TapThunderbird are go (just)

I have been meaning to change over from Outlook to Thunderbird email client for a while; mainly because I gave away my copy of Outlook to someone who needed it and I really ought to stop using it myself, but also because I have been inflicting Thunderbird on other people and ought to know a bit more about it.

My initial impressions are mixed; for a basic user it looks great, certainly a lot better than my last experience of Outlook Express (v5). It has all the things that you need and some more if you want to stretch out. For a user like me, who has been on Outlook for some years (even an old version) and has a complex and large email requirement, then it does seem to be lacking in some areas. Perhaps it is just because it is different and will take some getting used to, but I certainly don’t think that it quite lives up to some of the reviews that claim that it is fully featured. Perhaps if anyone knows a solution to any of these problems they could let me know, I wouldn’t be surprised if I just haven’t discovered how to configure it correctly. I have left out the weaknesses that I know to be fixed by extensions.

  • The structure of the mail files is good. Much better in a (standard) flat file format, one per mail folder (rather like OE) than a proprietary database like PST. However I am having trouble managing these folders: you get the choice, for each account, of creating a new top level structure, merging with an existing one or using the Global Inbox in “Local Folders.” There doesn’t seem to be a way of creating a new top level structure independent of the accounts. This may be possible by creating dummy accounts, but is a bit of a hack.
  • Also I can’t find any way to place these structures in a disk location of choice. I want to do this for two reasons—to get data for long term storage off my C: (software) drive and onto my data drive and also to segregate mail by project (which doesn’t match accounts) and to store that mail with the rest of the project data. This is said to be possible by setting the Local Directory for each account but I can’t find it.
  • I have imported all my live mail from Outlook which works ok but with some limitations. All the “follow-up flags” are lost even though both systems have the concept, and all mail comes in “Unread.” Having done this and marked Thunderbird as my default mail client, it doesn’t want to know any more. I can’t find any way to import my archives from detached Outlook mail files.
  • The spell check dictionary is not installed by default – I expected that downloading the British version of the client would have the British dictionary pre-installed. Although it installs like an extension, it has to be done from a login account with admin authority.

On the positive side, the real-time spell checker is great, the integrated spam filter, image and HTML controls and threaded views are good, though I understand they are in the latest version of Outlook too. I’ve not tried the RSS and News readers, multiple Address Books and Message Templates, but they look promising.

Some minor UI weaknesses which annoy more than break the application—

  • The Previous and Next button arrows go left and right but the mail is organised in a vertical list and so should be up and down.
  • There is no button to Resend a mail, you have to use the obscure “Edit as New” function which doesn’t have a button. Even after scouring all the extensions there are still some buttons I would like e.g. print preview.
  • Dragging mail folders around seems to create copies rather than move them. Sometimes using the standard “hold down the shift key” overrides this but not always (I think it fails when moving between top level structures.) Moved folders show as empty until selected.
  • The “Importance” flags don’t exist, but there is an Important Label which is not compatible. The “Follow-up” flags are limited to on or off – there is no “complete” option nor is any target date possible (perhaps because the calendar feature is not integrated as standard).
  • There are a number of different dates which you may want to use to manage mail—Date sent (I think this is the one that is displayed), Date downloaded and also Date received at server would be useful. A problem with using the Date sent is that it can be accidentally or deliberately wrong putting mail in unexpected positions in the list.
  • I don’t really need Drafts, Templates, Deleted and Sent folders cluttering up every top level folder but I don’t seem to be able to delete them.
  • If you switch on View Full Headers, there is no scroll bar and, if there are a lot, then the message itself drops right off the bottom to become inaccessible. This looks like a bug.
  • The mail item window has the subject too small and hidden away. I expect that it is changeable by an obscure option.
  • The address book is a bit limited. It has only provision for two email addresses per person. It could integrate with the main client more closely such as an optional search on the main toolbar and facilities to easily transfer addresses to new mail items made easier. I haven’t found the file yet so don’t know if it is possible to process it using other applications.
  • When reading a lot of mail at the start of the day, the junk mail occasionally gets flagged but not moved to the Junk folder. This has apparently been a known bug for some time. I think it is something to do with checking all accounts concurrently.
  • As it is using the same spell checker as Firefox (SpellBound extension) and OpenOffice.org it would be good if they used the same additional dictionary so I don’t have to teach all three separately about my unusual words.

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