Quick Tip: Use Inbox tabs in Gmail to organize your messages

Google has added some new tabs with corresponding categories to the Gmail inbox. Find out how you can make the most of this feature.

Here's an interesting bit of trivia: the Tab soft drink turns 50 this year.

 Figure A

If you grew up during the 60's or 70's you may have experienced the iconic taste experience represented by the above can. Whether you liked it or not, I'm sure it was memorable. I tried Tab just once ("Once," Joe Piscopo hissed in the film "Johnny Dangerously") as an eight year old and wondered whether the soda had gone sour. I didn't realize at the time it was intended as a sugar-free drink (later replaced by Diet Coke, although Tab still exists in some places).


How does Tab soda factor into the new tabbed Gmail interface? To show that tabs have an enduring and distinct history - in fact, in technology they continue to be all the rage, no matter what medium (unlike their liquid counterpart, at least in my view). Since Firefox first created the tabbed browsing experience in 2002 the same handy view has been applied to Office documents, Windows Explorer, my company's backup administration tool, and even the command prompt.

Google is getting further into the game by providing a new tabbed Gmail interface to bring similar benefits to its users. Like many of its product updates, this is being released gradually on a scale rather than all at once. You may have already received a welcome email from Google announcing that the feature has been applied to your inbox.

Figure B


As you can see, the default tabs are "Primary," "Social" and "Promotions." Gmail automatically groups new email into these tabs based on the following criteria:

  • Primary - Friends/family/default location/items you've starred (think of this as your "Main" inbox).
  • Social - Emails from social media/websites involving gaming or dating for instance.
  • Promotions - Marketing messages (A Groupon deal for example).

You can drag and drop items into the correct tab to manually reorganize them (or right-click the item and choose "Move to tab.") This will give you the option to have future messages from that sender go to that tab next time.

Here's what it looks like for a typical user (image courtesy of

Figure C


The new message count is displayed for each tab so you can easily keep track of what has come in lately.

You can also add two other tabs called "Updates" (for financial messages, receipts and confirmation notifications) and "Forums" (for emails from online discussion groups/forums) as shown below.

Adding and removing your tabs

Click the + sign to the right of the tabs to customize your view.

Figure D


You can check or uncheck the options depending on your preferences. Unchecking ALL options will turn off tabs entirely. There is no way to rename these tabs, however.

If you don't see any tabs at all (and thus no + sign to click), you might need to turn this function on to begin with.

Figure E


Click the gear in the upper right to reveal the following menu.

Figure F


Choose "Configure inbox" and the above "Select tabs to enable" window (Figure D) will appear, so you can add the desired tabs.

The new look isn't just for browser-based Gmail; this is also available on Android (4.0 and later) and iOS devices – so long as the tabs are already enabled in your browser. Here's how it looks for Android (image courtesy of

Figure G


For more details, check out a Google video discussing the new features.

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Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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