Thunderbird 3 Becomes Viable Alternative to Apple Mail - Almost

On Tuesday, Mozilla released Thunderbird 3, Beta 1 for testing. It includes the long-waited integration with the Mac OS X Address Book. This Quick Look review briefly introduces the Thunderbird e-mail application and compares it to Apple's Mail App.

People generally have strong feelings about their e-mail program. One can get very attached to a particular app, and yet always be yearning for something better. THis Quick Look won't go into that psychology. Rather, it's just a brief introduction to version 3 for those who may be curious in anticipation of the release version.



Tbird inbox

In Box

Thunderbird 3, in addition to being designed to gain more market share, has new features:

  • Tab interface for Mail
  • Improvements to IMAP for faster message viewing
  • Improved message reader view
  • New Add-ons Manager
  • Improved Address Book interface
  • Improved import of mail from other Mail clients
  • Integration with Mac OS X Address Book

In particular, the integration with the Mac OS X Address Book may be the tipping point for many. Without that integration, many Mac users just ignored version 2 -- not wanting to maintain two address books.

One of the key goals of Thunderbird 3 is to allow easier set up of an initial e-mail account. For example, the POP, SMTP and port server settings are preloaded for Google Mail. All the user has to do at launch is enter the username and password. Unlike Apple Mail, account settings are found in the menu item Tools -> Account Settings. That's where the user can add additional e-mail accounts.

Right here one sees the different design philosophy between Apple Mail and Thunderbird. Apple Mail is designed to be simple, almost simplistic, with the goal of not overwhelming the user with technical details. Thunderbird, on the other hand, is not shy about surfacing a myriad of account options in order to provide control and flexibility. That alone will tend to segregate the market for the two applications.


Acct Settings

Account Settings

However, lest one decided to eagerly migrate to a more sophisticated e-mail client, like Thunderbird, there are some omissions that could be show stoppers for some. For example, Thunderbird is missing Smart Folders, Data Detectors, and the user is forced in a reply to enter text, by default, below the quoted text. That could be annoying for those who like to keep their reply very visible at the top of the message. Of course one can scroll and relocate the cursor. Thunderbird is like Eudora in this sense.

In favor of Thunderbird is a more sane way of defining e-mail signatures and the ability to set a background color for the body of messages -- something Apple Mail still can't do after years of updates.

In many other ways, the programs are similar. Both can digitally sign messages and allow the user to set hierarchical filters that sort incoming mail into folders. However, "today" is not an allowable option for a date filter, so Thunderbird can't simulate Apple Mail's Smart Folder. Both can become your RSS reader, but it's questionable whether one should be using an e-mail program for that job. Both can handle junk mail themselves, but only Apple Mail works with SpamSieve.

I noted that mail is maintained in plain text in: ~/Library/Thunderbird/Profiles/, so users who need to get to or recover e-mail indirectly can always access it.


Preferences (subset)

In terms of preferences, both programs go about similar tasks in similar ways. In this case, it's just a question of learning a new schema for preferences and noting when there's no preference for a feature you want or noting a new preference for something Apple Mail doesn't do.

Bottom Line

With Mac OS X Address Book Support, Thunderbird 3 becomes a realistic candidate for those users who don't care so much for Apple Mail, especially those Eudora die-hards who switched to Apple Mail in desperation for something more modern and currently maintained. However, there has to be a powerful motivation to leave Apple Mail given the absence of Smart Folders in Thunderbird and no current SpamSieve support.

The Thunderbird 3 Beta 1 introduction page has a link to download the beta. Note that the beta should only be used for testing, evaluation and feedback, not for mission critical work.

Thunderbird for Linux, Windows and Mac OS X is free. Note, for this Quick Look review, a rating is not applicable.

Product: Thunderbird 3 Beta 1

Company: Mozilla

List Price: US$0.00


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Strong on user control of detailed settings, free.


No Smart Folders. Incompatible with SpamSieve.