An easy workaround for getting Gmail Push Notifications while using iPhone’s Mail app

I finally received my iPhone 5S after a three week wait. While I am excited to have my new phone, it has meant giving up on using ActiveSync to get email pushed directly to my phone from my gmail account.

Last year, Google decided to stop supporting Microsoft’s proprietary ActiveSync for mobile devices in favor of their extension to IMAP to enable automatic push. Unfortunately, their extension is not based on any actual standard, and Apple has not implemented it.

Google has allowed existing devices to continue to use ActiveSync, but it has blocked any new activations. This meant that as soon as my wife and I received our new phones, ActiveSync stopped working. We were forced to fall back on IMAP, which meant that mail would be on a fetch schedule of no faster than every 15 minutes.

Talk about a first world problem! I have to wait a whole 15 minutes to get notified of new emails?! The horror…!

But it annoys me nonetheless. There are a few reasons I want my email pushed. One is that sometimes an important email comes in, and I want to know right away and respond quickly. Another is that sometimes there is a conversation going on over email between a few people, andI want to participate in real time. Also, frequently fetching email can hurt battery life, so while it can go as low as 15 minutes, many people recommend 30 or 60 minutes.

One obvious answer is to switch to using Google’s own gmail app for iOS, which supports push notifications. However, I don’t want to do this for a couple of reasons. First off, I don’t really like the interface. Second, I keep track of a couple of legacy email accounts, and I like having the unified inbox on my phone. Third, many apps integrate directly with the built-in mail client on the iPhone, and switching between it and the gmail app is confusing.

Another answer would be to start paying Google $50 a year to turn ActiveSync back on. I use Google Apps to run my own domain, and I am grandfathered in to get it for free. If I were to upgrade to the paid version ($50/user/year), I could get ActiveSync again. While I don’t necessarily object to paying $50 for it, in the future I do plan to activate email addresses for my kids when they are old enough. This would automatically increase my costs to $150, just so that I can be pushing email to my own phone. I’m not ready to sign up for that expense.

Many people have proposed some complicated solutions for maintaining push email. They generally involve forwarding your email to a different service that supports push, like iCloud, and then setting up some alternate return addresses so that the messages still appear to come from gmail. This is more complicated than I wanted to go.

Finally, I hit on a simple solution. By tinkering with the notification settings, I can keep using the Mail app while leveraging Google’s gmail app for push notifications. The key feature for push emails for me is to simply be notified that a new email has been received and the subject line, and this is simple to achieve.

Here’s how it works:

First, I install Google’s gmail app and set it up. To be clear, I have no intentions of actually using this to send and receive emails on my iPhone, but I need it installed on the device for its push notifications. Within the gmail app itself, I set the notifications to “All New Mail” so that Google will send an alert with every message, including mundane items like shipping notifications.

Then, within the iPhone’s “Notification Center”, I make the following configuration options for the gmail app:

  • Set the alert style to “Banners”
  • Turn off the “Badge App Icon”, since I have no intention of actually opening the gmail app and the badges will bug me
  • Turn sounds on
  • Turn “Show in Notification Center” on
  • Set it to include the 10 most recent items
  • Turn on “Show on Lock Screen”

I then throttle back the Fetch schedule for the mail accounts on my iPhone to 30 minutes.

With this setup, I am 90% there. My phone is only fetching email occasionally, but as soon as new message to my primary email account comes in, Google sends a push notification to my phone with the sender, subject line, and the first few lines of the message:

Push notifications come in from the Gmail app

Push notifications come in from the Gmail app

The alert has come from the Gmail app, rather than the built-in Mail app, but this isn’t a big deal.  When I want to actually read the email, I still open up the regular Mail app. Since it is only fetching messages every 30 minutes, it won’t already be in the inbox, but it will immediately perform a fetch and pop right in:

The Mail app fetches new mail as soon as it is opened and grabs the new message

The Mail app fetches new mail as soon as it is opened and grabs the new message

This works well – I still have my unified inbox using the iPhone’s built-in mail app, I’m not paying $50 a year for ActiveSync service, and I have push notifications.

There is one more modification to avoid confusion, however. The built-in Mail app is still fetching email every 30 minutes, and when it grabs new messages that I haven’t read yet, it will show me a new notification. This will be confusing, since I will now be getting double notifications for every message – one immediately when it arrives via the Gmail app, and another 15-30 minutes later when the iPhone’s mail app fetches it.

I don’t want to disable notifications for the Mail app altogether, since I do want to get the notified when a message pops in from when of my secondary email boxes. The solution is that iOS actually allows you to set custom Notification Center options for each email account separately:

I turn off notifications on my primary mail account but leave it enabled for the rest

I turn off notifications on my primary mail account but leave it enabled for the rest

For my primary email account within “Notification Center”, I turn off the banners and sounds, but I leave the badge icon on.  I leave the banners on my for my other accounts. This way, when a message pops in for a secondary account on the 30 minute schedule, it will pop up an alert, but messages to my primary account are silent, except for updating the badge number.

This seems to be working perfectly. I have hidden the gmail app off in a folder and continue to just use the Mail app, but I’m notified of messages as they arrive.

It has two minor inconveniences, but I can live with them. The first is that if I choose the “Slide to View” option on the notification in the lock screen, it takes me into the Gmail app. The second is that if I don’t read a message when it arrives, the badge icon on the Mail app won’t update until it does its next 30 minute fetch, but this seems like a reasonable compromise.

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20 Responses to An easy workaround for getting Gmail Push Notifications while using iPhone’s Mail app

  1. Kevin says:

    This is the best alternative out there. Great idea! Thanks!

  2. Chris says:

    I also use this workaround, however the notifications from the gmail app are very flaky (ie they stop working every now and again) which drives me insane. I have no idea why this happens (it never happened when I used to use activesync). Does anybody know why notifications from the gmail app stop working randomly? Does anybody else experience this and have a solution for the times the notifications stop working?

    • I have had some issues with Gmail notifications when using Gmail’s newer “groups” that divide content between Primary, Promotions, Social, Updates, and Forums. I have the gmail app set to send notifications for all mail, but every once in a while it suddenly switches on its own back to just “Primary”, causing me to miss the other notifications. Could this be your issue? I’d say this happens maybe once ever 10-12 weeks or so.

      • Chris says:

        I wish that we’re the case, but I always check that first. Right now, I’m not receiving gmail notifications. I tried rebooting my phone, checked all notification settings, made sure the gmail app is set to “all mail”. Still nothing. Are you having any issues right now?

      • Nope, I just got a push notification about this very message. It’s working fine for me.

  3. Mary says:

    I appreciate people like you figuring these things out for the rest of us. I’ve tried your solution and it works fine, except for the random reset problem. Thanks for your help.

  4. Dmitry says:

    As an option you can jb your device, and get a tweak called gmail push for 0,99 in cydia. It will bring back push for gmail stock app. Works like a charm.

  5. Michael says:

    Quick introduction, I’m not super techy but I can make my way around computers and devices alright. I understand the “Push” aspect of getting notifications, and I actually like using the gmail app, so I don’t have any problems there. So my question is (and maybe you already answered it and Im just not techy enough to pick it up) but like I said, I’ll receive the notifications, but when I go to actually check/read my new email, it requires me to sit and wait for it to actually download. This is frustrating, I want to be able to click on the notification and have the email automatically pop up without anymore wait time. Am I doing something wrong/missing something? If not, is there a fix for this (paid or free, doesn’t matter) but still using the gmail app/system?

  6. paul says:

    I have used this work around for years and it’s great. I hate the Gmail interface too (conversation threads…booo!). However the Gmail notifications can be flaky and you need to reset every now and then. I set up a mymail.my.com address from the phone and notifications are excellent and reliable. I don’t actually use the interface either (not quite there yet, no pane view) and just open the Mail app when a notification is received.

    Just be aware that the default for the mymail app is to receive emails between 8am and 9pm. You need to change this to ‘always’ (took me a while to work this out).

    • Chris says:

      Thanks Paul – the mymail is awesome. The flakiness of the gmail notifications literally drives me crazy (ie they stopped working today) and this is a great workaround!

  7. tjapko says:

    Wonderful. Thanks buddy. Just switched back from Android to IPhone and ran into this issue. Now I have it under control.

  8. Gordon says:

    Yep works perfectly for now. Best.

  9. Penny says:

    Thank you!!

  10. Ken says:

    I just started a supervisory position with a company using Gmail instead of a dedicated mail server and really didn’t like the prospect of only getting mail updates every 15 minutes. I just set this up as you recommended and it’s working like a charm. Thank you so much. I can’t wait to show it to everyone else. 🙂

  11. Denise says:

    Worked great!!!!!! Thanks a bunch!!!!

  12. Battery Life Concerns says:

    Can anyone comment on battery life? I am using the stock gmail app to get my emails and notifications and basically ditching the ios default mail app. MY gmail app on average takes 15% of my battery daily. Some days are harder than others to get through the day without charging my iPhone 6 Plus. I have even thought about forwarding the gmails to an outlook account to see how that affects battery, pushing and popping with the outlook mail app. Thanks in advance.

  13. Carl says:

    Great solution! Exactly what I was looking for. Thanks

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