Thunderbird Ups the Email Ante

After far too long in development, Thunderbird 3.0 seems to be nearing the home stretch. We take a look at the latest test builds for Thunderbird 3.0 beta 4. Is it worth the wait? Despite the sluggish development cycle, signs point to yes. Read on for how Thunderbird can help you manage your inbox.

The latest Thunderbird 3.0 development releases show that there’s still a little life in traditional desktop email clients. While Webmail is where most of the innovation has been the last few years, Thunderbird 3.0 is shaping up very nicely.

The Mozilla Project released Thunderbird 3.0 beta 4 test builds this week with builds for Linux, Mac OS X, and Windows with several new features that make it well worth a look. If you’re an openSUSE user, you can find the builds in the Mozilla:Beta repository!

Thunderbird Stability

For me, email is a vital part of my work and personal life. This means that stability is one of the primary considerations for me when choosing an email client. The Thunderbird 3.0 series is dubbed “Shredder” as a warning to users that it is, in fact, in development and not considered fully suitable for “production” use. It seems, though, that the label was chosen out of an abundance of caution as opposed to reflecting the actual state of Thunderbird.

I’ve been running and using Thunderbird (off and on) since alphas of the 3.0 series started hitting the Web and I’ve had very few crashes. This beta has yet to crash on me. While I’d still caution other users to back up their profiles and mail prior to use, so far I’ve found the 3.0 betas perfectly usable. While some features may be unfinished, I’ve had no problem losing email or having crashes.

But stability is, or should be, standard. Let’s look at what makes Thunderbird actually compelling.

What’s Awesome in 3.0

Thunderbird has several interesting additions in 3.0. Let’s start with one of the most simple: The “Archive” feature. Instead of having to move messages out of your inbox, you can simply choose to “Archive” them. For standard mail accounts, Thunderbird will create a set of folders for year and month, so if you archive a message from February 2009, it’ll create a “2009-02″ folder to stuff it in (if it’s your first one from that month and year) and then move it straight to that folder.

Why is this nifty? If you want to organize mail chronologically, and use search to handle mail, it’s pretty handy.

If you’re a Gmail user — which goes hand in hand with using search to find mail instead of using folders to organize it — Thunderbird will instead Archive mail to the “All Mail” folder on Google. I switch back and forth between Gmail’s Webmail interface and Thunderbird, so the integration with Gmail is very handy.

Gmail users will also benefit from Thunderbird’s default Gmail account setup. When you create a new account with Thunderbird, you have the option now of choosing “Gmail IMAP” and “Gmail POP,” which worked fine with my account.

But Gmail isn’t the only game in town when it comes to search: The 3.0b4 release brings some outstanding search features to the table. When you search in Thunderbird, you will get a drop-down list of preliminary search results. So, if you start searching for “Zonker” you’ll get a list of messages containing “Zonker” (if any). Click on one of those and you’ll get a results page that shows all messages with that string. On the left-hand side, a list of results by people and mail folder. You can filter by messages that are starred, have attachments, or that are to/from you.

The right-hand side displays the top 10 messages out of the results list. And a graph at the top of the display will allow you to filter by date. Month first, and then by day. Thunderbird is the first email client I’ve seen with this sort of functionality and I have been finding it very useful already.

Firefox has had tabs forever. Thunderbird 3.0 brings Tabs to the mail client. This is sort of a love or hate it feature. I like it for some things — but one of the reasons I use Thunderbird instead of Gmail is because I want to view multiple messages simultaneously: Something that’s a pain to do with Webmail clients. Thunderbird defaults to opening all messages in new tabs, which is good if you want to have several mails open but not so good if you want see two or more at a time. And right now it lacks the ability to open a tab in a new window. Overall, though, this feature is a big plus.

Maintaining an address book can be a bit of a hassle, but Thunderbird 3.0 makes it easier by adding a star next to each addressee on an email. If you want to add someone to the address book, just click the star and it will add that address and name to your address book. This is pretty similar to the method for adding bookmarks in Firefox.

I really hope that the Mozilla Messaging team can bring continued and sustained innovation to Thunderbird the same way the Moz folks have been improving the browser experience with Firefox. Many of us spend almost as much time in email as we do browsing.

In short, Thunderbird 3.0 is full of incremental improvements and usability enhancements that make email much less painful to work with for those of us who get a ton of email every day. It won’t guarantee “Inbox Zero,” but it sure helps.

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