December 20, 2006

A first look at Thunderbird 2.0

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

After many months of development, Thunderbird 2.0 is almost ready to debut. The Mozilla Foundation released the first beta of Thunderbird 2.0 last week, and I've been using it to manage my mail since then. The new release boasts tagging, history navigation, new mail alerts, improved extension support, and a number of other features. Thunderbird 2.0 won't knock your socks off with exciting new features, but it's a nice, gradual improvement over the Thunderbird 1.5 series.

One of the things I didn't like about Thunderbird 1.x was that you were limited to five labels for messages. You could customize the color and text for the label, but five was the limit. Three there shall not be, and six was right out. Thunderbird 2.0 ditches labels altogether and goes for the Web 2.0 gusto with tags -- as many tags as you want.

So, what's so special about tagging, rather than just saving messages by folder or giving them labels as in previous releases of Thunderbird?

The primary advantage to tagging is that a message can have multiple tags, but a message could only have one predefined label in previous Thunderbird releases. So, for instance, if you run your own business and you get a message from a client, you might want to tag that with a tag for the client, and a to-do tag to follow up on the message. If you're a Getting Things Done (GTD) maniac, you can implement the tags necessary for GTD and still have tags left over.

Thunderbird assigns the first nine tags keyboard shortcuts -- 1 through 9 will assign a tag, 0 will remove a tag. If you have more than nine tags, you'll have to assign tags to messages using the menu shortcuts or the mouse.

Thunderbird 2.0 in wide mode and tagged messages - click to view

If you want to reprioritize tags, so that a newly added tag gets a shortcut, you have to delete and re-add tags to move them -- Thunderbird doesn't allow you to reorder the tags via its preference dialog. I looked through the Config Editor to see if it might be possible to tweak the tag order in that way, but I couldn't find any preference names that seemed tied to the tag order.

You can also use tags to help set up virtual folders from saved searches. Thunderbird 2.0 supports saved searches, so you can, for example, create a saved search that looks in one or more folders for messages that match certain criteria. Thunderbird will search by subject, tag, date, priority, status, age in days, and much more.

Like many folks, I've organized my mail by folders -- work mail goes into one folder, LUG mail goes into another folder, receipts from ecommerce sites go into yet another folder, and so forth. As you might imagine, I wind up with a lot of folders this way. Plus, some mail inevitably crosses over into more than one category, so I can either make a copy of the message and waste disk space, or try to remember whether I filed a receipt for expenses as "work" or "receipt."

By combining tags and saved searches, I can cut down dramatically on the number of folders that I use. I have set up saved searches for the "work," "lug," and other tags. Granted, this still gives me quite a few saved search folders, but it's a slightly better method of organization than literal folders.

If you guessed that Thunderbird took the tagging cue from GMail, you're probably right. Thunderbird also implements another of my favorite GMail features in 2.0: starred messages. As you're reading through mail or RSS/Atom feeds, you can just star messages that you want to highlight and then go back through them later for processing.

Thunderbird 2.0 also introduces a "move again" feature, so if you move a piece of mail to a folder, the menu spawns a "Move to folder Again" entry. The move again feature can also be activated with Ctrl-Shift-M or used from the context menu.

This is quite handy if you're going through your mailbox and filing mail in the same folder. If you save mail in several different folders, though, you'll either need to make several passes through your inbox, or file messages normally.

How many clicks does it take...?

One thing that hasn't improved a great deal over Thunderbird 1.5 is account setup. Thunderbird is easy to set up if you have a single email address, but it can present a twisty maze of preference windows and dialogs for those folks who need to configure multiple accounts or use nonstandard ports.

I'm also surprised that the Thunderbird developers have set Thunderbird to default to sending all mail through a single SMTP server. For example, if I set up two accounts using Thunderbird -- say a work account and a GMail account -- Thunderbird will happily allow me to send mail from my OSTG address through GMail with no complaint. In fact, the Add Account wizard allows no way to choose an SMTP server, so any SMTP configuration has to be done after setting up the account.

This is an astonishingly bad idea, since many spam filters are triggered by mail being routed through a server that isn't set up as an MX host for the domain that the mail appears to be coming from. Having done support for a hosting provider, I know that this a good way to consign a user's mail straight to spam/junk folders and instigate a lot of calls to the ISP about why mail is disappearing.

Thunderbird also doesn't allow you to specify your POP3 or IMAP ports during the configuration; that too has to be done separately after the initial configuration.

I find Thunderbird's preference dialogs a bit confusing too. You might think that the choice of SMTP server would be found under the Server Settings dialog, or at least under Advanced Settings in that dialog, but it's actually under the top-level dialog for the account settings.

If you're converting from another mail client to Thunderbird, you won't get much help from Thunderbird -- unless you're converting from Communicator. I was hoping there'd be additional import tools with the 2.0 release, but no such luck. Migration is covered under the Thunderbird FAQ, but users are basically left to their own devices to export mail from their old client into a format (mbox) that Thunderbird can digest. Even then, users have to locate the Thunderbird profile directory and copy things over manually.

Alert! Alert! You've got mail!

Thunderbird 2.0 includes new and improved pop-up messages to show that new mail has appeared in your inbox. In the new release, the pop-up dialog displays the subject, sender, and some of the message text. I find it amusing that the Mozilla Firefox developers have worked hard to suppress unwanted pop-up ads in the browser, while the Mozilla Thunderbird developers have been working to provide pop-ups in the mail client.

You can customize the fields to display in the alert, and choose message text, subject, and sender or a combination thereof. On my system, Thunderbird displays the alerts in the bottom right corner, using a dialog that's sort of like a cartoon bubble. (It's similar to the GNOME alert dialogs that pop up from the icon tray, except those are yellow.)

The display pops up when mailboxes are polled for new mail, so if you have Thunderbird set to automatically check for mail every 10 minutes, you're likely to see a pop-up every 10 minutes. You can also set Thunderbird to play a sound in addition to, or instead of, the visual alerts.

I know a lot of users want to be notified about new mail, but I found the pop-up feature annoying after the first 20 minutes, and turned it off shortly thereafter. Luckily, Thunderbird makes it easy to turn notification off. If you like notifications, but want them less frequently, you can tweak the polling settings under your accounts so that you are only notified every 30 minutes, every hour, or whatever interval works for you. You can also turn off polling for an account altogether if you prefer not to be notified of new mail for that account.

Moving forward back

Most mail clients have shortcuts to move to the next and previous messages, but Thunderbird is the first client I've seen with a feature for moving in the history of messages that you've viewed. Just as you can navigate through Firefox's history of Web pages, Thunderbird now allows you to move within the history of email messages that you've just read.

For example, if you have an inbox and saved message folder, and you read two messages in your inbox and then two messages in your saved message folder, you can go backwards through your message history by pressing [ and forward through the message history using ]. You can also add navigation buttons to your Thunderbird toolbar, but they're not there by default.

This could be a really useful feature, but it doesn't work quite as I might have hoped. If you read three or four messages in a folder, or even in different folders, you can navigate through that history just fine -- unless you move one of the messages. If you move the message, then it's dropped from the message history.

Still, I've found the history navigation feature useful a few times since I started using Thunderbird 2.0, and I expect it will grow on me even more as I continue to use it. It can be really useful if you use Thunderbird as your RSS feed reader.

Thunderbird 2.0 also comes with a new set of folder views. The default view is to display all of your account folders in the left pane. In 2.0, Thunderbird lets you narrow the folder view to unread folders, favorite folders, and recent folders.

I have dozens of mail folders, but I really only use about 10 of them regularly. With this release, you can tag the folders you use the most often as "favorite" folders and then toggle the folder display to favorites and only see the folders you use most often.

Extensions and updates

Thunderbird carries over the extension improvements from Firefox 2.0. Thunderbird has a single dialog, Add-Ons, for managing themes and extensions. You can install, disable, or uninstall extensions and themes via the Add-Ons dialog. Thunderbird will also check for extension updates, and automatically download those for you if any of your extensions have been updated.

I've been running a pre-release build for a while now, and Thunderbird has had several updates in that time. Everything has gone smoothly: Thunderbird sees an update, downloads it, and then notifies me that it needs to be restarted due to the update.

What's really nice is that Thunderbird automatically saves your messages as drafts if you're in mid-composition. The first time I installed an update and clicked "restart" I had forgotten I was in the middle of writing a message, and when Thunderbird restarted it didn't re-open the composition window -- but I found my message in the drafts folder.

Thunderbird's add-ons page is a bit of a muddle compared to the Firefox page, though. If you go to the Mozilla Add-Ons site, you'll notice that the Thunderbird Add-Ons link is almost buried at the bottom of the page in tiny type. If you manage to find that page, you'll see that the page with extensions is haphazardly categorized, and a number of the extensions linked from the Thunderbird Add-Ons site are Firefox-only.

Worth the upgrade?

Thunderbird 2.0 is full of small tweaks and a few additional features, but it's not a major overhaul. Still, it's worth the upgrade just for the tagging feature alone. Despite the fact that Thunderbird 2.0 is a beta, it has been very stable; I haven't had any major glitches and no crashes since I started using it last week. This is no trivial statement -- other GUI mailers I've used, such as KMail, tend to crash with some regularity.

The beta seems reliable enough for production use, so if you're not happy with your current mailer, or if you use Thunderbird now, back up your mail and give Thunderbird 2.0 beta 1 a shot.

Click Here!