Handy: Gmail’s new sidebar feels like a large Google Chat ad banner

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Enlarge / The new Gmail theme. You will see a chat popup on the bottom left.

Ron Amadeo

Gmail’s latest redesign seems to have finally started hitting a large number of accounts over the weekend. The new desktop site changes the design from 2018 by graying the top and side parts of the web app, making the red highlight blue, and rounding some of the corners. Oh yes – it also adds a large, second sidebar on the left side of the screen. The regular Gmail sidebar that shows all your email sections is still there, but now there’s a whole additional sidebar that’s basically an app switcher for other Google apps. It is strange.

The new colors are fine, but Gmail is themable anyway, so the new default theme doesn’t really matter. But the new “integrated view” and sidebar are likely to cause controversy. You’re on Gmail.com to check your email, and now there are four new buttons on the side of the screen. There’s “Mail”, that’s just Gmail. Then “Chat” and “Spaces,” both standing for Google’s newest messaging service, Google Chat. Then there’s a button for Google Meet, Google’s Zoom competitor.

That’s pretty much it. A vertical bar from top to bottom to display four puny buttons (five if you count the recurring hamburger button) and then a desolate Siberian wilderness of spaces. Oh, if you happen to get an incoming Google chat, you’ll see a profile picture popup in the abyss, which is at the bottom of the new sidebar. This is a huge waste of space for buttons that are irrelevant when you visit Gmail to – you know –Use Gmail.

Even if you hit the hamburger button, the new Gmail still shows the app bar.  The old design still showed an icon for each Gmail section, even when collapsed.

Even if you hit the hamburger button, the new Gmail still shows the app bar. The old design still showed an icon for each Gmail section, even when collapsed.

Ron Amadeo

Critically, even if you plan on never using Google Chat and Meet while trying to check email, you can’t collapse the new sidebar. The hamburger button in the top-left corner looks like it’ll collapse the new sidebar, but it’s instead showing the Gmail sections, not the app switcher. You can never Make the app bar disappear in the new Gmail theme. In the past, you could go to Gmail settings and turn off Google Chat and Meet individually, but flipping the switch on any of those services will throw you out of the new Gmail theme and into Gmail Classic. This will be a problem in the future when the “classic” design disappears.

The lack of control really makes this app switcher a terrible addition to Gmail. The new sidebar is big, it’s annoying, it takes up screen space to promote unrelated products and I can’t get rid of it. It’s basically a banner ad for Google Chat and Meet.

Even if you use Google Chat and Google Meet, the new Gmail buttons aren’t great. Google Chat made the inexplicable decision to separate 1-on-1 chats from group chats (or “spaces” in Google chat jargon). Just like the mobile app, the new Gmail makes the crucial mistake of not showing these two sections on the same screen. Half of your chats are in the Chat section, group chats are in the Spaces section, and you have to click to switch between them. The old Gmail and chat.google.com site shows all your chats in a stacked sidebar, with group and 1-on-1 chats still divided into separate sections but displayed on a single screen. The website, or old Gmail, is a much nicer interface for this reason.

Google Chat is now a full screen interface.  the "spaces" Group chat shows the same interface, but now it's annoyingly split into a separate area from your 1-on-1 chats.
Enlarge / Google Chat is now a full screen interface. The Spaces group chat shows the same interface, but now it’s annoyingly split into a separate section from your 1-on-1 chats.

Ron Amadeo

We’ve already encountered bugs in Gmail’s new UI. 9to5Google’s Abner Li is unable to properly load the new gray color scheme on his work account, causing his Gmail account to appear incorrectly with an all-white background. For me, the “Meet” tab doesn’t do anything. Nothing happens when I click on it. Even if you could get it to open, it apparently does not much consider. Meet’s only real features are “join a meeting” and “start a meeting,” and even the dedicated meet.google.com site has next to no interface. All of those sidebar buttons open up huge, full-screen interfaces, and what Google Meet is going to do with all that space is unclear.

Chat and video features have been a part of Gmail for a thousand years, starting with Google Talk in 2006 and Google’s first video chat in 2008. In the “classic” Gmail design available today, Google Chat and Meet already integrates with Gmail and you’re available in a way that seems to be an entirely better design than this new launch. In Classic View, there’s a sidebar with Mail, Chat, Spaces, and Meet stacked on top of each other. Each section is collapsible, and you can dive into the settings and permanently turn off any section you don’t want. Sections like Google Meet, which only offers two small buttons, only have a tiny sidebar section that seems much more appropriate.


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