Gmail for Android – A Complete Walkthrough

According to our not-so-scientific poll taken this time last year, chances are good that if you’re reading this then you use Android’s Gmail app. The latest update to Gmail bumped it up to version 4.2.2, adding some useful new features like swipe to delete, as well as the long awaited pinch to zoom. You may or may not have already read about these and started to use them. What about all those features that came before the last update?

Perhaps you’re new to Android, and are still exploring a lot of what Gmail has to offer. Maybe you’ve been using Android for a long time, and want to make sure you’re getting the most out of your Gmail experience. Whatever your level of expertise, this comprehensive walkthrough of Gmail's controls and settings will help advance, or at least refresh, your Gmail skills.

Hit the break for a review of the basics, as well as a deep dig into Gmail's features (and a couple lesser known tricks).

Incoming Messages

Unless you changed the default settings, the Inbox should be the first thing you see when you open Gmail. You can change messages between read and unread using the checkboxes and the envelope icon in the Action Bar.

Gmail marks what messages it thinks are important using yellow arrows - a double arrow means the message was sent directly to you, a single skinny arrow means you were Cc’d on it, and a fat single arrow means you got the message as part of a group. If the arrow is grey instead of yellow, the message is marked not important (which you can change in the menu). All messages marked important can be found in your Priority Inbox.

You can also mark a message with a yellow star, which places it in Starred. I don’t use my Priority Inbox too much personally, but I do find starring messages to quickly group them together handy sometimes.

The Archive button (box with a white down arrow) can be used to remove email from your Inbox. Instead of sending the messages to your Trash, it keeps them in All Mail, sort of like a filing cabinet so you can access them later if needed. If you assigned the message a custom label using the label button, you can find it in that label as well. You’ll notice my February American Express statement has been labeled Financial. After I archive it, if I want to find it later, I can find it in both All Mail and Financial.

Mute is quickly becoming one of my favorite Gmail tools. If you’ve ever been Cc’d on one of those email threads that just won’t die, this feature is for you. You can Mute the conversation, which will keep all future replies of that conversation out of your Inbox. It will only return to your Inbox if you are the only recipient, if you’re added to the “To” line, or if you’re added to the “Cc” line. Mute is like auto-archive for a conversation, so if you need to refer to the conversation again, you can find it in All Mail.

Managing Labels

Labels are the Gmail equivalent of folders, only better because you can have one email with multiple labels. This screen, accessible through the 3-dot menu, gives you the ability to fine-tune your settings for each individual label. "Sync messages" can be adjusted to make emails downloaded only by request (None), keep the last 30 days worth preloaded on your device (Last 30 days), or keep every last email locally handy for quick viewing (All). You can turn notifications on and off per label as well, with the added ability to change the notification sound. You can also control if you get a notification once for new mail (getting a second email before you check the first will not cause a notification), or if you want notifications for each new message that comes in.

Advanced Search

If you have as many emails as I do, knowing how to search for them can save you a lot of time. You can search by a few plain terms, or if you really want hawkeye precision you can use operators - these are part of what Google calls Advanced Search. Operators let you search by sender, recipient, subject, attachment, label, importance, starring, or even size, just to name a few. If you’re using more than one Operator, make sure to separate them with a comma. In the shot above, I searched for any mail that was from Google and was labeled Android. For a complete list of Operators, check out the Google support page.

Working with Attachments

When composing a new message, you might notice that in the menu there are only options for adding two attachment types: pictures and videos. If you do a search in Google Play, you’ll find “attachment” apps whose sole purpose is to enable you to attach other file types. No need to bother with these. Most file explorers will allow you to attach almost any type of file. If you have a file explorer installed, and you go to attach a picture, choose your file explorer in the pop-up box. Viola – your attachment potential becomes limitless. This also works using other app types, like cloud storage apps.

General Settings

This screen can be found under Settings in the 3-dot menu. If you find yourself accidentally deleting, archiving, or sending messages, you can create a confirmation pop-up using the first three options here. You can also clear any prior email searches, and hide pictures in the bodies of messages. Checking the box next to “Auto-fit messages” will shrink your emails so they completely fit in their window, and will enable you to zoom in and out.

“Auto-advance” is a great time saving feature. If you really want to zip through those new messages, enable the “Newer” setting. This way, after you archive or delete a message you’re reading, you are automatically taken to the next newest message. Alternatively, you can be taken to the next oldest message by selecting “Older”, or selecting “Conversation list” to be taken back to your list of messages.

My favorite feature of this bunch is the “Swiping conversation list”, which I set to “Always deletes”. This lets you swipe messages to the left or right of the screen to delete them. Very cool. If you set this to “Archives or deletes”, a few things happen. Swiping away in the Inbox will archive, swiping away in custom labels will remove that label, and swiping away in the default labels like Sent or All Mail will delete. If this is not your cup of tea, just set the option to “Has no effect”.

Account Settings

You can find this screen just under General Settings. Each of your Google accounts will have their own screen. Here you can make Priority Inbox the first thing you see when opening Gmail, as well as disable notifications individually for each of your accounts. “Sound” takes you back to “Manage labels”, and there’s a place to add an email signature.

“Turn Gmail Sync ON” is simply a shortcut to Android System Settings. “Days of mail to sync” will globally change how many days of email you want synced. If you want to change the days to sync per label instead, you can use “Manage labels”. The last option lets you automatically download any email attachments you receive, or not if you’re concerned about memory or data usage.

The Wrap-Up

If you're a beginner, you should now have a firm grasp on the ins and outs Gmail, while those advanced users might have picked up a trick or two. I’m still trying to learn all those search operators myself. Gmail has certainly come a long way over the years, and new updates should bring even more awesome features for us to play with. If you have your own Gmail tips and tricks, or need help with anything mentioned here, you can hit the forums.

  • One feature I want on gmail app is to delete all email from trash permanently.
    It seems odd that its not in there. I have to empty my trash once in a while via PC
  • Same thing here, also include the function for the spam folder. I don't understand why they won't give us that option via the app and instead force you to log into webmail to do it.
  • Just a simple "Select All" would be helpful (deleting trash and spam, or archiving everything currently).
  • I wish they'd fix the bug already that gets messages stuck in outbox SENDIND UGGGH. I'm also annoyed they won't let me empty my trash from the app.
  • After approx 2years of using MAILDROID.. I do see the benefits of the GMAIL app and I am enjoying it... I have noticed though that the SYNC is not as timely as the MAILDROID app.. so its makes me a bit paranoid if I am getting my emails fast enough (I depend on them for business)
  • I am waiting for groups to come to Android, works great on the web why not in here too? W
  • Thanks for this. I sure wish there was a way to jump to first and jump to last email as one can do with the desktop version.
  • You can send group email or text through the contacts app. Go to contacts app, select a group then hit menu and you will have options to email or text the group or part of the group using check boxes. I agree it should be integrated into the gmail app.
  • I know this was from forever ago, but I'm searching the web trying to find solutions. What you suggested above does not provide an option to email or text the group. Any suggestions?
  • How do you uncombine or unthread messages? I would use gmail instead of stock email but I miss responses when they're embedded in a thread.
  • You can't on Android Gmail. A VERY sore point with many, many unhappy Android Gmail users (including me).
  • You can uncombine on the web, but not the app. Makes no sense
  • Agreed. I can't stand this.
  • You still can't email to a Group, even if you define the group in the web interface.
  • You can do group email through the "contacts app". Select a group in contacts, hit menu and you can email or text the group or select specific people in the group. To your point this should be integrated into the gmail app.
  • How does one "hit menu?" If anyone can more clearly explain this to me feel free to email me directly at sambking (at) g m a i l . c o m
    Very much appreciated in advance!
  • I think this is a feature of Android 4.2. I say 'I think' because my phone is currently running 4.1.2, and I have the same problem you do, no such option in groups. But I have found several sites that talk about it, one that has screenshots, and they are all from within the last 8-10 months. I know 4.2 included group messaging, so I am assuming that group emails are a part of that.
    Can anyone running 4.2 or 4.3 confirm this?
  • "The latest update to Gmail bumped it up to version 4.2.2, adding some useful new features like swipe to delete, as well as the long awaited pinch to zoom." Huh? Wasn't this announced back in Dec. when 4.2 was released?
  • Thanks for posting this. Being new to Android and Gmail both, this is very helpful. A feature I would like is the ability to create new Labels inside the app itself
  • Please Google, PLEASE. Let us turn OFF CONVERSATION we can in the PC web client... I hate conversation view.
  • That is the main reason why I hate the gmail app on my phone. That plus the lack of mark all as read. Google please Read and implement what people wants!!! There are hundreds of forum asking for the same.
  • is there anyway to remove conversation view on the gmail app? for various reasons, I don't like this feature on my corporate gmail account.
  • Is there a way to add new labels using the Gmail app? (Always annoying having to wait to get back on my PC to add a new label so I can apply it to a new email.) Thanks!
  • I would also love to see the option to mass delete, and also permanently delete from the gmail app on the phone. I can't believe that isn't an option and they make you do it from a PC.
  • Great video against Gmail.
  • One key feature missing in Gmail has been the ability view a combined inbox (at least I've never seen how to do it). That's one reason I use Aqua Mail. It has push capability and color coding of each account that can be seen it its "Smart Inbox". The standard Android email app has the combination but no color coding, so it's not obvious from the inbox view to which account a message was delivered. I'll stick with Aqua Mail for the time being.
  • I don't see a new update? When I swipe an email, it just archives it. Is this Gmail update only for tablets?
  • In general settings you can change this action to delete instead of archive. Took me a minute to find that too.
  • That is correct, It is not enabled by default.
  • You can do a group email through the "contacts app". Select a group in contacts, hit menu and you can email or text the group or select specific people in the group. To your point this should be integrated into the gmail app.
  • Anyone know how I can turn an account off? It's easy to add one, but I don't see how to remove one I don't want any more.
  • I have a HTC One SV from Boost mobile. I've been using Gmail everyday for the past 2 years (use it to receive my loads-I'm a truck driver). My question is, this morning when I started using my gmail it was fine, but now I have these boxes on the left side of each email. The boxes are different colors with letters inside of them, some emails have a single box, some have multiable boxes. It's only on my phone, my wife checked though the PC and it was fine. What caused this and how can I get rid of the boxes, without reseting my phone.
  • On my Samsung Galaxy S4, I go to settings, general settings, deselect the box on "Sender Image". This seems to be reset to display a sender image every time gmail app is updated. If you have a contact with an image, it will be displayed if this box is checked. If you don't have an image, it just displays the first letter of the From line of the email. Uncheck the box and it's back to normal. Very annoying that it gets turned on automatically.
  • What sort of "complete walkthrough" of an email client fails to discuss how to compose and send an email? I have a Galaxy Note 2 clone and am unable to see many of the icons in the actionbar because the icons are black and so is the background. Only if I guess at their location and touch where the ("Send, for example) icon should be, does it appear (obscured by my finger). This is not true for all screens, but it is frustratingly the case in the compose screen. Is there any way to alter the icon colors or the actionbar color?
  • Why there is no group mailing in gmail app for android
  • Add my vote for the ability to UN-thread conversations. I HATE them! Very hard to know when a new email comes in. If you don't delete complete threads periodically, you end up with an endless email! Yet to delete the conversation, you also lose the one that just came in. PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE listen to what people are saying about the option to disable threaded conversations. Then add the ability to delete individual emails from within the thread. You can do this in the messages app - why not in the Gmail app????? I see from reading this thread that many of the requests listed in February have indeed been added in the latest version of the app. This last one is likely one of the most important yet to be enabled.
  • How do I get the thousands of emails out of my Important folder on my gmail account. Using Google nexus 4
  • thanks for posting this post. its really helpful for Android user
  • Hello - I have just started with G-mail on my Tablet. How do I create a list of contacts?
  • Why is gmail and chrome the hardest software and apps to figure out without pages of help text and forums to figure things out. Why can't they make it simple enough we can figure out how to use the menus!!!!!!!!!!!!
  • I like Gmail labels and use them a lot for categorising emails. Although I find the Android gmail apps on both my phone and Galaxy note tablet are ok for viewing gmail I think the management of labels on Android is lousy so all my deleting and labelling is done on pc only. I particularly don't like the fact that in the android app if you hover over an action icon there is no clue as to what might happen if you click it, and that there is no 'undo last action'. Too easy to archive mail without wishing to and not clear as to how to assign a label to an email quickly.