits your style.
Integrations and Add-ons
This is one area where Gmail and Inbox noticeably diverge. Inbox has at least one powerful integration, with Google Trips, but Gmail offers much more flexible possibilities for app integrations. By default, the new Gmail offers integration with Google Keep, Google Calendar, and Google Tasks, which you can find in the right-hand menu. You’ll also find a + icon that allows you to integrate other apps and plugins.
Given the sheer volume of apps, extensions, and add-ons designed to make managing Gmail earlier, Gmail has the edge here—especially if you use these extras on a regular basis. You’ll be able to use most of the same apps with Inbox, but they won’t be immediately available in your interface the way they will in Gmail.
The bottom line: Ultimately, Gmail makes it easier to use third-party apps and plugins within the core app.
There are some other differences between Gmail and Inbox—most notably the number of extra features in Inbox that either aren’t available in Gmail, or are available under a different name or context.
These are some of the most significant ones:
- Universal reminders. Reminders are one of my favorite Inbox features, and they simply don’t exist in the same format in Gmail. In Inbox, one or two clicks allow you to set a reminder for just about anything—and once you create it, you can set it to give you a one-time notification, or remind you of something on a recurring basis. You can view, manage, and/or delete your reminders at any time, and even attach reminders to individual emails, so you’ll never forget to follow up on an important message.
- Smart Reply. Smart Reply was introduced to Inbox back in 2016; when opening certain emails, it would recommend up to three different suggested responses to save you time, with concise, common phrases like “Looks great!” or “Sounds good!” The new version of Gmail offers suggested responses now as well, but Inbox did it first, and arguably introduces it in a more streamlined fashion.
- Save to Inbox. Inbox also offers a “Save to Inbox” feature, which allows you to save individual links, videos, and articles to your inbox so you can find them quickly later. It’s an efficient alternative to hunting down the links based on what email they were in, and you can do it with a single click.
- Newsletter previews. Inbox also utilizes “newsletter previews,” which allow you to preview the content of some newsletters you receive. In most cases, this means Inbox will present to you up to three titles of articles being presented in the newsletter, underneath the subject line in your inbox.
- Unsubscribe cards. Google makes unsubscribing easier in Inbox. When the app detects that you haven’t opened emails from a particular sender, or emails of a certain type for a month, it will display an “unsubscribe card,” which allows users to unsubscribe from the list with a single click. You can also toggle this feature off if you find it annoying.
- Pinning. In Inbox, you can “pin” almost anything, including specific emails, or reminders to take specific actions. Whenever you’d like, you can access all your pinned material in one place, then unpin them or delete them as necessary. It’s perfect for maintaining an active task list, or for sorting your priorities.
- Sweeping. Sweeping is basically a grouped version of marking emails as “done,” but it’s handy for cleaning out your inbox at the end of the day. Within a specific section, you can click the sweep button (a checkmark with three horizontal lines next to it) to clear out all unpinned emails at once. You can always undo this if you do it by mistake.
The bottom line:
While Inbox has some unique features that Gmail doesn’t, it’s worth noting that Gmail has some unique features as well. For example, its search functionality is much more comprehensive, and you can use those search parameters to create automatic filters that make managing email much less time-intensive. Gmail also has Confidential Mode to make your emails more secure, and allows you to download your emails as a single ZIP file for backup purposes.
The Future of Gmail vs. Inbox
Some have speculated about the uncertain future of Google Inbox, given that Google probably isn’t going to remain interested in sustaining two email platforms simultaneously for long. Earlier this year, Gmail got a redesign that included some features that have been a part of Google Inbox for years, and with Gmail still having more users, some techies have wondered if this means Inbox is on its deathbed.
According to a Google representative, the answer is no. Google Inbox continues to be its own product, with unique features to distinguish itself from Gmail. That doesn’t mean Inbox will live forever, but if you’re worried about the future of your email app of choice, Gmail and Inbox are equal candidates, according to Google.
The bottom line: Despite speculation that Inbox is being phased out, it seems that Google has plans to support both Gmail and Inbox for the foreseeable future. The Gmail vs. Inbox debate will continue, for now.
Regardless of whether you choose to use Gmail or Inbox as your primary email management client, it’s important to have a solid system for organizing your messages—and insight into how you’re using email on a regular basis. EmailAnalytics is an app that integrates with your Gmail account—so it doesn’t matter whether you use Gmail or Google Inbox—so you can learn more about your email habits, and find ways to improve them. Give it a try for free today!
Jayson is a long-time columnist for Forbes, Entrepreneur, BusinessInsider, Inc.com, and various other major media publications, where he has authored over 1,000 articles since 2012, covering technology, marketing, and entrepreneurship. He keynoted the 2013 MarketingProfs University, and won the “Entrepreneur Blogger of the Year” award in 2015 from the Oxford Center for Entrepreneurs. In 2010, he founded a marketing agency that appeared on the Inc. 5000 before selling it in January of 2019, and he is now the CEO of EmailAnalytics, and co-host of the podcast The Entrepreneur Cast.