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A look at Thunderbird 3

January 6, 2010

This article was contributed by Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier.

It takes time to review a mail client, and one shouldn't rush to judgment. So, even though Thunderbird 3 has been out for about a month it takes a little time to truly explore. This is a major release for Mozilla Messaging, the first big update of Thunderbird since 2007. This release brings a new tabbed interface, search improvements, a few minor interface changes, and improved account setup, to name a few of the more eagerly anticipated features.

[Account Setup]

One of the major features in Thunderbird 3, and one of the first users will encounter if this is the first go-around with Thunderbird, is the Account Wizard. This has been redesigned from Thunderbird 2 to automatically attempt to set up an email account with minimal information from the user. While LWN readers may have little trouble specifying the servers, ports, and protocols to access their mail, many users don't know POP3 from fizzy cola.

How robust is Thunderbird's account wizard? It had no problems at all setting up a stock GMail account for secure IMAP access, and found the proper settings to access mail via IMAP on a GroupWise server in less than a minute using nothing more than the email address and password.

The wizard isn't perfect, of course. It got understandably confused when trying to set up a domain hosted on Google Apps, probably because the domain name and domain of the mail servers differ. Odds are, Thunderbird's account wizard will be able to correctly configure itself for most email accounts.

Aside from the account wizard, not a lot has changed with the account settings in Thunderbird 3. Users can now add a signature in the account dialog rather than having to specify a separate file (though that's also still an option) but overall, not a lot of major changes from Thunderbird 2.

Thunderbird preferences have largely gone untouched, with the exception of the Security tab. In Thunderbird 3, the Privacy tab is replaced with a Security tab, and there's a new dialog for handling cookies from Web content. Users familiar with Thunderbird 2 will have no problem finding their way around the latest release. New users should find Thunderbird 3 relatively easy to use as well.


GMail has captured quite a few users while Mozilla took its time between version 2 and version 3. Part of that is the universal access to mail, since users can find their mail anywhere they can get an Internet connection and a browser. Thunderbird 3 tries to answer this with revamped search features, which are very useful but also much slower than the online equivalents — at least if the user is starting with an account of any size.

[Search Messages]

When testing Thunderbird against IMAP accounts, it took quite a while for it to index messages in the account folders. Initially, Thunderbird would report that a search term matched no messages, even when the message was plainly visible. After Thunderbird has had time to index the folders, however, a very rich search functionality becomes visible.

In addition to just finding messages that match specific strings or search parameters, Thunderbird presents a detailed search page that displays the folder that a message was found in, the account it belongs to, snippets of the top results, and so on. Users can, for instance, search their mail accounts for a term like "openSUSE," and then narrow it down to the sender, account, whether it has attachments, or what folder it is in.

[Search Amazon]

Thunderbird even creates a timeline graph of mails that match terms, so users can narrow results by clicking through to years, months, or even days that have matches. It is far simpler than trying to specify date parameters as part of a search.

It is possible to do many of the same things with GMail, of course, but Thunderbird does make it a bit easier. Users don't need to memorize search parameters. The tradeoff is that Thunderbird is a bit slower than GMail or other Webmail services with search functionality, but this is only natural. Webmail providers already have all the mail on disk that they want to search, but Thunderbird doesn't have the same advantage. Users with a lot of mail should plan to give Thunderbird some time to index messages before relying on search heavily.

Everything in its place

One of the most compelling features for Thunderbird 3 is the unified inbox. Each account has its own inbox and set of folders, but when Thunderbird is configured with two or more accounts it also sports a unified inbox that shows messages from all the account inboxes.

This is actually a Smart Folder that is set up automatically, with a rule to display all messages from each inbox. Users can modify this to only display new messages or set additional rules, or create new smart folders that display any messages that fit certain parameters. For instance, it is possible to set up a smart folder to only display messages from a specific email address (like, say, one's manager) or the age of a message, or its status.

Users who want everything in one place can also use Thunderbird for news groups and RSS feeds. The search features work not only with the mail, but also the RSS feeds, which is particularly useful.

Setting up RSS feeds is easy enough when importing from an OPML file, but (oddly) Thunderbird isn't one of Firefox's default applications to subscribe to feeds. One might expect that the product teams would coordinate this a bit better. It is possible to configure Firefox to use Thunderbird to subscribe to feeds by choosing the Thunderbird binary as the RSS application after clicking the RSS icon in Firefox's awesome bar. Once that's done, adding RSS feeds to Thunderbird works just fine.

One disappointment, Thunderbird didn't recognize the "folders" from Google Reader. So when importing more than 100 feeds in an OPML file exported from Google Reader, they were displayed as flat list of feeds in alphabetical order. Google Reader's OPML export seemed to contain the right information, so it looks like this is something not implemented in Thunderbird.

[Tabbed Interface]

The much-anticipated tabs are a nice addition for users who have a lot of messages open at one time. By default Thunderbird will open each message in a new tab, though if a user prefers, it is possible to configure Thunderbird to open them in a new window instead. Search results are also displayed in tabs, and users can open folders and smart folders in tabs too or in new windows if the "old school" method is preferred.

In addition to tabs, the layout of Thunderbird has changed a bit in this release. It's not bad, but it does take some getting used to. The toolbar for messages displayed in the tab has changed quite a bit. The reply, forward, junk, and delete buttons are now on the right-hand side of the interface. Previously they were displayed at the top of the message and on the top toolbar. It's hard to say whether the new layout is better or not from a usability perspective with all things being equal, but it's a step backwards for those of us who are already familiar with the old layout.

For those who are familiar with the old layout, the Thunderbird team offers the old way of doing things. Go to Help -> Migration Assistance. One of the helpful tools on that page is a button to use the original toolbar. This can be switched back and forth easily. Likewise, the "smart folders" mode can be turned off as well for users who prefer the old way of doing things.

When it comes to sending mail, very little has changed. The composition window is pretty much the same as in Thunderbird 2. One nice touch with this release, though, is the ability to easily add contacts to the addressbook. Just click on the contact and it's added, much in the same way as adding bookmarks in Firefox.

Finally, there's the new "archive" button. It is possible to spend entirely too much time deciding where to file messages. Thunderbird offers an alternative in the "archive" button, which just whisks a message away into an archive folder. The only thing is it's not 100% clear to the user where messages are going. The first time an message is archived with an account, Thunderbird creates a folder for that year and places the message there. This is configurable via the account preferences, but it's non-obvious. It would be good if the Thunderbird team would spend some time making this a bit more intuitive for the next update.

What's missing

It's worth noting that Thunderbird still lacks a visible mobile strategy. While the Firefox team has been heads down on delivering Fennec, there's no sign that Thunderbird will be available on mobile devices. For users who don't travel much or don't access mail on mobile devices, this isn't a problem. For the "road warriors," however, this is a big missing piece.

A minor feature that would be nice to have is the ability to import mail from other sources more easily. Thunderbird will grab settings from previous releases of Thunderbird, but that's about it. One would expect that Thunderbird would be able to grab mail from, say, an mbox file or other common clients and mail formats.

Thunderbird is a top-notch desktop mail client. The Thunderbird 3 release brings a fair number of new and interesting features that are worth checking out if you prefer a desktop client. Whether it's compelling enough to attract many users who have adopted Webmail — or in many cases have never used anything but Webmail — is another story.

Comments (30 posted)

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