Composing Emails and Researching Faster in Google Apps

Google’s one of the best companies about adding features to their apps over time. The changes aren’t always welcome, of course, especially when they change things we like about their apps. Sometimes, though, it’s fun to be reminded of the best advantage of web apps: they can get new features without you ever having to install an update. When the new features improve your life, that’s very nice.

Today, Google added a new compose pane to Gmail that lets you compose emails in a floating pane much like the Gmail chat window. They also tweaked the research pane in Google Docs, a newer feature that makes it easy to research while you’re, say, writing an essay. Let’s take a look.Like the article? You should subscribe and follow us on twitter.

Gmail’s New Compose Pane

Composing a new email in Gmail can often be an exercise in frustration if you’re used to using a desktop email app. Most email programs open a new window to let you compose emails while still accessing other emails in the main email app. In Gmail and all other webmail apps, composing an email takes the full screen. If you need to go back and reference a previous email, or just want to peek at a new email that just came in, you’ll need to save the email you’re writing as a draft, find the email you want, then go back to drafts and start editing again. It might be a minor pain point, but when you have to do it several times, it can be really frustrating.

Enter the floating email pane.

Writing an email in your in Gmail’s new floating compose window

When you hit Compose from your Gmail Inbox, or while reading an email in Gmail, or perhaps while searching through your messages, you’ll now see a floating New Message box in the lower right corner that looks like the old Chat box mixed with a lite version of Gmail’s old email editor. Click the top to minimize the window, or click Compose again to start writing another email at the same time. Any chat and email windows you have open will stay open when you switch between any of Gmail’s views, including Contacts and Settings. If you’d rather write in a real separate window rather than in a floating pane in the Gmail window, just click the arrow button to pop the editor out to its own window, just like Chat has offered for years.

The new editor isn’t full-featured yet, with emoticons and calendar event notifications listed as Coming Soon. Most of the stuff you’d expect is still there, though. You can drag-and-drop attachments directly into the edit pane, and can use the standard keyboard shortcuts for formatting and more that you’d expect. Or, you can click the A button to get the editing features in a traditional toolbar if you want. For the most part, it feels like a streamlined way to quickly send emails without having to mess with formatting and more, and I, for one, rather like it.

If you’re replying to emails, though, the editor hasn’t gotten the exact same floating pane treatment. You do get the new editor style, but it’s tied to the original email and can’t be turned into a floating pane. You can pop the whole email conversation, reply and all, out into a separate window as you could in Gmail before, and the individual window email has a distinct mobile look to it. This gives you a way to keep writing replies while going back to your inbox, but it’s not as good as floating panes. The oddest thing is that opening a Draft email opens a floating pane, but replying sticks to the old, full-window style editing. Here’s to hoping they’ll add the floating pane to email replies as well.

Replying to an email doesn’t get the new floating pane

If you hate change, you’ll be glad to hear that turning on the new floating pane Compose and newer reply editor is optional. You’ll be asked if you want to try it the next time you login to Gmail, and then will be presented a quick tutorial on using it. For now, you can switch back to the old editor if you wish from the compose pane’s options menu. It’s hard to say how long it’ll be until the new editor is the default and can’t be turned off, though, and based on Google’s past changes to Gmail, it’s most likely that this new change will be here for good very soon.

It’s your choice … for now

Researching in Google Docs

Step back in time, if you can, to 2003, when Microsoft’s latest version of Office was the most exciting thing in the world of applications (we didn’t call them apps, back then). You could move toolbars around, add sidebars, and more, making sure your Office had more features than you’d ever use and making it harder than ever to actually see your content that you were working on. One of the sidebars that I opened occasionally back then was the Research pane, a small sidebar designed to let you quickly find info online without having to go back to a browser. Turned out, the browser was usually quicker, and I left the research pane turned off.

Google Docs recently added a similar Research pane to Docs, and that’s now been extended to Presentations, Drawings, and more. This time, though, it’s actually a fairly nice addition, thanks to Google’s integration of search info and image search that tends to get you what you’re looking for without having to actually open another link. You can drag-and-drop images, quotes, fast facts, and more right from the search results. If that’s not enough, you can actually get real Google search results that open in new browser tabs for further research. It’s not for everyone, but it’s a fairly nice addition to Docs, especially since it gives you a way to insert online images into documents and presentations without having to download them and re-upload them to Docs.

Research Pane feels a bit too much like Office 2003…


That’s all for Google’s latest changes to its apps. It’s nice to see how Gmail and Google Docs continue to evolve and benefit from Google’s continuous development. At the same time, it’s funny to see how much Microsoft’s legacy desktop apps influence Google at the same time as the latest mobile UI designs creep into Google’s desktop web apps.