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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.