April 20, 2006

Use Thunderbird like a pro

Author: Dmitri Popov

Even if you use Thunderbird on a daily basis, you probably don't know it inside out. There are still quite a few 'hidden' features not covered in the online help that can significantly improve your emailing habits. And since Thunderbird's functionality can be expanded via extensions, you can add some clever features to it too.

Work smarter with Smart Folders

Smart Folders is a nifty feature that allows you to save your searches as a virtual folder. The idea behind smart folders is not new: for example, many media players allow you to define dynamic playlists based on criteria such as most played or highest rated songs. The smart folders in Thunderbird work in the same way. You specify a set of search criteria, then save the search and view it as a conventional folder.

Let's say you subscribe to the OpenOffice.org user mailing list. One way to keep tabs on the messages addressed to the list is to create a folder and then define a filter. A quicker way is to create a smart folder that keeps track of the messages. The main difference between the two approaches is that the smart folder is not a real folder and no messages are actually moved into it. In other words, the smart folder is just a virtual folder, and every time you select it, it runs the specified search and displays the results.

There are several ways to create a smart folder. The fastest way is to type your search criteria into the Quick Search field, then select Save Search as a Folder from the drop-down list. Alternatively, you can choose File -> New -> Saved Search and define a new search. This option allows you to create a saved search that includes subfolders and runs across multiple accounts. No matter which way you choose to create a smart folder, you can always modify its search criteria by right-clicking on it and selecting the Folder Properties item.

Useful Thunderbird extensions

Like Firefox, Thunderbird supports add-ons that allow you to extend the application's functionality. Which extensions to install depends largely on your needs, but there are a couple of extensions that are useful for anyone.

When you delete messages, Thunderbird doesn't actually erase them, but 'hides' them. If you don't compact the folders on a regular basis, you can end up with swollen folders that can cause Thunderbird to behave erratically. To compact a folder, right-click on it and select Compact from the context menu. However, compacting folders manually one by one, especially when you have several email accounts, can be annoying. Fortunately, Xpunge can handle this task automatically, and empty the trash for good measure. Install the Xpunge extension, right-click somewhere on Thunderbird's toolbar, and select Customize. Drag the Xpunge and MultiXpunge buttons onto the toolbar and press Done. To configure Xpunge, choose Tools -> Extensions and double-click on the Xpunge extension. Under the Xpunge tab you can define what actions Xpunge should perform for a currently selected account, while MultiXpunge allows you to specify actions to be performed on several accounts in one go.

Quotecollapse is another nifty extension that collapses quotes in the message body. This may not sound like much, but Quotecollapse makes it easier to read messages and add in-line replies. Install Quotecollapse, restart Thunderbird, and the quotes in every message will be collapsed. To expand a quote, click on the tiny Plus icon next to the quote.

Contacts Sidebar is another simple yet indispensable extension. As the name suggests, the extension adds an address book sidebar that allows you to switch between different address books, search for contacts, create new cards, and so on. Once the extension is installed, you can show and hide the Contacts Sidebar using the F4 key.

Turn Thunderbird into a collaboration tool

By default, Thunderbird doesn't have a calendar, and it lacks the ability to synchronise data between multiple clients. However, the Calendar plugin combined with the SyncKolab extension can fill the void. You also need an IMAP account, which SyncKolab uses to synchronise the contacts and calendar data. You can either use a local Kolab server or an IMAP email account; the latter option is probably easier.

Start with downloading and installing the Calendar and SyncKolab plugins, then create two folders, Contacts and Calendar, on your IMAP server. To configure SyncKolab's preferences, choose Tools -> Extensions and double-click on SyncKolab. In the Contacts tab, select the address book you want to synchronise, select your IMAP email account, and choose the Contacts folder. If you leave the Save to Imap folder check box unticked, SyncKolab will not upload changes in your calendar and address book, but download any changes from the IMAP account. Finally, use the Sync Contacts and Sync Calendar check boxes to select what data you want to synchronise. In the Calendar tab, select what calendar you want to sync and select the Calendar folder on your IMAP email account. Click OK to save the settings and close the window. Next, you have to add the SyncKolab button to Thunderbird's toolbar. Right-click somewhere on Thunderbird's toolbar and select Customize. Drag the SyncKolab button onto the toolbar and press Done. To start synchronisation, click on the SyncKolab button.

Final word

These are just a few ideas on how to improve Thunderbird. Undoubtedly, users that spend most of their days using Thunderbird have their own tricks of the trade. If you have some Thunderbird tips to share, please post them.

Dmitri Popov is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in Russian, British, and Danish computer magazines.

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