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Mozilla Thunderbird 3 finally lifts off the runway

An e-mail program that most people don't use just received an overdue update -- but it may still be a significant development if you care about the future of standalone mail programs.


The application in question is the free, open-source Mozilla Thunderbird, a neglected sibling of the far more successful Mozilla Firefox browser. Thunderbird 3 -- this program's first major revision since 2007, a free download for Windows 2000 or newer, Mac OS X 10.4 or newer and newer releases of Linux -- combines a few smart new features with a woeful lack of progress in other areas.

Thunderbird 3's new-account setup interface leads this release's list of advances. Instead of having to plug in a long series of server addresses, protocol options and port numbers, you can just type an e-mail address and account password to have Tbird automagically look up the correct settings -- which it did almost instantly for Gmail and Windows Live Hotmail accounts.

The new search feature shows a comparable level of brilliance. Type a search into the box at Tbird's top right corner, hit the Enter key and the program will open a new tab in its window to display search results grouped by relevance. You can re-sort them by date, if they contained attachments, if they were starred for follow-up, if they were sent to or from you, and by which other people appear as senders or recipients in those messages. It's one of the few mail search options with a speed, simplicity and flexibility comparable to Gmail's.

Version 3's tabbed interface can also make it easier to deal with large volumes of e-mail quickly in the same way that Firefox's tabbed browsing helps busy Web users stay on top of their reading.

But Tbird's developers must have run down their batteries by the time they got to the program's address book. Aside from a few minor tweaks, it remains the same sorry mess that I complained about in a 2006 review of Thunderbird 1.5, a 2007 writeup of the 2.0 release and yet another piece on the subject this spring. As I wrote in that last column:

Its woeful address book is as obsolete as Outlook Express -- it can save only two e-mail addresses per person yet somehow leaves room to store a contact's pager number.

Seriously, a dedicated field for a pager number? Why not include one for a Telex address too?

Thunderbird 3 has no calendar function at all -- an essential ingredient if it's ever going to provide Microsoft's mail/calendar/contacts Outlook some desperately needed competition -- unless you download a beta version of its Lightning extension. It may be telling that Ars Technica's positive, largely developer-oriented review expresses more optimism about the ability to run Google Calendar in widget form inside Thunderbird than about the in-development-since-2006 Lightning.

Thunderbird's plodding pace of upgrades, little better than that of Outlook itself, compares poorly to what Firefox and Gmail users have come to expect. Nor does it look good compared to the slower but steady improvements that Apple has made to Mac OS X's Mail program.

I think Thunderbird 3 is a fine upgrade from version 2 and a stronger option to Microsoft's Windows Live Mail application. But Tbird's real competition lies on the Web; those online-only rivals have privacy and reliability issues, but they're free, work from anywhere with an Internet connection and generally allow for far more rapid fixes and upgrades. It's fair to ask if Thunderbird 3 has arrived too late to make much of a difference in this software's fortunes.

Am I being too harsh? Let me know in the comments...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  December 9, 2009; 3:58 PM ET
Categories:  E-mail  
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I have about 10 personal and work emails, most of them are gmail based, but I really need a email client both because I want *push* rather then loading my browser for it, and because I do have so many clients and I don't want to have to log into each one.

Posted by: Shiipon | December 9, 2009 8:04 PM | Report abuse

I'll look at it soon, but your comments don't make me think it still stands anywhere but in a faint shadow of Eudora, which is the email program I've used since 1996 and still use. The ability to sort frequent correspondents' email into sub-windows that pop open when you get new mail, allowing you to see progressively older mail from that person still strikes me as an overwhelming reason to continue using Eudora.

Since I correspond with something like 200 folks and a number of e-lists, keeping the ones I want from crowding into the IN box and keeping the list mail in their own mailboxes is paramount.

I also like being able to open two mails at once and copy material back and forth between them. Copying attachments to a new mail is also good. The editing capacity to remove layers of left-side quote bars (with CTRL-. in Eudora) one at a time is handy during my writing.

There was some talk of Thunderbird taking over for Eudora when it first came out. I'm still waiting for that or some other program writers to check out Eudora and build on its successful and powerful features.

Posted by: RHMathis | December 10, 2009 12:39 AM | Report abuse

I agree with Shiipon

I use T-Bird for the same reason, the push of accounts to one central location. I have thought about switching to Eudora, but why? When I see this: “Emoticons: 24 new originally designed emoticons (not in Light mode).” as one of the higher listed features, I laugh. Then, when I looked at some of the features in detail and see the old, old Apple layouts, I wait to see a “Happy Mac” before I move on. The “OpenSSL: The state-of-the art standard in email security and encryption.” feature might prove worth the move. For home use T-Bird is great… Maybe it’s not updated a lot because not that many people have multiple accounts that they want to tie to one location since they prefer web mail. I like T-Bird because it meets my basics; I am not a facebooker or twit.

Posted by: ummhuh1 | December 10, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Rob, you write that the Ars Technica column (which badly needs a shot of remedial English) hints at a way to integrate the Google Calendar function; I couldn't find this. Could you please point diehard Tbird users in a useful direction for finding some sort of calendar widget that *will* coexist in a friendly manner with Tbird? Thanks.

Posted by: fredpowledge | December 10, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

I've used Thunderbird for years. It makes combining multiple e-mail accounts into a one-stop app is very useful. As for someone wanting to sort incoming e-mails, a simple visit to the 'filters' tool will route address/subject to specified folders.

As for your calendar issue, it is no issue at all. I for one do not want my calendar melded with my address book, etc. I am still physically able enough to click on a separate icon if I want to see a calendar. Trying to cram all features into one app is usually a recipe for the mediocre.

Posted by: jayjordan | December 11, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

I downloaded 3.0 after giving up several years ago on Thunderbird. It cannot import Outlook contacts without going through a complex process, it just gives a blank screen when you try to import and shows no clients. So why bother. I will stick without Outlook and its contact list and calendar.

Posted by: gregell | December 11, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

fredpowledge wrote asking for the link about Google calendar; I too would like an integrated calendar, and found that information here: I just hope that, not being a tekkie that I can figure out how it will work

Posted by: rlr95 | December 11, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

In the great email debate it's too bad that all the "big boys" are now so unreachable in their cocoons. I have been trying to get any of them to pay attention to what I think would revolutionize how we all use email, in the process earning them millions, but it's impossible to break down the walls put up by their lawyers. The death of creativity perhaps?

Posted by: panamacanuck | December 11, 2009 6:27 PM | Report abuse

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