Beta Watch: Thunderbird 3 Email Client


Mozilla recently released Thunderbird 3 Beta 2, another stop along the road to the final release of Thunderbird 3.

Thunderbird is a full-featured, open-source email client originally based on the old Mozilla suite browser’s Mail module, which in turn derived from the ancient Netscape Communicator Messenger module.

I’ve never been a particularly big Thunderbird fan, but I’ve recently revisited it as a possible Intel Mac-friendly replacement for my longtime email stalwart — Eudora — which is proving an unhappy camper on my new Unibody MacBook. One reason to go with Thunderbird is that it also forms the basis of the new, open-source “Eudora” version 8 (aka Penelope), which is really nothing like classic Eudora other than sharing some of the its appearance conventions. Thunderbird shares with Eudora 8 the happy facility to efficiently import settings, contacts, and email archives from Classic Eudora, a huge convenience.


Thunderbird incorporates the three-pane user interface model familiar to users of OS X Mail and Outlook Express. It’s fast (at least on Intel-based Macs), reasonably easy to configure, and will be intuitive to use for folks who like three-pane email clients, but less so for us Classic Eudora holdouts. It’s also open source and one of the most sophisticated free email clients available.

Thunderbird handles HTML mail competently, lets you keep images turned off until you want them to load, has sensible protocols for dealing with suspected spam, a decent search engine (not as slick as Classic Eudora’s, alas), and allows the user to specify manual checks of individual mail accounts, which is huge for me, as I have 22 accounts configured.

Less commendable are Thunderbird’s clunky Address Book implementation (especially its handling of recipient groups), obtuse CC and BCC configuration, and less-than-straightforward handling of multiple accounts —- particularly SMTP server assignment. Another thing that bugs me is that you can’t select all in a message and get in the address and subject line info along with the body text, which makes frequent copy-and-paste tasks take literally twice as long. All those angularities can be worked around, but they’re frustrating for old Eudora hands accustomed to that program’s tractable and convenient flexibility.

However, I’m getting acclimatized, and finding the Thunderbird 3 Beta 2 build released last week a smooth performer, with no beta bugginess encountered so far.

Notable changes in Thunderbird 3 Beta 2 include:

User Experience Improvements

Message Archive

  • You can now file messages from your Inbox or other folders into the new Archive folder system.

Activity Manager

  • Now records all the interactions between Thunderbird and your email provider in one place.

Performance improvements

Faster Message Loading for IMAP

  • Thunderbird will now download IMAP messages by default in the background, allowing for faster message loading, and better offline operation. This feature can be enabled on an individual folder basis or for all folders in an account.

According to the developers, there are more than 340 changes in this release, many laying the groundwork for future ones. And a blog post by David Ascher says the most striking aspect is the sheer volume of bug fixes. You can check the bug fix inventory here.

Ascher says the new Archive feature is borrowed from Gmail’s, which relies on the program’s search capability to find messages, although you can also still use the standard “file in a folder” method, and while the projected new fast global search isn’t implemented yet, even the old cross-folder search mechanism has been improved.


The next beta release is projected to be the last scheduled Thunderbird 3 beta and the last milestone to introduce more new features. Slated feature additions include:

  • New global search function, leveraging tabs
  • Cleaning up the message header area further
  • The beginning of some theming work (prettier icons, etc.)

If you’re running an older system, be aware that Thunderbird 3 Beta 2 no longer supports Mac OS X versions prior to 10.4 Tiger. As is common fare for Mozilla, Thunderbird is completely free.


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