Thunderbird, a Free, Powerful Alternative to Mail

- 2005.11.17

Apple Mail is a nice email application for basic needs, but it has limitations and imperfections. You may think that its limits are too tight or its interface awkward. Either way, you may be interested in a replacement.

If you can find a free solution that handles the job well, you'll definitely appreciate it.

Ever since Microsoft turned Outlook Express into a professional product (Entourage) and Qualcomm killed Eudora Light, the selection of free email applications has been thinner. There is almost no money to make from heavy development of free software, and economics speak volumes, but there still are options.

I could have listed and tested all the available free software, including variations of the same programs, but I chose to keep only the software that is likely to remain under sustained development for a long time on the short list. Therefore, my only two free recommendations are Mozilla Thunderbird and Eudora (in advertising mode).

I excluded Netscape, because Thunderbird now is the main focus of the Mozilla Foundation.

This week we'll look at Thunderbird. Come back next week for a look at Eudora.


For regular iBasics readers, it shouldn't be a surprise that my top recommendation is Mozilla Thunderbird. I believe in open source projects - especially when they come from the Mozilla Foundation. Not only is the cause good, but the software easily meets my standards in terms of quality. Mozilla software is not about bells and whistles, but rather about doing things right and giving you sufficient control over your own fate.

That's in addition for not requiring expensive upgrades for new versions (yeah, that was a shot at Apple).


The first thing that makes Thunderbird shine is its simple, elegant, and intuitive interface. It looks more Mac-like than the version of Mail that ships with Tiger! Apple Mail now ignores most of the button design and window element standards established with Mac OS X. In comparison, Thunderbird is a first-class Aqua citizen.

Not only does it embrace Apple's interface standards, but it's also much more customizable. For example, Mail offers a great selection of toolbar buttons, but it regroups some of them without asking if you want them together. Thunderbird does better.

It would be a mistake to think that Thunderbird is all about looks. This free email client offers an exhaustive feature set that you would only expect from commercial or advertising-driven software.

Thunderbird supports both IMAP and POP3 email. It also offers a thorough handling of newsgroups and RSS feeds.

Should you rely on Thunderbird if your email needs are demanding? As far as I know - and my email software has to receive and filter a few hundred items per day - the answer is yes.

When I used it with the POP3 protocol, which meant a mail database stored on my hard drive, I found Thunderbird very responsive when working with a large mail database. I found it reliable as far as database integrity is concerned.

On the IMAP side, Thunderbird's options allow users to synchronize their mail and folder subscriptions as well as Microsoft Entourage does, and that's expensive commercial software!

Junk Mail

Junk Mail ControlsA genuine concern for demanding users should be the junk mail filter. When its criteria are too tight, it throws legitimate email away. When it is too loose, it lets spam into your Inbox.

Thunderbird does a nice job at separating the good from the bad and the ugly. It isn't 100% perfect, but it seems as effective as most commercial spam filters. It often does a better job right off the bat than many of them.

Thunderbird supports HTML, but it is mainly designed to do plain text, which is the basic choice for Internet email.

Once such basic needs are covered, Thunderbird's main features are about doing things the right way. The application itself is intuitive, with well-grouped menus, pertinent contextual menus, and nice options in general. It's always nice to control-click (or right-click) and get the right menu items instead of too many (Entourage) or not enough of them (Apple Mail).

One weakness of Thunderbird is importing data from other applications - it only imports from Netscape Communicator 4 and Eudora. However, this kind of weakness seems to be an industry standard. Just as with other products, you often need to search on Version Tracker to find third-party converters.

Filter Editor

Power users can rest assured: You can create and tweak some files to modify all kinds of things, such attribution lines, and download (or create your own!) extensions that add functionality to Thunderbird.

Some features sound stupid (and they may be), such as loading a page from the Web in Thunderbird instead of in your browser, but that can be useful. I suggest using that feature, as I do, to view your city's weather forecast for the day while checking your email in the morning. It saves you a trip to your browser just to see what kind of weather to expect.

Advanced Preferences

With all of these features, Thunderbird seems to be as solid as a rock. It is a gem for free software, and it is under constant development. Version 1.5 is coming out soon, with plenty of new features such as spell checking while typing, better address autocompletion, a phishing detector, and better overall security.

I don't recommend Thunderbird just because I like it. I recommend it because it is a great alternative to Apple Mail and because it has a tremendous future. Without paying a penny for it, you benefit from a decent number of features within an application that keeps improving.

Given the development roadmap outlined by the Mozilla Foundation, users who adopt Thunderbird should find it useful for years to come. With a bit of time, it may add features like an integrated calendar, making it a rival to Microsoft Entourage. LEM

Link: Mozilla Thunderbird

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Michel Munger is a journalist who lives in Montréal. He discovered the Mac in 1994, and his work on a PC reminds him every day why he embraced Apple's platform. Munger has also authored some MacDaniel columns.

You can learn more about him on his personal website.

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