Thunderbird 3 Gets A Firefoxy Makeover

Even though the Thunderbird 3 RC won't be available until later this month, we took a look at the beta 4, which is very close to the RC. It incorporates snippets of features found in Firefox and strives to make the overall interface more intuitive and user-friendly.

One of the most noticeable of features is straight out of Firefox's interface -- tabbed e-mails. Once you double-click open an e-mail message, that message opens in a separate, tabbed window pane. Unlike Firefox however, tabs are not movable. Tabbed e-mail is a nice way to keep visual track of which messages you may have open, but as we found out during review, it's easy to forget tabs are opened as you go into your in-box and open messages -- at one point we had about 15 tabbed messages open.

Thunderbird 3 incorporates the improved Add-On Manager developed in Firefox. The Add-On Manager allows users to download any and all add-ons created for Thunderbird as well as allow them to enable and disable extensions, themes and plug-ins.

The new Mail Account Setup Wizard allows a user to quickly and automatically set up a primary e-mail account. The wizard prompts for a display name and e-mail address and then, at least in the case of a Gmail account, will auto-populate the appropriate IMAP, SMTP and port settings. It's a handy feature. However the wizard will not assist with setting up additional e-mail accounts. For instance, when adding a second AOL e-mail account, we had to define the IMAP server, Thunderbird did not automatically populate the e-mail server settings as it did when we added the gmail account.

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Managing more than one e-mail account is a bit convoluted with this client.

Gmail is setup as our primary account and AOL as an additional. While Thunderbird gives a pop-up notification when e-mail is received for either accounts, it's difficult to locate where exactly the e-mail is for the secondary AOL account, without doing a search.

Thunderbird has by default Smart Folders: Inbox, Drafts, Sent Mail, All Mail, Spam, Trash and Outbox as well as folders associated with each email account. The only e-mails that we could see in both the "Inbox" and "All Mail" folders, are those sent to the Gmail account. Doing a search pulls up e-mail sent to the AOL account, but it's not very clear where the AOL e-mail is residing.

One of the touted features of Smart Folders is the congregation of all messages from various accounts in one Inbox, but the feature could use improvement in distinguishing which messages come from which account.

Users can not only add multiple email accounts, but also Blogs and News feeds as well as newsgroup accounts. Thunderbird 3 does allow for some folder management.

Users can specify where to store sent items, drafts, archives and message templates. One strong new feature is improved search with advanced filtering. Search results are displayed in a tabbed window in a thread-like view. Users can also click on a chart icon at the top of the search results page. Clicking this icon, display a timeline of the search results in a bar graph. By default, the bar graph displays the searched message results by month and year. You can also drill the timeline down by day.

Another feature is one that can benefit all of us -- attachment reminder. However, reminder is a limited feature and will only pop-up if the keywords "attachment" or "attached" are in the body of the message. It would be cool if those keywords written in the subject line triggered the reminder as well.

The One-Click Address book makes it really simple to add contacts. Just click on the star icon next to a sender's name in messages you receive, and that person is added to the Address Book. Double-click it to add other details like a photo, birthday or contact information.

There are some performance improvements with this release of Thunderbird. Included, is the latest Gecko engine which improves viewing HTML mail and Web pages sent via e-mail. Thunderbird 3 also integrates with Gmail services such as archiving. In addition, it integrates with Windows 7 and Vista seach, as well as Mac OS X's Spotlight.

Although Thunderbird 3 does not have built-in calendaring, many Thunderbird users add the Lightning add-on for full calendar functionality. We tried installing the latest version of Lightning, 0.9, but got the error message that it could not be installed because it's not compatible with Thunderbird 3.0, beta 4. Hopefully, this will be resolved by the time the RC is out.

Thunderbird 3 is a work in progress. It's a great way to handle IMAP e-mail, RSS feeds and mail folders. The ability to easily add extensions makes the feature set extensive. It will be nice to see how and if some of the features in Thunderbird 3 will get fleshed-out out in the Release Candidate.