Thunderbird is Go!

When Thunderbird, the Mozilla Foundation's open-source e-mail client, first came out, I liked it a lot. But then Mozilla put Thunderbird on the back burner to focus its attention on Firefox, letting Thunderbird slowly age into a second-rate e-mail client. Now, at long last, a new and vastly improved version of Thunderbird has just been released and is back to being great.

I started working with Thunderbird again with its beta 3 release earlier this year and was immediately impressed. The 2008-vintage versions of Thunderbird were just sad, but this time around, Mozilla got it right. Thunderbird's 3.0 release deserves any e-mail user's attention.

I say this after working with Thunderbird on two test systems. Both systems were Dell Inspiron 530S PC with a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus under the hood. Both machines had 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set. On the first, I was running Windows XP SP3, and on the second, I was running MEPIS Linux 8.0. Yes, that's right: Thunderbird, like Firefox, runs on all popular desktop systems (including Mac OS X) and in almost 50 different languages.

The first thing that struck me about the new Thunderbird wasn't any of its new features. It was that, regardless of platform, it ran so much faster and more smoothly than the 2.0 series. I had given up on Thunderbird because it has gotten to be more trouble than it was worth. Those problems are history.

What caught my eye next was that the interface is cleaner; at first glance, it reminded me more of Google's Gmail or other Web-mail interfaces than it did a traditional e-mail client. This impression was heightened by the use of tabs. In Thunderbird 3.0, you can now use tabs to view individual messages and mail folders. So, for example, you can quickly file and sort your messages to easily manage your e-mail workflow.

It's especially interesting that you can use these features in lockstep with what's perhaps Thunderbird's strongest new feature: Search. Now when you search in Thunderbird, you can easily jump from the default of Search All Messages to narrowing down your hunt on a particular e-mail message field such as Subject, From, Recipient, To, CC, or the Message body and you can combine them.

Okay, that's neat, but we've seen that before in such e-mail programs as my personal favorite, Evolution. What makes Thunderbird's search interesting is that you can then easily click and burrow your way further into your search results to find exactly what you need. If you missed something along the way, you can just back up to a previous tab and try another route.

Search and Tabs go together like ham and eggs.

This may not sound impressive, but trust me, it is. The problem with e-mail has long been that there's so much of it. Even with good spam filters and the use of automatic message filters -- e.g., you set your client to send all mail from your boss into a boss folder -- it's too easy to lose track of an important message from just a day ago. With Thunderbird Search and Tab working in harmony, I've never seen e-mail more manageable -- and I've worked with e-mail not just as a user, but as a network e-mail administrator since the mid-1980s.

Another thing that I like a lot about the new Thunderbird is how it handles not just spam, which it learns as you mark messages as junk mail, but any content that might be suspicious. If Thunderbird thinks a message is dodgy, it won't let any embedded content display on your screen. If Thunderbird gets a message with remote content links, it won't display those links' contents unless you've given the sender an okay. Sure, you could still get malware through Thunderbird, but the program goes out of its way to make it as hard as possible for hackers to crack into your PC.

Is Thunderbird the best e-mail client ever? No. It does have its shortcomings.

For example, you can use it with Microsoft's Exchange mail server, but only as an IMAP (Internet Message Access Protocol) client. So while I think Thunderbird 3.0 is better than Microsoft's Outlook 2007 as a general purpose e-mail client, you can't really use it as an Outlook replacement in an office that relies on Exchange/Outlook integrated services.

Thunderbird also doesn't include a built-in calendar function. Mozilla has its own CalDAV-compatible calendaring program, Sunbird, and an add-on, Lightning, that enables Thunderbird to use it, but it isn't built in. Once you have Sunbird and Lightning in place, you can then use yet another extension, Google Calendar 0.5.5, to make Thunderbird a Google Calendar client. I've done this myself, and it works well, but it seems to me like a lot of trouble for functionality that should have come wrapped in the package.

So, all in all, for Linux, I'm going to keep using Evolution. But on Windows and Mac OS X, where Evolution doesn't have a real presence, I'm switching back to Thunderbird. Give it a look, and I think you'll see why Thunderbird is the Windows/Mac OS X e-mail client both for me and for you.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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