Using eM Client with Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts

eM Client

A few weeks ago I blogged about moving from Microsoft Outlook (and an Exchange account) to eM Client using Google’s productivity tools Gmail, Calendar and Contacts. These are my reflections on using eM Client for the last month or so, having been a faithful Outlook user for the last 14 years.

Why move?

My reasons for moving were three-fold:

  1. Simplify—I was using at least three email accounts, as well as trying to synchronise Outlook calendar and contacts with Google. This way I could keep everything in one place.
  2. Share—I needed a more robust way of sharing my calendar with (my wife) Jane, and she uses Gmail as her primary account, so it made sense to move.
  3. Cost—Though they do offer a terrific service, buying an Exchange account from Simply Mail Services was costing me about £70 per year. I could put that money to better use.

My hesitations in moving were two-fold:

  1. Email address—I really wanted to keep my [email protected] email address, and for email to send as that. But the more I thought about it the more I realised that was just vanity. So long as all mail sent that address was forwarded to me it didn’t really matter what email address I was sending from; besides some people were emailing me there anyway. (As it is I can configure Gmail to send as my own domain, I just haven’t done it yet.)
  2. Email client—I’ve enjoyed using Outlook because I like having everything in the same place: email, calendar, contacts and tasks. I’ve adapted my workflow around this set up. and it works for me. I knew that Outlook wasn’t suitable but didn’t know of an alternative. eM Client proved to be a near perfect replacement.

Setup

Setting up eM Client was so simple. Upon installing the application I was asked to enter my account details. I typed in my Gmail email address and password, and eM Client did the rest.

Enter your account details and eM Client does the rest.
Enter your account details and eM Client does the rest.

The free version of eM Client allows you to connect a maximum of two accounts, the pro version (£29.95 GBP) allows unlimited accounts. I’m currently on the free version but I intend to upgrade to pro at some point, simply to support the company.

IMAP

During the setup eM Client alerted me to the fact that I hadn’t enabled my Gmail account to use IMAP. This was easy to do within Gmail settings.

IMAP is now enabled in Gmail.
IMAP is now enabled in Gmail.

IMAP enables two-way communication between eM Client and Gmail, so any changes made in one client are immediately made in the others. This makes it really useful when trying to access your email from multiple devices, e.g. Windows and Android.

Once connected to my Gmail account eM Client took only a few minutes to download my email messages, calendar and contacts data.

I also connected my Facebook account which allows me to use eM Client as a chat client, and to update contact details and avatars from Facebook.

Review of eM Client

The following is a summary of my experience of using eM Client over the last few weeks.

Bear in mind that I am using eM Client only for Email, Calendar and Contacts. eM Client also supports Tasks and what it calls Widgets, which are plugins like an RSS reader.

I discovered, quite by accident, that if you right-click the left-hand panel you can decide which modules to display.

Right-click and select which modules you would like to display in the left-hand panel.
Right-click and select which modules you would like to display in the left-hand panel.

This also affects the shortcut keys to quickly navigate to these modules. With Tasks and Widgets removed these are now, for me:

  • Ctrl + F1 Mail
  • Ctrl + F2 Calendar
  • Ctrl + F3 Contacts

The full list of shortcut keys can be viewed at Tools > Settings > General > Shortcuts.

Using Gmail with eM Client

Email view within eM Client. Four columns, from the left: folders, messages, message details, chat
Email view within eM Client

The email client looked very similar to Outlook, albeit with a simpler, cleaner look. The screen shows four columns (from the left):

  1. Folders (Gmail labels)
  2. Mail received
  3. Message (full text of the currently selected message)
  4. Sidebar (showing contact details, agenda or chat)

Themes

eM Client comes with a number of built-in themes. I’m using a light blue theme called Arctic which is very clean looking. It clearly distinguishes the different areas of the screen: menu bar, mail folders, message, sidebar allowing me to get on and work undistracted.

Folders and labels

One feature I used a lot in Outlook mail was folders. Gmail doesn’t use folders. Instead it uses labels.

For many years I have used the following primary folders:

  • Action
  • Archive
  • Hold
  • Mailing lists
  • Projects
  • Waiting for

I tend to create sub-folders for Projects and Waiting for to make it easier to find emails. Then when the project is finished, or the item I’m waiting for (e.g. Amazon – CD order) has arrived I destroy the folder and either delete the emails or move them into the Archive folder.

In Gmail email can be categorised with more than one label. I have decided to use only one label per email. This matches the way that I used folders in Outlook. I find it simpler this way.

Something else I had to learn about Gmail is that “Inbox” is a label too. If an email doesn’t have the “Inbox” label then it is regarded as archived and appears under the “All Mail” label.

In eM Client Gmail labels appear as folders. So if I drag and drop an email into a folder in eM Client, it applies that label in the Gmail web client.

Once I understood these subtle differences between Outlook and Gmail I was happy to explore setting up rules to automatically filter my email.

Rules

Something that I relied on a lot within Outlook were rules. I created a lot of rules to filter all my regular newsletter and mailing list emails into a sub-folder called ‘Mailing lists’ (who would have thought?).

I’ve found this prevents my inbox from clogging up with ‘noise’, enabling me to see the more important emails from friends and family.

Gmail calls these rules filters. But unlike in Outlook, you cannot set up these filters within the eM Client. They must be done using the Gmail web interface.

Initially I thought that I might find this a bother, but in reality I’ve just accepted that this is the way it is. And besides, for each newsletter I only need to do it once.

It has also allowed me to review.all the mail I’m getting and decide whether I should cancel the subscription or not.

Filtering an email within Gmail.
Filtering an email within Gmail.

I tend to use the same rules for each message:

  • Skip the Inbox (Archive it).
  • Apply the label: Gareth/Mailing lists.
  • Never send it to Spam.
  • Also apply filter to X matching conversations.

Categories

As well as labels/folders, eM Client supports categories.

List of categories for email.
List of categories for email.

There are four contexts in which categories can be used: contacts, emails, calendar events or tasks. Categories can be unique to a context or shared across any of the four contexts.

You may set the context when editing the category.

Computer category is used only for emails.
When editing a category you may choose where it is used.

I have still to finalise the categories, but I tend to use these only for grouping items within my “Action” folder/label. These are emails that I have identified that I need to do something with: reply to, read, or follow a link to download something, for example.

Standard replies

Something I used quite a lot in Outlook was “Quick Parts” where you could store standard replies to certain questions. I used these a lot for replying about Psion repairs or certain mahjong questions.

eM Client doesn’t support this feature. However, you can create a number of custom signatures and using the “Insert signature on caret position” option to can use this to insert these standard replies into your text. And unlike Outlook 2010 you may add more than one signature to an email.

If your reply is longer then you could opt to use templates. As far as I can see, however, you cannot insert template text into a reply. You may only use it to create a new email. So if you don’t mind a bit of copying and pasting then you may choose to do this. Otherwise, stick with the signature workaround.

Spam

When I used Outlook with a standard (POP3) account I needed an add-in to filter out spam emails; I used Cloudmark DesktopOne, which I found excellent.

After I moved to Microsoft Exchange I paid extra for a Postini server-side spam filter to be activated on my account, which I found gobbled up more than a few genuine mailing list emails.

Having moved to Gmail, only a few rogue messages have got through to my inbox, and I’ve had maybe only four or five false positives.

Right-clicking the Junk E-mail folder in eM Client allows me to empty my Gmail junk mail.

Conclusion

On the whole I have been able to use eM Client in exactly the same way that I used Outlook. In other words, my familiar workflow hasn’t really been upset.

The only real difference is needing to go to Gmail itself to set up mail filters.

I am actually surprised at how easily and seamlessly I’ve made the transition from Outlook to eM Client, after 14 years of using the former, but I suspect that reflects the quality and flexibility of the software.

Using Google Calendar with Em Client

eM Client calendar displaying five Google calendars on top of one another.
eM Client calendar displaying five Google calendars on top of one another.

As sharing calendars was one of the drivers for moving from Outlook I reckoned that this had better work seamlessly. And I’m delighted to report that it is.

I have five Google calendars that I display:

  1. My default calendar (green)
  2. Children (orange)
  3. Home (grey)
  4. Jane (violet)
  5. Scottish Episcopal Church saints days (rose)

Colours

Regardless of the device (web, eM Client, or Android) Jane and I have synchronised the colours of the calendars. So my calendar is always green, Jane’s is always violet, children is always orange, etc. That way we don’t need to think twice about what we’re looking at.

eM Client draws its colours from Google Calendar itself. On our Android devices (Nexus 4, Nexus 7, and Samsung Galaxy S4 Mini) you have to set the colours on the device itself.

Categories

I used to use a lot of colours and categories when using the Outlook calendar to denote different activities, e.g. coding, writing documentation, meeting in the office, meeting in St Andrews, meeting/conference outwith St Andrews, etc.

I expected to miss that when I moved to a mono-colour calendar but again I’ve surprised myself. The clarity offered by colour equals person has been really valuable.

I don’t use any categories now for events. eM Client comes with four built-in (vacation, must attend, needs preparation, birthday) but I don’t use any of them; you cannot delete these four.

Sharing calendars

Another decision we made was to give each other full read and write access to each other’s diaries. That way we can add appointments directly to each other’s calendar without having to go through the rigmarole of inviting each other to events.

Calendar for home events

Another innovation was to add a generic, shared calendar for home events such as which recycling bins go out and when, gas boiler service dates, car tax, etc.

I chose grey for that calendar which makes it neutral but helps it stand out enough to notice it.

Google Calendar’s recurring event feature was ideal for this calendar.

Performance

Like eM Client’s handling of Gmail, the lag between adding an event within eM Client and it appearing either on the Google Calendar web interface or on our Android device is minimal. It is almost instant.

While eM Client displays an Agenda view in the sidebar, I have not found myself using it and tend to leave the sidebar set to viewing Facebook chat contacts.

Tasks and calendar

One feature of Outlook that I used a lot was to drag and drop tasks from the sidebar onto the calendar.As it’s not possible to do this in eM Client I am now using Todoist to manage my tasks.

I now either manage the dates within Todoist itself or simply copy and paste tasks into my calendar. It’s a little overhead but really not that much.

Conclusion

As this was one of the primary functions that we needed to get right (sharing multiple calendars) I have been quite delighted not only with what Google Calendar itself offers but also how eM Client handles the management of these calendars.

Unlike Gmail there is very little that I have needed to do using the Google Calendar web interface, once we got the calendars created, shared and set to the right colours.

Using Google Contacts with eM Client

Google Contacts within eM Client
Google Contacts within eM Client

Google Contacts is yet another area where eM Client excels.

When I used Outlook (either standalone or connected to Exchange) I would every now and then import my Outlook contacts into Google in the vain hope of keeping them backed-up and synchronised. It was an overhead that I didn’t need and it’s been quite a relief, actually, to have them all in one place for a change.

Views

There are five ways to view your contacts, as well as a couple of ways to filter them. The five views are:

  1. Phone list
  2. By Company
  3. By Location
  4. Custom View (which by default shows you every contact card field in a spreadsheet-like table)
  5. Business cards

The default view is Business cards, and this is generally the view that I prefer. Each tile shows you the person’s name, email address, telephone numbers and/or company:

Contact card showing my details
Contact card showing my details

The coloured blocks on the left-hand side represent categories.

Categories

In Outlook I used to categorize almost all my contacts, but I used the Company field for that. I used this field to record where I met the person, e.g. National Youth Choir of Great Britain, School, Family, etc. I can use the “By Company” view to display contacts in this way; although it displays them by default as First name, Surname.

I have also created a number of key categories, e.g. colleagues, family, home-related contacts (plumber, joiner, etc.) so that I can filter my contacts by these categories.

These categories also come in handy when viewing contacts on my Android phone.

One thing that I discovered was that for contacts to appear in Google Contacts they seem to need to be categorized as “My Contacts”,

The other way to filter, of course, is by search. I would have found it handy if the search updated the list as you were typing but you have to hit Enter before the search begins.

Navigating contacts

Using a combination of categories, search and the scroll bar you can quickly locate the contact you are looking for.

Something I really miss from Outlook 2010, however, is the A-Z list down the right-hand side of the contacts cards view. This allowed you to very quickly navigate within your contact cards. I do hope eM Client adds this to a future version.

A-Z index in Outlook allows you to quickly navigate within your contacts list.
A-Z index in Outlook allows you to quickly navigate within your contacts list.

Contact photographs

One neat feature, once you’ve connected your Facebook account to eM Client is the ability to have your contacts’ profile photographs imported into Google Contacts.

That obviously requires your contacts to be using Facebook, and for them to have used the email address that you have for them to be registered in their Facebook account.

Duplicates and conflicts

Occasionally things can go wrong. When I used a Psion to sync with Outlook on two PCs (home and work) I was forever needing to remove duplicate entries. This isn’t as big a problem with eM Client as it is in Outlook.

eM Client comes with its own built-in duplicate remover (Tools > Deduplicator…).

eM Client has its own duplicate remover, which works for mail, events, tasks and contacts.
eM Client has its own duplicate remover, which works for mail, events, tasks and contacts.

I found it pretty effective, to be honest. It found a number of duplicates and where possible it combined information very effectively and deleted the rest.

A couple of times while updating contact cards I found that I made too many changes in a short space of time. In these cases eM Client asked me which data I wanted to keep and which I wanted to overwrite: local or remote.

Conclusion

Another win. To be honest, I can’t see myself needing to use the Google Contacts web interface terribly much. More or less everything is handled very nicely within eM Client.

Final observations

All in all, I am pretty delighted with eM Client. It does exactly what I needL which is to manage Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Contacts in one place. I really couldn’t ask for much more.

Sure there are a few niggles, like the lack of A-Z navigation in Contacts, and needing to set Filters in the Gmail web interface, but really these are minor issues.

If you are looking for an Outlook replacement (and eM Client does support Exchange, Gmail, iCloud, Outlook, as well as other standard POP3 and IMAP email accounts etc.) then I can thoroughly and warmly recommend eM Client.

If I was to score it for its integration with Google services then I would need to give it a full 5/5.

VLC media player on Windows 8

VLC media player
VLC media player

When I upgraded to Windows 8 Pro I wanted to make sure that I could still play DVDs. Now that I have upgraded I’ve moved from using Windows Media Player to VLC media player. Here’s why.

Having read up a little about Windows 8’s support of various media I was fairly confident that if I installed the Windows Media Center then I would be able to continue to play DVDs in Windows Media Player, as I did in Windows 7. I was wrong.

Having bought the upgrade early (back in October 2012) I was offered a free upgrade to Windows Media Centre — woop! — which saved me a whole £6.99. However, as I discovered, it only enables DVD playback in Windows Media Centre, not Windows Media Player.

On my old Windows XP machine I used Cyberlink PowerDVD, which costs between £30-£70 depending; I got it free, bundled with my graphics card, if I remember correctly. It was fairly easy to use, and the controls were pretty intuitive. When I moved to Windows 7 I discovered that this version of the software wasn’t compatible with that version of Windows and I was reluctant to pay for an upgrade and so I started to use Windows Media Player, which had a really terrible, confusing interface but was free.

And so once again another Windows upgrade requires me to find another application that will enable me to watch DVDs on my PC. A quick Google search suggested that I try VLC media player.

VLC media player ticked both boxes: it’s free and it’s really easy to use. The interface is incredibly clear, much simpler than Windows Media Player 10 and 11, and it’s incredibly fast.

I also really like that the software is created by the VideoLAN organisation, “a project and a non-profit organization, composed of volunteers, developing and promoting free, open-source multimedia solutions.”

I definitely recommend VLC media player, if you are looking for a free, user-friendly replacement for Windows Media Player on Windows 8 (or, indeed, any version of Windows from XP SP2 onwards).

Planning Study 2.1

Back in April 2010 (was it really that long ago?) I wrote a post called Planning Study 2.0 showing how I was using a free online application called Floorplanner to work out whether it was feasible to move my study  from the former garage upstairs into bedroom four.

Then we discovered that we were expecting Isaac and those plans were put on hold. Bedroom four was to become Isaac’s room and my study would need to remain in the “garage room”.

Fast forward a couple of years and it became clear to us that Isaac was going to need a larger room. So Jane and I dusted down our plans and we decided to sacrifice the guest bedroom to move Isaac into, then the study would move into Isaac’s old room, and finally the garage room would become a second living room/lounge with the option of a sofa bed or inflatable double-mattress on the floor.

Initial plan — study 2.0

This was my initial plan from April 2010.

Proposed floor plan of relocated study
Initial floor plan of relocated study

Revised plan — study 2.1

My revised plan of Summer 2012, rotated 90° right.

Plan of study
Final plan

And so during the last couple of months we’ve slowly moved things around. Isaac moved rooms first of all, and then the study steadily moved upstairs. Bookcases and books first, then the filing cabinet and Ikea Poäng chair, and finally my desk (which I had to completely dismantle to get out through the former garage’s sliding door and back in through the front door).

So, here are the 3D renderings from Floorplan to compare with photographs of how the actual room looks.

Looking south

Floor plan of study shown in 3D
Floor plan of study shown in 3D (looking south)
My study, showing from left to right: filing cabinet, desk and bookcase
My study, showing from left to right: filing cabinet, desk and bookcase

Looking west

Plan of study, shown in 3D
Floor plan of study shown in 3D (looking west)
My study, looking towards the window, with chair and bookcases
My study, looking towards the window, with chair and bookcases

Conclusion

Floorplanner has been a really useful tool. As I said in my initial review, the free account is limited to only one plan (although you can join rooms together to create, for example, a whole floor) but that has been enough for our requirements.

We are now beginning to use it to plan what to do with the old study (the “garage room”). How can we fit in a sofa or two, and still make it comfortable for guests to sleep in? I’ll report back once we’ve worked it out.

PowerMockup – create wireframes using Microsoft PowerPoint

PowerMockup website
PowerMockup

When designing (or redesigning) websites I tend to follow a five stage process:

  1. Gather / discover
  2. Structure
  3. Design
  4. Build and test
  5. Launch and maintenance

During the second stage (structure) I will focus largely on two aspects of the website’s structure: the overall site hierarchy and the structure of each of the pages, what are traditionally called ‘wireframes’.

Site structure

To design the site structure, for years, I’ve used mind maps and my mind mapping application of choice is Mindjet MindManager.

I love MindManager, and each version just gets better than the last. An important thing for me is that the software interface doesn’t get in the way of capturing and organising the information. It’s packed with subtle but powerful features such as keyboard shortcuts and the ability to drag information from web pages and Windows Explorer directories).

Page structure and wireframes

When it comes to designing page-level structures I pretty much always start by drawing wireframes using a good old fashioned pencil and pad of paper.

Wireframes are visual guides that present a skeleton or framework for the information on the page. They are concerned more with where information and design elements should sit rather than how they look.

If you think of it in terms of architecture, the building blueprint will show you that the kitchen needs a window between the wall cupboards, and in front of the sink, but it won’t tell you what colour or make they are.

As I said, I usually start all my wireframe diagrams with a pencil and pad, but occasionally I want something that I can save, edit and share with others via email.

Until now I’ve usually used either Balsamiq or Mockingbird, both of which have limited, free accounts. But recently I’ve been trying out PowerMockup.

PowerMockup

PowerMockup is a wireframing tool that integrates with Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 or 2010. It is essentially a library of PowerPoint shapes offering

  • 89 fully-editable user-interface (UI) elements
  • 104 wireframe icons
PowerMockup stencil library elements
Examples of some of the PowerMockup stencil library elements

And it is as simple to use as finding the element you want to use and dragging it onto your PowerPoint slide. The UI elements and icons can all be resized, and recoloured too which provides a great deal of flexibility.

Page size

Also, remember, although you are working in Microsoft PowerPoint which, by default, is set up for a 4:3 or 16:9 aspect ratio screen you can adjust the page setup for any screen size and aspect ratio. That way you are not limited to only designing for ‘above the fold’.

Example

As a quick example, I mocked-up the PowerMockup website homepage using PowerMockup in Microsoft PowerPoint 2010:

Wireframe of the PowerMockup  website using PowerMockup
Wireframe of the PowerMockup website using PowerMockup

My experience

Intuitive

I have to say that I was very pleasantly surprised using PowerMockup. Because it integrates with Microsoft PowerPoint I didn’t have to learn a whole new application: it was very intuitive to use.

Design

I really like the design of the elements too. My main criticisms of both Balsamiq and Mockingbird is that their UI elements have quite a sketchy, cartoony feel to them; particularly Balsamiq.

In contrast the UI elements in PowerMockup are clean, unfussy and unobtrusive. While Balsamiq and to a lesser extent Mockingbird’s UI elements have a Comic Sans feel to them, PowerMockup’s UI elements feel more like something classical like Helvetica.

Price

PowerMockup costs US $39.95 (approx. £25 GBP) for a single-user license, although obviously you also need a licensed copy of Microsoft PowerPoint 2007 or 2010.

The cheapest, standalone version that I can find, Home and Student, will cost you £75.00 GPB on Amazon UK), so you’re talking about a total cost of around £100 for one user.

If you already own a copy of PowerPoint 2007 or 2010, however, then you’re laughing and you may even qualify for a free license.

There are also two team licenses available: 5 users for US $119.95 (approx. £74 GBP), and 10 users for US $199.90 (approx. £123 GBP).

Conclusion

I’ve been genuinely very impressed with PowerMockup. What is not to like? It has a very extensive, very attractive, and very usable collection of UI elements and icons, and most importantly it’s really simple to use.

What might be nice is if someone could throw together a number of PowerPoint template files (with sensible background grids) to emulate the most common page dimensions, e.g. Blueprint CSS’s 950px width, 960 Grid System’s 960px width, plus some responsive-style tablet and mobile templates. Coupled with PowerMockup these could be a very useful, very affordable combination for small design studios and individuals.

I can definitely see myself using PowerMockup on the next design project I need to work on.

Reading through categories in Google Reader

20120112-googlereader

I’m a big fan of Google Reader, which is a Web-based application that allows me to subscribe (via RSS) to news and blog sites and read their latest updates in one convenient location, rather than having to traipse around a hundred or more websites.

I used to use a Windows application with the dubious name of FeedDemon. It was in my humble opinion the best RSS reader available for Windows. In fact, I liked it so much that I bought it.

And then there were changes to how feeds were aggregated and stored, and it started synchronizing with Google Reader rather than (if I remember correctly) its own server.

Which was when I realised that I didn’t need to wait a couple of minutes for the synchronization to complete before I read my posts. Instead of pulling them from Google Reader into FeedDemon I could go directly to Google Reader and cut out the middle-demon.

So I exorcised my PC and FeedDemon was gone. That was around 2007 or 2008.

So why has it taken me this long of using Google Reader to realise that I don’t need to have all my sub-folders open to access the posts?

I categorise my feeds into a number of folders (that I have both “Metal music” and “Music” is because Google Reader wasn’t playing properly the other night and after I created “Music” nothing happened until the next day!).

It was only the other day that I realised that I could simply click on the closed folder to see all the posts within, organized by date. And if I like, I can also view only unread items.

20120112-googlereader2

That’s making getting through reading updates much, much quicker and more enjoyable.

Of course, it also helps that I’ve purged a few blogs in the new year. This year I need to focus more. I’ve got a couple of Web projects that I’d like to launch in 2012, as well as a book on the go.