The Woodshed

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Gee, Mail

Configuring Gmail for use with other mail clients

I’ve used Gmail since it was in beta (wait, is it still in beta? Well, since it was invite-only), and stuck with the web interface for pretty much the entire time. As far as web interfaces go, it’s always been decent, but the real motivator was because other mail clients notoriously haven’t had a very good track record of exposing Gmail’s functionality.

Sure, it’s not all their fault. From what I understand, Gmail has an odd IMAP implementation, and it certainly approaches email as a whole in a non-traditional way. For example, it doesn’t have “folders”—instead, individual messages have one or more labels that you can use to categorize/filter/search by. (Your “inbox” really just consists of all messages that have an inbox label.) Gmail has also grouped emails by “conversations” since its inception, as opposed to a strict sort by date or some other property of individual messages.

The most recent wrinkle is automatic categorization of new mail that arrives in your inbox—and it’s damn good categorization. I was a bit leery of it at first, but I think it’s been over a year now, and the messages it has auto-categorized have been spot on (I have the Social and Promotions categories enabled). It’s saved me the trouble of having to manually create filters to do the same thing.

Unfortunately, its categorization is apparently also done in a way that standalone mail clients can’t find an equivalency for. So that’s kept me using the web interface (and the Gmail mobile app on my gadgetry).

But Mavericks’ looked pretty slick, so today I figured I’d try my hand at getting categories working with it (it already supports conversation grouping, server-side drafts, and sort-of handles labels too).

The first obstacle was message count. This notebook has a small SSD in it, so I definitely didn’t want my entire history downloaded locally. Oddly, the app didn’t let me set a limit client-side.

Fortunately, Gmail lets you do this server-side:

Log in to the web interface, click the Gear icon and go to Settings, and click on “Forwarding and POP/IMAP.”

On this page, you can set a limit on how many messages will be downloaded to an IMAP folder, keeping in mind that every label will likely be represented by an IMAP folder in your client. Due to this, you should probably also configure which labels will be exposed to IMAP clients:

Go to the settings category for Labels, and check/uncheck “Show in IMAP” as appropriate.

I left Sent Mail, Drafts, and All Mail checked, as well as a label named “Personal” that I’d created. Note that depending on your mail client, it may or may not be desirable to have “All Mail” checked. For example, in past versions of Apple Mail, it was recommended to uncheck it—but the Mavericks version has a better understanding of Gmail’s structure, and uses “All Mail” as a sort of canonical index.

I also saved some space by adjusting a client option:

Settings > Accounts > Gmail IMAP > Advanced > Uncheck “Automatically download attachments”

On to category support. I won’t waste any more of your time by telling you what I tried that didn’t work. Here’s what I ended up going with:

  • Run the following search in the Gmail web interface: to:( AND -category:social AND -category:promotions (note the dashes before the category specifiers).
  • The returned results should look equivalent to your “Primary” inbox view. If so, click More > Create filter and make sure the above query is showing in the “Has words:” textbox. Click Create filter with this search.
  • In the next dialog, tell Gmail to Apply a label (I used a label called “Personal,” but you can name it whatever). Check the “Also apply filter to matching conversations” box, and then hit Create Filter.
  • With that filter created, all messages in your “Primary” inbox tab will now be tagged with the label you chose. Similarly, when you receive a new email, it will automatically be thusly labeled if Gmail didn’t categorize it as Social or Promo.
  • Finally, you can go back to your desktop mail client and tell it to use that label/IMAP folder as your “default” mailbox. I used Mail’s “Smart Mailbox” feature for this, but I’m sure equivalent functionality is available in any halfway decent client.