Thunderbird 3 Becomes Viable Alternative to Apple Mail - Almost

| Quick Look Review

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


Strong on user control of detailed settings, free.


No Smart Folders. Incompatible with SpamSieve.

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I would call lack of iCal integration or a To-do list function a big negative. I know a lot of people poo-poo on those features added to Mail 3, but I’ve found them to be hugely beneficial. I would agree to those who consider RSS in Mail overkill. Quite frankly, I don’t use it.


My primary problem with Thunderbird (and its sibling, the mail component of the SeaMonkey suite) is the way it displays attached photos.

Regardless of the size of the attached images, they’ll be displayed inline, in 100% magnification (i.e. pixel for pixel). Oftentimes, my wife receives full 5-megapixel photos. She scrolls down her e-mail and sees someone’s ear and part of an eye, with the rest of the picture outside of the window. Mail is infinitely more elegant when handling attached photos: it shrinks them to your window’s width for inline viewing, and provides QuickView button (previously ‘SlideShow’), which opens images in QuickView, which you can open in full screen, watch as a slide show an add to iPhoto. Until Thunderbird begins at least resizing images for inline display, I’m not abandoning Mail.



Even better than inline viewing is the ability to resize photos, see what the resulting email size will be, and tinker w/ the small/medium/large options non-destructively, directly in Mail. THAT is slick!


Thunderbird is really nice, but the addressbook integration is plain wrong. They should get rid of the internal edit functions ENTIRELY. just like mail -> just use addressbook


No REDIRECT command. Totally unusable for emailing list admins, office PAs, secretaries and many others. FAIL.


VASIC:  Just double-click your inline image, and a dialog will open.  Click the Dimension tab, and the tools you need are there.

XMATTINGLY:  Install the Lightning add-on.  Nice calender, and a to-do list in it’s own side-bar.

MYRIGHTEYE:  Can’t you just use the “forward” command?



Thanks for the tip, but I prefer having to-do’s built right into the mail client without a full calendar tacked on. You still get alert messages without the need to run iCal when you set alarms.


Mmm, OK, but Lightning is a plug-in, so once installed it acts like it’s built in.  If you don’t like having another side-bar open (it’s just an Events List - you have to click a button for the full calender), you can just close it, and you will still get the to-do alarms without running iCal.

Try it, then condemn it.



Mmm, ok, well maybe that’s your first clue: a calendar that’s built into the app. I’d rather have scheduled reminders that are already handled by the OS anyway, rather than a full-blown calendaring system that’ll just use more resources than I want or need it to. I don’t need to try something out to know that it’s not what my preferences are - thanks, though.



Better than the older version, but still not quite like Mail. It still shows inline pictures in full size and, in order to view them full, requires additional action from me for each of them. Not much different in essence than with the old version (double-click on image, it opens in browser/preview/default app for jpeg; to view next one, switch back to thunderbird, repeat process). Mail will automatically resize inline images; if you need to see full-screen, single-click on QuickView will get you there.


I still prefer using older mail programs than thunder bird, there are lots of glitches with it.. try to fix it first before letting it out on the public..
wireless data services


The one thing I like about other email programs like this are they all allow you to open up an individual email in a separate window and then without closing that email hit a button to see either the next email or the previous email. Apple’s mail is the only email program I know that doesn’t let you do this. I still wouldn’t give it up because it is better integrated then other browsers.


Thunderbird has Saved Searches, which from my limited experience with, seems to be exactly like Smart Folders. To setup a Saved Search, simply click File->New->Saved Search…

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