The new Gmail sucks (especially for IMAP users)

Updated March 2016: But of course since writing this Google have added yet another “feature” on top of the below mess in the form of Gmail Categories – and no, these don’t play with IMAP either. I’ve given up and moved to FastMail.

As part of the Apple MobileMe/iCloud migration plan, I’ve been shifting my mail data into a Gmail account backed by Google Apps Business edition. And boy, I must congratulate Google on taking what should have been an entirely predictable exercise and turning it into a right pain in the arse. Especially if you (shock, horror) want to access it from an IMAP client, which I do.


First, let’s start with “Labels”. I guess the temptation for Google to resist inventing another cute term with slightly different functionality for a very old concept was too great to resist. Never mind that “Labels” are to all practical purposes the same as mail folders, let’s call them something different and confuse the shit out of people. I now have “Labels” in the Gmail web client, which are presented as standard IMAP folders in my Thunderbird client. Great – two different sets of terminology to have to deal with and explain to clients.

So you can apply “Labels” to more than one conversation – big deal. Why can’t we just stick to folders and search folders? (And talking about “conversation” (i.e. threaded) view mode, let’s make that the default mail view and stick the setting deep into the preferences just to really annoy anyone who’d like to turn it off).

Even worse, Gmail now has “System Labels”, and these get pulled into your IMAP client, sitting under their own curious “Gmail” subfolder:

Gmail system labels in Thunderbird

This is where the whole label/folder distinction really breaks down. At least you can disable these from appearing in your IMAP client via Gmail preferences:

Disable system labels for IMAP users

Moving on to mail rules – whoops, sorry, I mean “Filters” as they are known in Gmail. So I set up a mail sorting “Filter” to sort mail addressed to one of the many mailing lists I subscribe to into a “Label”. Seemed straightforward enough, but for some reason I still received a copy as well in my inbox. Well, you have to make a manual setting for that too – and confusingly it’s a setting called “Skip the Inbox (Archive it)”

Gmail filter settings

I can understand the “Skip the Inbox…” bit, but why the reference to archiving it? I just want to move the fucking thing to another folder and that’s all.


So assuming you’ve jumped through these hoops just to get your IMAP client in order, you now have to deal with Gmail’s most perplexing “feature” – the “All Mail” folder. I have absolutely no idea why this is present, nor what function it is even supposed to serve. Straight from the documentation:

“Gmail/All Mail contains all of your messages in Gmail, including your sent and archived messages. Any messages that you see in your inbox will also appear in the Gmail/All Mail folder.”

Um, why?

Anyway, worst of all let’s assume you have some 20,000 mail items (like I do) spread across several “Labels”, or “Folders”, or whatever Google are calling it this year. Assuming you haven’t used the above IMAP settings in Gmail to prevent the “All Mail” label from appearing in your IMAP client, you can expect all 20,000 of those items to be pulled down in duplicate into your IMAP “All Mail” folder. Sheer genius!


So in summary, not a fan at all. I’m using Google Apps mail basically just for the capacity and uptime SLA, but otherwise it’s confusing if you aren’t using the Gmail web interface, it looks like it was thought out by a bunch of computer science undergrads for a project of some sort, and in general the whole thing just stinks of an effort to make it as frustrating as possible for IMAP users short of having the whole thing not work at all. Read: “Use our browser, and the native web interface, and you won’t have any problems at all!”. Mmm, I love the smell of lock-in in the morning.

On that last note:

Gmail desktop notifications unavailable

This sort of thing makes Google absolutely no different to Microsoft in this regard.


15 thoughts on “The new Gmail sucks (especially for IMAP users)

  1. startagl

    I agree 1000%. I converted one of my clients to gmail so that they could take advantage of their Android, iPhone, and iPads. Of course since they have 3 devices accessing email I turned on imap. What a complete nightmare. Not because of the labels/folder issue you point out but because of the complete lack of speed. It is SO slow. I searched for weeks and tried everything I could find to make an improvement. Nothing helped. They call me everyday to complain and beg me to find a solution. I have to say that Google gmail imap has fallen way way way short on this ‘feature’.

  2. Pingback: The mere mortal’s guide to setting up Gmail with Thunderbird | Dave Koelmeyer

  3. dtf

    your not alone. who comes up with this crap? I guess it is also too much to ask gmail to display my ‘nested’ subfolders, i mean, sub’labels’ in a folder tree on the left side. Just a small de-facto standard in computerdom for the last 15yrs. absolute rubbish

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  5. Sandra

    Thanks Dave. The archive thing confused me. Maybe will stick with only two email addresses working out of here and see how it goes …

  6. Pedro

    Absolutely true. In their haste to appear original and creative, these idiots take Microsoft’s cue and complicate things that true brilliance would SIMPLY make SIMPLE.

  7. thytsl

    I agree completely! I have spend the past three days trying to find a way to only display (and only use) one set of folders/labels. I have two sets of folders for one gmail account. And the matching folder does not necessarily contain the same emails – why? Email should be such a simple thing, but Google and others as well, do their best to make it as complex as they can.

  8. Maria

    Thank you for writing this. I found it by googling “how many f*****g folders does gmail imap have?”, after I tried to set it up in Thunderbird and watched 4 (5?) copies of everything being downloaded and worried about reaching my ISP’s data limit for this month.

    So… many, many thanks for the link to your excellent Thunderbird/gmail setup guide. I’ve hated using gmail imap and always opted for pop instead. Now, I actually got it working pretty nicely!

  9. PM 2016

    Completely 100% agree. I switched to Gmail …but after experiencing 1,000s of emails showing up in my inbox that were supposed to be filed neatly away in folders on my Mac (attached to Gmail IMAP)…. I am switching back to something that is Microsoft Exchange based. Reason being is that Google hasnt built a proper email store. They cobbled their email architecture together with with files – which is why they need these silly labels. Their arch rival (Microsoft) solved this many many years ago. Microsoft built a proper storage architecture that could handle, emails, calendar and, contacts. It simply works – with Macs and PCs, and Phones. Google Gmail is an early 1990s implementation of email that doesnt work with any other tech other than their browser. Just a complete disappointment.


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