First look: Mozilla Thunderbird 2.0

Which new features are truly useful and which are merely gimmicks?

When it comes to choosing an e-mail client ... well, there really aren't that many popular options. Corporate e-mail users tend to have their client dictated to them by IT, which usually means Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. For personal use, many people just use the old standbys out of habit: Outlook Express/Windows Mail under Windows and Apple Mail under Mac OS X. The once-popular Eudora seems to be fading into a niche product (and is going open-source at some point this year).

The one e-mail client that seems to still be on the rise is the open-source Mozilla Thunderbird, which recently hit Version 2.0. While it hasn't changed radically, the new release includes several new features, most notably for organizing and finding messages. In this review, we'll assess which additions are useful and which are fluff.

Look and feel


At first glance, Thunderbird 2 doesn't appear to have changed much. It defaults to the classic three-pane e-mail view, or you can choose Wide or Vertical views. You can drag panel edges around to suit your needs. It all feels very comfortable.

Wide layout
The Wide layout is well suited to reading HTML e-mails.

If you look carefully, you'll see two tiny arrows in the header of the folder window. This is your interface to Advanced Folder Views, which is new in Thunderbird 2. You can mark folders as Favorites and then click over to a Favorite Folders view that shows only those folders. Other options are Unread Folders and Recent Folders.

Favorite Folders
The Favorite Folders view.

New features: Useful or gimmicky?


Beyond the basic interface, the latest version introduces a number of new behind-the-scenes features. We've spent some time working with the new features in order to separate the gimmicks from the truly useful additions. Message tagging


This is one of the best features of the new release. Tagging messages allows you to quickly filter your in-box to find the content you're looking for.

Imagine you've set up three tags: business, personal and taxes. When a message pertinent to your business taxes comes in, you tag it with "business" and "taxes." Likewise, when a personal tax message comes in, it gets tagged "personal" and "taxes."

Tagging a message.

Tagging a message.


Ten months later, it's an easy thing to search for messages with the tag "taxes" to get all your tax-related documents, search for "business" and "taxes" tags to get business tax documents, or even search for messages tagged with "personal" but not with "taxes" when you just can't stand to think about what you owe Uncle Sam this year.

You can assign tags based on rules as mail comes in, or tag messages by hand. There are a handful of tags built in, but it's easy to add your own.

Overall, tags are a great way to get a handle on your mail. Since a message can have many tags, you don't have to make the kinds of "this or that" decisions you'd make if you were just sorting messages into folders.

Verdict: Useful


Message history navigation


In addition to the typical Previous/Next navigation options (which in fact aren't on the tool bar by default, though you can add them by right-clicking the tool bar and selecting the Customize option), Thunderbird 2.0 has Back/Forward options similar to those in a Web browser. They work the same way, so if you read your mail chaotically, they might be helpful. But don't most of us just work our way through the in-box, reading, tagging or filing as we go?

The feature works as advertised. If you read the third item in Folder A and then the 16th item in Folder B, hitting Back takes you right back to the third item in folder A. We're just dubious as to how often that situation is going to come up.

Verdict: Gimmick

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