by Bill Snyder

What’s Better Than Gmail? Thunderbird 3.0

Feb 16, 2010
Social Networking Apps

Google's Gmail has become the default choice for free e-mail. But the latest version of Mozilla Thunderbird works much better for organizing your messy inbox, says's Bill Snyder.

In the age of Twitter, SMS and IM is e-mail obsolete? Not yet. Like it or not, most of us gets dozens, even hundreds, of e-mails a day. Since that’s the case, why not look for the easiest and least costly way to manage that flood of useful—and useless— information?

The hands-down answer to that question is the latest version of Mozilla Thunderbird, the open source e-mail client brought to you by the same folks who develop and support Mozilla Firefox, the world’s number two Web browser. Thunderbird does pretty much everything and then some that you can do with Yahoo mail or Gmail (with the exception of Google’s new Buzz social networking tool) and lets you keep email on your own hard drive and under your own control.

I’ll make a quick confession here. I’m partial to open source software because it benefits from the labor and love of a huge community of developers and users, and it’s not the product of a huge corporate monolith whose name begins with “M.” While open source software isn’t necessarily free, Thunderbird is, and it will run on Windows, Mac or Linux-based PCs.

Before I tell you more about why I think Thunderbird is such a good choice, I should tell you when it isn’t. Thunderbird supports POP3 and IMAP mail systems, but not Microsoft Exchange. So if your job requires you to use Exchange, T-Bird isn’t for you.

Light on its Feet

After cooking for more than a year, Thunderbird version 3 debuted a few months ago with a host of new features and a better, more streamlined look. The first thing you’ll notice about T-Bird is how little time it takes to download and install. That’s because it’s a pretty svelte bit of code, especially compared to Microsoft’s bloated Outlook e-mail program.

The next thing you’ll notice: Thunderbird looks more like Firefox than ever. The developers have added browser-like tabs to the interface. Click on an e-mail in one of your mailboxes and it will open up in a tab, an improvement that it makes it much easier to keep track of what you’re doing. For some reason, though, e-mails you are composing show up on the usual program button on the bottom of the Windows desktop, but not on a tab. Mozilla should fix that.

Find that Needle

When it comes to giving you the ability to organize and search e-mail, T-Bird really stands out. Understand that T-Bird lets you set up multiple e-mail accounts. For example, I use three separate email addresses: one for Yahoo mail, another related to a publication I write for and a third based on my personal domain. Mail from all or any of those accounts is downloaded by clicking a “get mail” button and the messages appear in folders dedicated to each account. This couldn’t be more simple.

It’s worth noting that you can funnel multiple accounts into Gmail, as well. But T-Bird’s interface wins out.

Once you’ve downloaded your mail, T-Bird makes it easy to set up the usual nested folders and move stuff via drag and drop or by using a pull down menu. I don’t understand why Gmail has moved to the label metaphor. To me, it’s a bit confusing; and doesn’t touch the folder metaphor when it comes to seeing your mail at a glance.

Yahoo mail does allow you to create folders, but the interface is cluttered up with ads and tools for chats and IMs, and there’s no drop and drag.

Folders are very useful, but until now, searching for mail in Thunderbird was awkward since it had to be done one folder at a time. But T-Bird 3 has added global search, and a good set of search filters.

Results open in a separate tab and give you several useful views of the results. Some users on the Mozilla discussion boards say that if your folders are very large, global search is annoyingly slow. If that’s the case, it can easily be turned off.

Another feature I really like is the attachment reminder. How often have you sent an email to someone and they reply: “But where’s the attachment you promised?” If you type the word “attachment” in the text, you’ll get a reminder to actually, well, attach it. Pretty cool.

The bottom line: T-Bird 3 is fast, easy to use, and a much better tool for organizing your e-mail than anything Yahoo or Google have to offer.

San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at

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