Google begins rolling out a redesigned Gmail today with an eye on removing inbox clutter, separating bulk emails from the main feed with new tabs for messages from social networks, deal sites, businesses, and forums. The move comes three years after the company launched its Priority Inbox for Gmail, which aimed to bring order to cluttered inboxes by sorting messages based on their importance. At the time, the company noted that our inboxes were overwhelmed with automated messages. Three years later, little has changed.

A host of startups, including Sparrow and Mailbox, have captured users' attention based on the idea that Gmail is ripe for reinvention. Now Google is taking its own steps to overhaul the inbox.

Gmail's redesign separates messages into as many as five tabs, with each designed to group messages into categories that make it easier to scan and process email. In addition to the main tab, which continues to be sorted by priority, the tabs include:

  • social, containing messages from social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and dating services;
  • promotions, for Groupon, LivingSocial, and the like;
  • "updates," for confirmations, receipts, bills, and statements;
  • and forums, for messages from discussion boards and mailing lists.

New users will see the social and promotions tabs by default; they can be configured from the desktop or the Android app but not yet on iOS. Existing users who have chosen a different style, such as Priority Inbox, will have to opt in to the new view.

"The inbox was more of your master than your servant."

"It became obvious to us over time that this notion that the inbox was more of your master than your servant was becoming more widespread," said Alex Gawley, product manager for Gmail, in an interview with The Verge. "It wasn’t just the people receiving hundreds of emails a day — more regular users were starting to feel stressed out by their inbox."

One of the reasons, Gawley said, is that the traditional Gmail inbox mixes emails from very different contexts. An email from your sister, a note from your bank and an update from Facebook all sit uncomfortably together, making individual categories more difficult to process. Someone returning from a vacation might sort physical mail into piles depending on whether it was a personal letter, business correspondence or junk mail; Gmail’s new inbox marks an effort to bring that metaphor to email. (The iOS app is "coming soon," and the Android app will come out within the next couple days, Google said.)

The redesign extends to the mobile apps, which display any tabs you have enabled in the tray that slides out on the left side of the app. Significantly, the apps now tell you how many emails are truly new, as distinct from unread emails you saw before but chose not to open.

The apps now tell you how many emails are truly new

The idea of sorting email based on type isn’t new. Microsoft’s Hotmail introduced "quick views" in 2010, just a couple months before Gmail introduced Priority Inbox. Hotmail’s quick views automatically gathered messages from social networks and groups into their own tabs, and encouraged users to perform regular "sweeps" within their tabs to clear out the clutter. Quick views remain in the latest version of Microsoft’s email service, now at Outlook.com.

The new Gmail takes a similar approach. On the desktop, enabling the new tabs requires you to click the gear icon in Gmail and select "configure inbox." From there you choose which of the tabs you want to appear in your inbox, if any, and Gmail will sort them for you accordingly. The tabs are updated live with notifications, so if a new message from Facebook comes in to your inbox, the social tab’s title bar will let you know. And if Gmail puts a message in the wrong place, you can drag and drop it onto another tab.

The tabs build on a two-year-old Google Labs feature that took a similar approach, categorizing and labeling bulk emails automatically. "We thought, this might be a really interesting way for us to help regular users take control of their inbox again," Gawley said. Work on the new inbox began just over a year ago, and was subject to extensive user testing, he said. In the final product, tabs can be customized: You can instruct Gmail to make certain senders always appear in a particular tab, for example, or star messages so that they also appear in the main tab.

How useful you find the tabs will depend largely on how much automated email you receive. If messages from your relatives are forever getting lost in a sea of notifications from Facebook, adding a social tab could be of great help. If you’ve already disabled those sorts of notifications, though, you may not have much use for the new look.

There are now a staggering six styles of inbox available to the Gmail user

Taken together, the various options available to the average Gmail user can be overwhelming. There are now a staggering six styles of inboxes available to the Gmail user. In addition to the new, tab-heavy design, there’s the classic, chronological view; "important first;" "unread first;" "starred first;" and the Priority Inbox, which mashes up the latter four styles. If that’s not enough, Priority Inbox itself can be heavily customized. If design is about making choices, Google appears to have offered every possible option instead — a consequence, the company says, of the elaborate and sophisticated ways its power users like to sort their email, which eliminating any of those other inboxes would irrevocably break.

Google says the latest version of the Gmail inbox represents its best current approach to sorting email. "What we think right now is the inbox we’re rolling out tomorrow is going to be the best default option for most users," Gawley said.

Still, none of the available options take what is arguably the most effective step in controlling your email: stopping it from entering your inbox in the first place. In recent years, services like OtherInbox and Unroll.me have created simple ways for Gmail users to roll up automated messages into a single daily email, leaving the inbox for messages from your actual contacts.

Google's solution for sorting endless notifications into tabs can make our inboxes more scannable. But for true inbox management, there’s still nothing as effective as clicking "unsubscribe."