By Peter Smith, ComputerWorld.com,
When it comes to choosing an e-mail client... well, there really aren't that many popular options. Corporate e-mail users tend to have their client dictated to them by IT, which usually means Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes. For personal use, many people just use the old standbys out of habit: Outlook Express/Windows Mail under Windows and Apple Mail under Mac OS X. The once-popular Eudora seems to be fading into a niche product (and is going open-source at some point this year).
The one e-mail client that seems to still be on the rise is the open-source Mozilla Thunderbird, which recently hit Version 2.0. While it hasn't changed radically, the new release includes several new features, most notably for organizing and finding messages. In this review, we'll assess which additions are useful and which are fluff.
Look and feel
At first glance, Thunderbird 2 doesn't appear to have changed much. It defaults to the classic three-pane e-mail view, or you can choose Wide or Vertical views. You can drag panel edges around to suit your needs. It all feels very comfortable.
If you look carefully, you'll see two tiny arrows in the header of the folder window. This is your interface to Advanced Folder Views, which is new in Thunderbird 2. You can mark folders as Favorites and then click over to a Favorite Folders view that shows only those folders. Other options are Unread Folders and Recent Folders.
New features: Useful or gimmicky?
Beyond the basic interface, the latest version introduces a number of new behind-the-scenes features. We've spent some time working with the new features in order to separate the gimmicks from the truly useful additions.
This is one of the best features of the new release. Tagging messages allows you to quickly filter your in-box to find the content you're looking for.
Imagine you've set up three tags: business, personal and taxes. When a message pertinent to your business taxes comes in, you tag it with "business" and "taxes." Likewise, when a personal tax message comes in, it gets tagged "personal" and "taxes."
Ten months later, it's an easy thing to search for messages with the tag "taxes" to get all your tax-related documents, search for "business" and "taxes" tags to get business tax documents, or even search for messages tagged with "personal" but not with "taxes" when you just can't stand to think about what you owe Uncle Sam this year.
You can assign tags based on rules as mail comes in, or tag messages by hand. There are a handful of tags built in, but it's easy to add your own.
Overall, tags are a great way to get a handle on your mail. Since a message can have many tags, you don't have to make the kinds of "this or that" decisions you'd make if you were just sorting messages into folders.
Message history navigation
In addition to the typical Previous/Next navigation options (which in fact aren't on the tool bar by default, though you can add them by right-clicking the tool bar and selecting the Customize option), Thunderbird 2.0 has Back/Forward options similar to those in a Web browser. They work the same way, so if you read your mail chaotically, they might be helpful. But don't most of us just work our way through the in-box, reading, tagging or filing as we go?
The feature works as advertised. If you read the third item in Folder A and then the 16th item in Folder B, hitting Back takes you right back to the third item in folder A. We're just dubious as to how often that situation is going to come up.
If you find yourself sending a lot of form mails, message templates will make your life a little easier. Simply type up a message, including any formatting you'd like, then save it as a template. When it's time to send a form letter, double-click on the template, enter the e-mail address of the recipient and hit send.
It would be nice to see templates enhanced, perhaps adding tags that include today's date or the recipient's name (picked up from your address book). But what we have now is a nice start, and it's a lot cleaner than cutting and pasting standard mails into an empty message window.
Easy access to Gmail and .Mac mail accounts
Mozilla touts easy integration with Gmail and .Mac as a highlight of Thunderbird 2, but all this feature does is cut down on a bit of typing during the initial setup of the accounts. There's no added functionality over setting up a POP (Gmail) or IMAP (.Mac) account by hand.
The Windows version of Thunderbird doesn't even include the .Mac option. Granted, most .Mac account users have Apple hardware, but there are more than a few cross-platform computer users out there. Oh, and of course Gmail users will still have to configure POP access on the Gmail side of things.
Search has been improved in two ways in Thunderbird 2. First up is the new Quick Search feature. As you type in your search term, items in the selected folder that don't contain the term start being filtered out. The longer the typed string, the fewer the remaining results, and soon you can easily find the item you're looking for. (Essentially this works the same way that Find does in Firefox.)
The one drawback is that "selected folder" issue. You can search the subfolders of a given folder (such as your in-box), but if you have several e-mail accounts, each with its own in-box, you can't search them all at once. Likewise, you can't search through both e-mail and RSS feeds at once. It'd be nice if there were a "Search for Messages in All Folders" option.
The advanced search dialog. Out of sight is a handy Save as Search Folder button.
The second search improvement is the ability to save searches. You can create a folder that contains search results that are updated every time you open the folder. Create these on the fly (after you've done a search) or start from scratch. The process is similar to setting up Filter rules.
Combine saved searches with message tagging, and right there you've got a compelling argument for upgrading to Thunderbird 2.
What else is new (or missing)?
In addition to these new features, Thunderbird 2 has improved spam-fighting capabilities and provides some useful anti-phishing additions. We don't mean to downplay their importance, but frankly, we expect these kinds of improvements in any new software release.
What isn't included in Thunderbird 2 is any kind of integrated calendaring abilities. There is a separate Mozilla project called Lightning that is still early in development. Lightning is an extension to Thunderbird and is supposed to couple Mozilla's Sunbird calendaring software to Thunderbird. Perhaps Lightning, once mature, will give Thunderbird the calendar features that many Outlook users are accustomed to having in their e-mail client. But for now the lack of such features is a drawback.
Even though not every item on Mozilla's laundry list of new features is incredibly useful, there are certainly enough enhancements to warrant an upgrade. Message tagging and the new search features are enough to make this true, and getting the latest spam-fighting tweaks is always worthwhile. And let's not forget the array of third-party add-ons that let you customize Thunderbird to your liking. We'd love to see Lightning or some other calendaring features in Thunderbird 3, though.
Peter Smith is a Web developer and freelance writer with a special interest in personal technology and digital entertainment.
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