How to Use Gmail on iPhone and iPad

Gmail might be one of the best things to ever happen to email. When Gmail for iPhone came out a year ago, it was a great step in the right direction. It worked pretty well, delivered push notifications, and offered a great Gmail experience for iOS. Now with version 2.0 of Gmail for iOS, we have an updated UI and one of the most requested features—support for multiple accounts.

Why Gmail for iOS instead of the Mail app?

You might wonder why bother with a Gmail app at all, when Mail can handle Gmail accounts just fine. Not to mention with the unified inbox, VIP, and other improvements that came in with iOS 6, Mail certainly isn’t as bad as it was in the past. First off, the Gmail app offers real push notifications for when you get email. Although Mail supports push, it’s only for and email addresses (or if you set it up as a Microsoft Exchange [ActiveSync] account). For Gmail, Mail checks at best every 15 minutes.

Next is just better handling of email. Google is really good at email, Apple, not so much. Things like emails getting really deleted and not just moved from the inbox, faster search (since you’re hitting Gmail servers directly), replying, getting to all your labels, all these things Mail isn’t great at.

Finally is speed. Generally, Gmail has been faster than Mail. With the 2.0 update, I’m on the fence whether Gmail for iOS is really faster than Mail right now, however with the Sparrow team on board at Google, I’m betting Gmail for iOS is going to just get better and better.

Set up

After you download Gmail from the App Store, when you launch it you will see a screen like this:

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Just enter your login info and that’s all the set up Gmail for iOS needs to start. Important note here, Gmail for iOS pulls all your settings and information from “regular” Gmail online (signature, default address, etc), so if you don’t use Gmail on the web often, you might want to check your settings if you plan on switching from Mail app to Gmail app as your primary mail app.


If you’ve been using Gmail in your browser, Gmail for iOS will look pretty similar. Same color schemes, a lot of the same functions, just smaller.

Checking mail

While Gmail does use push notifications so you’ll be notified as soon as email hits your account (no waiting!), if you’re in the app and want to check for mail, just pull down on the message list until you see the black arrow, then let go. A little beach ball like circle will spin while the app checks in with the mothership for new mail. You’ll also see the same ball icon when Gmail is loading new mail folders (aka labels) for the first time or if you haven’t checked that folder for a while.

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Starting an email is easy, just tap the red icon with the pencil in it and you have a nice compose window. Tap the Cc: Bcc: line to add people to be copied. If you have multiple email addresses connected with your Gmail account, you tap the Cc: Bcc: From line, then tap the email address to pick another address:

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This is another good time to check if your Gmail web settings are what you want (mine aren’t for example, I want to switch back to reply from the account the email was sent to).

For attachments, you’re limited to pictures or a Scribble. No files (of course) just like Mail really.

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Replying and Forwarding

To reply to or forward and email either tap the reply arrow at the top of the message or the big Reply and Forward buttons below the message. I found that for long emails that are part of a thread, the send and cancel buttons go off screen and you have to drag the compose area down when you’re done to tap send. I hope this isn’t a feature, I found it rather annoying to have to flick down to send all the time.

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Tapping the little icon with three lines (I don’t think we have a name for that icon yet), will open the navigation panel where you can jump to all your labels/folders. This is also where you tap to switch accounts.

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Search is, actually, very easy in Gmail. Just tap the search box, type in the term and hit search. I found it pretty easy to accidentally tap the search area and suddenly my email was “gone”. Of course it wasn’t really gone, I just had to cancel out of search.

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Managing emails

You can’t just send and receive email all the time without managing it some how. Even if you just trash an email now and then. I found managing email in Gmail for iOS to be easy and made sense most of the time.

Archiving, Moving, Deleting

Above every message are three icons, Archive, Trash, and a menu (the triangle). Archive and Trash work with one tap. If you want to move an email to a folder/label, then tap the triangle, then Move…

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Labels and Stars

Staring (or removing a Star) an email is as easy as tapping the Star icon next to the subject. To apply a Label, tap the Triangle and then Labels. You’ll notice there is no option for creating (or managing) Labels in the app. Maybe that will come in future updates.

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Managing multiple accounts

One of the new features in Gmail for iOS 2.0 is the ability to add, use, and switch between multiple accounts. When Gmail for iOS came out a year ago, I loved the app, but I couldn’t really switch to it because I had too many accounts I wanted in one place. Now with multiple accounts, I can use Gmail all the time, well almost—more about that later. Let’s get to adding accounts.

Adding a new account

Adding a new account couldn’t be simpler. Tap the icon to get to the navigation area, then tap your name and you’ll see the big plus in a dashed box. Tap that and you can enter your account info up to four more Gmail or Gmail for Domains accounts.

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Switching between accounts

Switching between accounts is just like (as you can see from above) adding adding an account and you just tap the account you want to jump to. You can also see that I have an unread message in one account.

Yes, I think this is going to be one of the main complaints about Gmail for iOS—no unified inbox. You need to jump from account to account to check, reply, and manage email. Will Google add this in the future? Maybe as an option? Who knows, but Sparrow and Mail have it (not to mention pretty much all email app that handle multiple accounts), so hopefully Google will add it soon.

Other tweaks

Taking a moment to hop over to Gmail on the web might be a good idea. Since Gmail for iOS (by default) uses things like your signature, default sending account, etc straight from Gmail proper, you might not have an updated signature. If you want to have a mobile-only sig or even turn on vacation notification, you can do that from the settings. The little gear next to your name in the navigation area, does the trick. Not much there right now, maybe Google will add more options later.

Switching over from Mail

If all of this sounds awesome to you and you want to start using Gmail for iOS as your primary email app, you can mostly achieve that goal, but you do have to change a few things first.

Notification overload

If you’ve started using Gmail for iOS you might have noticed a sudden increase in Notifications. Yes, you get a notification from Gmail then Mail for each email. Not to mention on the lock screen and Notifications area. Fixing this is simple. Go into Settings -> Notifications then Mail and for each account start turning switches to off (Notification center, no banners, badge app icon, mail sound to none, no preview, view in lock screen). If you have some contacts marked as VIPs, you’ll have to turn off those notifications settings too.

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I think I got them all turned off on all the devices, but I’m still catching something I missed on one device or another.

Don’t delete your accounts

You might think the way to fix all these Notifications, etc and switch over to using Gmail completely would be to delete or disable mail in your various accounts. The problem is that since you can’t set Gmail for iOS as the default mail client (unless you jailbreak of course), if you turn off mail or delete the accounts you won’t be able to email from any other apps.

So, you’re still stuck with Mail, at least in the background.

That’s a wrap

This is the good thing about Gmail for iOS, it’s pretty straight forward. There are nice UI touches here and there, but thus far there haven’t been hidden features found that we can tip you off on. Now, if you find a hidden feature or helpful tip, send us a tip.

What do you think? Are you going to switch to Gmail as your primary email app?

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