First, if you are so overwhelmed with everything else right now (it being the last week of classes, of course), you can temporarily put off dealing with this. Just click the button that says you want to. (How long is 'temporary'? Not forever, but Google hasn't told us, either.)
Why the new look?
Google has been rolling this out for a variety of reasons - some have to do with function, some have to do with appearance. The major changes are:
- a cleaner looking interface - more modern, more streamlined.
- some new themes to customize how your Gmail looks (more in a moment)
- improvements to the conversation view that keeps messages on a topic together.
- more ways to customize appearance (more in a moment again.)
- simpler ways to search and filter in Gmail
- easier switching between mail, contacts, and tasks.
- a new toolbar that only shows you buttons when you need them.
The two big questions I've heard so far today are about contrast between text and the background, and about the spacing of items in the sidebar/inbox. Gmail gives you options on how to handle both of these.
The items in the sidebar (like Inbox, Important, Sent Mail, etc.) have a certain spacing. You can decide to make that roomy and spacious, or you can make it very compact, so it takes up less space.
If you look at the top of your mail inbox, you'll see a little gear symbol. When you click on it, you'll see the following drop-down menu. Adjust the "Display density" until the spacing suits you. You can also use this menu to revert to the old look temporarily, or to easily get to settings or themes.
Themes are a way to personalize your Gmail. Here's a view of your choices. Some of them have better contrast than others, or may be more pleasing to your eye.
The classic themes came over from the older look of Gmail, and a couple of them look more washed out in the new version, which is why I've been hearing questions about how to make the contrast better. This is definitely a "play around and see what works for you" thing.
One nifty trick is that some themes change based on the weather, the time of day, or have rotating images. If you look at the themes below, the little sun symbol in the bottom right means it changes based on weather. If it's got a clock, it changes based on time of day. And if it's got the three little squares, it has multiple rotating images.
One thing that can confuse people (though it's not new to Gmail's new look) is that Gmail by default groups conversations (series of emails) together.
If you'd rather not do this, use the settings menu (the gear I talked about above) to go to settings, then on the General tab, look for the "Conversation View" option, about half-way down. You can select "Conversation view off" and you'll see each email individually.
Want to do more?
Finally, if you're now curious about all that Gmail can do, let me point you at an awesome feature, the Gmail Labs tab. (Found in the same Settings window we just talked about...)
Labs are features that are not part of Gmail's default settings. Often, that's because they're still in development, or because they're things some people want, but not everyone. I plan a future post about some of my favorites, but in the meantime, LifeHacker had some great tips earlier this year in a top-ten list, and then ten more experimental features to check out.