Thunderbird: Where Did Mozilla Go Wrong?

I used Thunderbird off and on as my email client back in my Windows days (dark days indeed), and then again on Mac OS X for a while. I finally switched to Apple’s official Mail client and haven’t interacted with Thunderbird much until I started thinking about writing this review.

So, can Thunderbird earn it’s keep as a primary email application? Let’s find out shall we?

Full Disclosure

I have used several email clients over the years on both Windows and Macintosh. Yes, I have used Outlook as my primary email client for a few years and am fully aware of what it can (and can’t) do. Last year, I settled on Sparrow for a while, it was a great email client. Since Lion, I have settled back on I currently believe it is the best email client of all time. I’m always open to finding new and better email clients and so I was glad for the opportunity to try Thunderbird again.

Getting Started with Thunderbird

Getting started was fairly easy. The download is a typical .dmg disk image. After double clicking the disk image, the resulting window is nice looking with obvious instructions.

Thunderbird 01

Thunderbird Disk Image

Unfortunately, in my opinion that is probably the most streamlined and best looking part of the experience with Thunderbird.

But, though I am a bit disparaging of the looks of Thunderbird, it is functional. On first open of the application, a setup wizard is presented.

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Thunderbird Setup Wizard

In my testing with my iCloud account, Thunderbird auto detected the correct server settings, and almost got everything right.

The default view is very reminiscent of the only view available in for many, many years so I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on Thunderbird. But I can’t help it. One of the reasons I gave up on and went to Sparrow for a period of time is because of vertical view. Indeed, the one thing I loved and missed about Outlook is the nicely formatted widescreen column view. I consider this vertically oriented view to be an outmoded and archaic UI pattern that represents a missed opportunity for Thunderbird.

Thunderbird 03

Thunderbird Default View

I say that Thunderbird almost got everything right when it auto detected my server settings because it didn’t quite get all the IMAP folders right. I had to manually map some of the folders (such as the Deleted Messages folder). Though I know how to do this, I think this is asking a lot of the user. If Thunderbird was able to auto detect iCloud settings, why not iCloud’s folder mapping? This is a severe usability breach, and even though I can fix it, I don’t want to take the time to configure, fix, and mess around with settings. It’s way too fiddly.

Also, I hated the way Thunderbird defaulted to using a monospace font for un-styled email messages. Monospace fonts have a use — they’re great for viewing code, but I don’t like them for every day reading. I was easily able to change the font to something a bit more manageable, but this is yet another strike against Thunderbird for me. Why would Mozilla add to the ugliness with a Monospace default font? It’s like they are trying to repel users.

Thunderbird 04

changing the font to something more manageable

It’s Not All Bad

There were some good things about Thunderbird. It was stable and usable as it has been in the past when I used it. And thanks to Thunderbird add-ons, I was able to make the messages look somewhat attractive, even if I couldn’t find one to make the wide view as good as or Sparrow. The add-on is called Thunderbird Conversations and displays messages in a Gmail like layout. While I wouldn’t call the add-on experience super streamlined, I was able to find the add-on and install it fairly painlessly.

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Downloading Thunderbird Conversations

Thunderbird 06

The First Run Assistant

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Gmail Like Coversation View

More Irritations

Yet another annoyance however was the new mail sound. This may sound a bit nitpicky, but the new mail sound is whatever system sound you have set in OS X’s System Preferences. I have mine set to the sound “Pop” and it indicates something the System is trying to tell me. Thus it annoyed me really badly that this was the sound that Thunderbird made for new Mail. What was worse, Thunderbird has no sounds from which to choose, you must provide your own sound file. I ended up digging in the guts of to find the “New Mail” sound, placing it in a folder on my hard drive, and pointing Thunderbird to that sound file. But again, not something you should expect a user to do.

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Thunderbird Sound Preferences

Another default preference that is, in my perhaps not so humble opinion, simply wrong is defaulting to replies being placed below the quoted message. Much ink (or pixels I suppose) has been used to decry the evils of top or bottom posting on this once hotly debated topic. But there is no arguing that top posting is the expected format in this day and age. I can count on one hand the amount of times I have received a bottom posted reply in an email. And I consider it silly to bottom post. If I have forgotten the context of the conversation, I can scroll down and get it, but 99% of the time, I just want to read the new reply and don’t care about what I (or someone else) said.

This preference can be changed, and I did change it, but defaulting to an unused format of email is yet another strike against Thunderbird.

To Use, or Not to Use

Honestly, I can’t recommend Thunderbird when there are far better alternatives around. Thunderbird is clunky to use, not very pretty to look at, and a pain to get the preferences shaped into something useful. That said, it is free and functional. I didn’t ever have any IMAP errors, and that is something I have experienced with other clients in the past. Additionally, extendability is useful in some situations and to some people. Some of these things comes down to personal preference and taste. My taste says that you can do far better.


A free, cross platform, email client application.



Add Yours
  • I’ve yet to use anything on my Mac but the default from Apple. Does all i need it to do.

  • I think even thunderbird developers use Mail or sparrow.

  • I wasn’t all that impressed with Postbox for a while because it was too similar to Thunderbird. With Postbox 3 though, it’s blowing me away! I still use Sparrow for the simplicity of the client, since I don’t need any advanced features for now.

    What would really be great is if any of these clients would include Exchange support!

    • The reason Postbox is so similar to Thunderbird is because it IS Thunderbird. They use TB’s code and add doo-dads on top of it to make a commercial product. The developers are a former Thunderbird engineer and Mozilla product manager.

      • Yes, it’s based on Thunderbird, but is nothing like Thunderbird, at least not on it’s current state. It’s THE best mail app for mac and probably for Windows as well. It just works. Can’t say that about any other mail app.

        I haven’t tried Sparrow tho.. :P But it looks too light weight to my use anyway. It might be very good for a light user.

      • Sparrow is fine for heavier use if you use the “extended sidebar” instead of the icon-y tweetie looking one. With the extended, I have access to all of my labels and what not.

  • Not everyone has to have an all Mac expirience all the time. Thunderbird excels in flexibility. I use Pocket informant on my iOS device for calendaring and todos. The default Mac apps, quite frankly, suck. In Thunderbird, I have the same interface at home on my Mac, and at work on my PC. Mail, calendaring with Google Calendar, and todos with Toodledo. So I am blissfully at sync wherever I am. Is it the prettiest? No. Is it powerful and flexible. Yes. Don’t like something? Check out the bazillion extensions. There are a few oddities, but for power users, or people that aren’t tied/loyal to one platform, Thunderbird offers unparalleled flexibility, synchronizing and power.

    • Couldn’t agree more
      Who cares about what bloody sound makes?
      It is very flexible and powerful
      I guess it just doesn’t appeal to the dumbed down masses and Mac users who just need an easy install and pretty icons

  • I have no interest in pretty, as what some claim about that is often to me monotony… or the skin of a “you don’t need to know” approach sinking to the core of corporate ideology. I think the review is reasonable until we examine the lack of knowledge where paradigms are concerned. Each of the mail programs follows such, though it isn’t always the Apple paradigm. Get out of that box and into the real world. I don’t want to see every program looking the same… or even organized the same… and I hardly think Mail is standard to live up to…

    Thunderbird has shortcomings, though not all were mentioned here and some that were are not shortcomings to others. Thunderbird isn’t for me, but it does adher to the Mozilla paradigm, something which the reviewer missed in such a big way. It there by has the advantage (superficially) of being structurally and paradigmatically the same no matter which platform/OS on is working on. And it is designed to be the basic email program of a common user, not a power user, and especially not a proponent of any single platform/OS. Again, more missed in the review to examine it for what it really is.

    … because it lives in the real world of cross platform that is so much much bigger than the Apple world. I’ve tried every app mentioned in this review for at least two weeks but have always gone back to my default.

    I use Entourage for the time being, as I used Outlook for over a decade but found it to be overkill for the change of lifestyle I had six years ago. I presents part of a paradigm that I am familiar with, has features that sync well with others in my business, and so one. And there’s part of the other catch that was missed here as well. Different apps for the same purpose not only for different lifestyle and need and familiarity. Thunderbird is perhaps not for some, but there are issues here once again with Mac-think that show a bias not found in the bigger multi-OS world. And default apps on any system… any OS… are not the standard of comparison for any real form of review.

    That’s just propoganda.

  • I tried Thunderbird but it had a bug where I could not input text, which sort of negates its usefulness as an e-mail client. When I searched online I discovered that I was not alone in having this problem; the Thunderbird forum and developers could not assist me.

    Postbox worked but its developer has been rightly criticized for dicey upgrade policies. After reading about this online I decided that I would not support these unfair practices by registering Postbox.

    I finally settled on GyazMail. It is easy to use, handles HTML well and it has a modern GUI. Creating rules/filters is a snap. Likewise using folders and moving messages. Unlike Mail it doesn’t routinely forget account passwords. And it doesn’t have a “wizard” that gets in the way of configuring accounts.

    For example, Mail insists on creating an IMAP account for GMail addresses. Some of us use POP3 GMail, but there is no easy way to override Mail’s wizard. The only solution is to configure Mail accounts offline; doing so makes it possible to manually configure Mail. But don’t try to find out how to do this in Mail Help, because the information isn’t there.

    GyazMail costs $18. But to obtain similar features in Mail you need to purchase plugins that cost more than $18. GyazMail just works, which is how it should be…

  • This is a terrible review. Its all about how the reviewer doesn’t like how TB looks rather than how its features help or hinder the task of managing emails.

    To counter this review:

    1. I like how it looks. The UI is plain and sinks into the background allowing me to focus on the content.

    2. I’ve never had any trouble connecting TB to POP or IMAP mail servers — and I have TB manage 8 different email addresses.

    3. I hate the vertical orientation this reviewer seems to love so much. It wastes a lot of space displaying content I don’t often need to see.

    4. I actually prefer plain-text emails and monospaced fonts allow for better control over formatting as characters align vertically across lines.

    5. I hate organizing emails by conversation, I find date much more intuitive

    6. A library of sounds would be nice, but its only takes a couple of minutes with Google to find something good.

    So basically I disagree with every point this reviewer made. So who is right? And more importantly, who cares? Comparing subjective preferences is worthless.

    Email has been around for decades. For most of that time it was the internet’s killer app. And yet a single great email app still eludes us.

    Perhaps there could be a followup review of email clients that moves beyond trivial subject preferences and actually provides a meaningful evaluation of email clients to help users pick which is least crappy for their needs.

  • I use Thunderbird on Mac OS X. I love the vertical layout, persona’s and extensions. I used Sparrow and Apple Mail for a while, but I keep coming back to Thunderbird. It needs some configuration, isn’t that streamlined, but I like it for some reason. Mb it’s because I am a Firefox fan and Thunderbird is a good companion for Firefox.

  • I use Thunderbird solely because it stores messages as text in a variant of the original UNIX mbox format. That means that my data belongs to me – I’ll be able to access it years from now regardless of whether/when Apple decides to fiddle with the database format,

    I have mail stores from thirty years ago that I can recover messages from using basic tools like grep and awk and if I’m still around thirty years from now, I’ll be able to do the same with my 2012 mail store.

    That’s more important to me than a pretty face.

    • Last week decided to delete some of my emails and I cannot find them anywhere in my Mac. I went back to my PC (which I use for gaming purpose) and found all my emails under Thunderbird. This problem made me switch back to Thunderbird because I don´t trust anymore. As David said, the ability to access old emails it´s more important than a pretty face.

  • I love Thunderbird, but I am like other reviewers, on my mac the default app meets my needs. Thunderbird is my default mail app on any windows machine I use though. That being said, I would be open to using it, and for me it would not matter how pretty is works but how well it can do the job of handling emails.

  • I tried native lion mail app and outlook. Postbox v3 is far far better that any of the two. Amazing imap support (fast, reliable), customization options, stability and reliability. I bought it and I don’t regret a single cent, imo it’s worth much more.

  • I use Win7 & OSX PC’s for business and personal computing where Thunderbird has been easily adopted by non-techie users. TBird solved problems we were having with Outlook, and provides a cheap (free) way to share contacts/data info across systems. It may not be as esthetically pleasing to some users, but it’s solid.

  • I still think Thunderbird is superior to Mail. It’s just not as OS X-y as it should be. I’ll try out Postbox.

  • I’ve been trying every email app under the sun, but I keep coming back to Thunderbird’s biggest attraction to me is the Conversations add-on mentioned. I love it and think that it is the best implementation of the GMAIL threading, even better than Sparrow. But Thunderbird’s shortcomings do annoy me. I love Space bar navigation. And I love the vertical view. If I order my messages so that the newest is at the top, Space will not move to the next read message, it goes to the next unread message. And if that unread message is in another folder, it wants to jump there rather than move to the next message. While I can just the “F” forward or “B” back keys to navigate email, I prefer just using the Space bar; it’s just easier and engrained in me. Poor Space bar navigation is also my biggest gripe with Sparrow. How can so many mail apps get this wrong? The vertical view in Thunderbird has been there for a long time, but it hasn’t changed. Why can’t they make it more useful like it is done in Sparrow, Outlook, Postbox and

    Some of the other annoyances are there with Thunderbird, but at least there are options, such as changing the default font or the default to place your reply above the replied-to message rather than below.

    One thing I also love about is the menu bar plug-in Mail Unread Menu. It puts the unread number of emails in the menu bar. And it even changes color to signify if you have made active since the last unread email came in. Plus you can customize which folders it searches. Thunderbird doesn’t have this, neither does Postbox. Sparrow has this feature built-in, but it isn’t as customizable.

    Flags. Yes, flags. I’ve noticed that several email programs handle this differently. Thunderbird, Sparrow and Postbox handle them differently than and Outlook. I use flagged messages heavily in Exchange to denote emails I need to go back to later and this is completely lost if I switch to the other programs. This should be standardized.

    Overall, I think Thunderbird is the best alternative to, but it’s still not a good replacement for my needs.

    • Growl support is also something I want. Thunderbird used to support this natively, but now you need an add-on. is supported by the Growl team’s GrowlMail plugin.

      Getting back to the Space bar navigation, if messages are sorted with the newest at the top, when there are multiple unread emails, Space will go to the newest unread message rather than the oldest unread one. It just isn’t logical in its navigation. So as much as I might like other features or add-ons, like Conversations, annoyances like this are unbearable.

  • Mail is annoying for some reason, MailMate isn’t good for business use and isn’t very efficient with it’s usability, Postbox is great but it feels like it’s trying to be all of the other mail apps combined rather than offering something different. I bought it but all the errors (constantly quitting and reopening to make things work) were a turn off. Great app but right now I feel jipped, like I’ve paid for a beta. Am looking at moving to Sparrow but it really just needs a LITTLE bit more customisation, I.E. choosing SMTP servers from a button in the new mail, choosing to turn things like “starred” off (what if we don’t use starred?)….

  • So basically I disagree with every point this reviewer made. So who is right? And more importantly, who cares? Comparing subjective preferences is worthless.

  • I switched to Mailplane and am very happy! … I have used most everything app at one time another. TBird for a number of years, tried sparrow enough to go back to TBird… Mail never has floated my boat and now I am stable an happy with Mailplane the app has had a bumps; however the support is Great!
    I don’t work for them just a fan.

  • In summary, you gave it 5/10 because of:
    – Not a pretty sounding email notification
    – Not a glossy interface
    – Default reply text is monospace
    – Replies are defaulted to the bottom

    You are out of your mind.

    • True, author of the evaluation 5/10 is mentally disabled

  • Mail has been failing me recently. For some reason the server info is going bonkers (is it because of the multiple sign-in feature of gmail?) Anyway, I am looking for alternatives to it now.

    The other gripe I have is that I understand does not update if you do not upgrade OSX. I am still using Snow Leopard. I don’t want to be forced to upgrade to the latest OS (just for the sake of upgrading) in order to get updates for my mail client!

    Thunderbird is not tied to the OS in the way that mail is. I can download the latest update whenever I need to. This is not the case with mail which is tied to latest OS. Can anyone verify this info? For example: I have mail 4.5. Is it possible to get Mail 5.0 without changing from Snow Leopard to Lion or Mountain Lion …?

    • I’ve also been trying to update my older Mail to v5. Can’t find a way to do it without upgrading to Lion — can’t upgrade to Lion w/o upgrading my old Macbook 1,1 and I’m not ready to do that just yet. However, I’m not sure I’ll always be able to get the latest Thunderbird release. Can no longer upgrade Firefox or many of its plugins on old G5 iMac running 10.4. But for now, while I’d rather have a path to Mail 5, Tbird seems best bet to extend Macbook’s life.

  • I have just set up a Gmail address and was told that I could then go onto Thunderbird???? I have definately NOT been able to do that. I have found dozens of sites for something called thunderbird, including a Ford car. I just need a simple email that I can send and receive messages. I do not need all of that other stuff.
    Delene Perry

  • I’ve been using Mac now for almost three years having used PC’s and WIndows for the previous 25years or so. My initial experience was just how stable my MBP was compared to other laptops I’ve used in the past. From day one I had issues with the native Mac Mail client – namely sending emails messages to Windows mail clients – the formatting was just not right. anyhow I settled on just sending plain text emails rather than HTML emails. I could live with that even though I would have preferred HTML email that worked properly regardless of the mail client used by the recipient.

    I’ve upgraded OSX from Leopard all the way through to Mountain Lion. Each update I used I have had initial problems with Mac Mail. I did look at Thunderbird along the way but backed off from it as it didn’t seem as “nice to use” as Mac Mail.

    However today I have given up on Mac Mail. Since updating to Lion and now Mountain Lion, Mail takes a long time to load up and I’m seeing spinning balls more often than not. I’ve tried all the usual fixes but to no avail. This was the tipping point for me as I have issues with emails being lost, emails not being marked as read unless I physically set the unread flag and lately I’m seeing ghost messages in my inbox (I previously deleted them but they still appear albeit greyed out). Yesterday Mail was chewing up CPU usage for hours. All told my experience of Mac Mail has not been great. Then again I’ve used Outlook (and still do under Parallels) for many years and I never had of this carry on.

    So I’ve installed Thunderbird and so far I’m quite impressed with it – it works and quite well. The only issue I had was with setting up Exchange as I use this for one of my email accounts. That being said, I got over the issue. So far so good. It starts quicker than Mc Mail and I’m not seeing any spinning balls. So Thunderbird and Outlook for that matter get a thumbs up from me and Mail a thumbs down.

  • It’s 2013 people, nobody uses email apps anymore, web browser email is where it’s at.

    • Except many, many of us still use email apps.