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Software Review: Thunderbird 3

After a long period of apparent stagnation, Mozilla Messaging, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Mozilla Foundation, has released the long-awaited Thunderbird 3 – its free, open-source email client. Thunderbird has been my favorite email client for several years now, as it does everything that Outlook Express or Windows Mail does (as far as I am concerned) and has a better track record for security, runs faster, and works on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux. Cross-platform compatibility is always the first feature I look for in a program, and on December¬† 8, 2009, Mozilla Messaging released the new version of Thunderbird for all three platforms. While this isn’t a new feature, it is something to be underscored, as you can’t get Windows Mail for Linux or OS X, and Apple’s Mail certainly doesn’t run under Windows. Another great feature of Thunderbird is its extensions. Like the Firefox browser, Thunderbird supports third-party add-ons which change and improve the way it functions. Unfortunately there is normally a period where some extensions do not work after a new version is released, and some of my favorites are missing. However, the developers of these extensions normally come out with updated versions fairly soon after the release, so I hope not to have to wait too long.

All of your email in one inbox
All of your email in one inbox

As for new features, the first thing I noticed was the option to display all of your accounts’ inboxes in one location, just as recent versions of Apple’s Mail have. For instance, if you have a work email address and a home email address, and you check them both with the same email client, you can now view all new messages in a single inbox. I’m sure that fans of GTD will applaud this move. As for me, I wasn’t totally sold on this feature, but after experimenting with it for a day or so, I started to like it. If the goal is to be notified of new email from various sources, this definitely meets it. However, if you like keeping things separated (for example, not getting distracted with personal emails while at work, or bothered with work while at home), this isn’t necessarily for you.

Tabbed emails
Tabbed emails

While setting up Thunderbird, you are presented with the option to synchronize IMAP accounts onto your local hard drive. This is a great feature if you travel and don’t have an Internet connection, but still want to be able to read your email while offline. I did note that it took a very long time to synchronize my Gmail account, which has gigabytes of saved email on it, but that’s to be expected. I was able to use Thunderbird while the sync was going on, so it did not bother me.

The first thing I noticed was that the user interface has been simplified, with some of the button clutter removed. Also, by default messages open in new tabs, as opposed to new windows. While I am very used to this method of presenting information in web browsers (as Firefox has had this feature for years), I haven’t quite gotten used to it in email. However, I’m starting to like it more as I use it.

Thunderbird 3's new search
Thunderbird 3's new search

Thunderbird’s new search engine is immediately noticeable the first time you search your inbox for something. The results are presented in a new fashion, but more importantly, Thunderbird indexes all of your messages for faster search results, and you don’t have to search folder by folder for messages, as it will go through all of them for you. While I use Gmail for most of my email, I still like using Thunderbird as the client. However I frequently have found myself going back to the Gmail web interface when I need to search for a lost message. Hopefully this will no longer be necessary with Thunderbird’s new search capabilities.

Also, taking another page from the Gmail book, Thunderbird now lets you archive your email by pressing ‘A’ while reading any message. While I generally file all of my emails away (in folders in Thunderbird or with a label, then archiving in Gmail) sometimes I don’t have a particular folder or label to apply to an email. I know I don’t want to delete it, but I also don’t want to stick it in a file. I just want it gone… until I want it back again. That’s what archiving is for. This is another feature I’ve found myself logging in to the Gmail interface for. Unfortunately, Thunderbird’s archive feature is different from Gmail’s, so when I archive an email in Thunderbird, I still need to sign in to Gmail’s web interface to archive it there. However, if I never used the Gmail interface, this would not be an issue.

It is worth noting that I did have some stability problems with the beta and release candidates in late November, however they all seem to have been sorted out and the release version is rock-solid on Mac OS X and Linux. I have not yet tested the Windows versions, but I have high hopes. This is a noteworthy improvement to Thunderbird which I am grateful to have. In short, if you do not require connectivity to a Microsoft Exchange server (for calendar, contacts, and other non-email data) I recommend you try Thunderbird 3.

Oh, did I mention that it’s free?

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