Thunderbird for Desktop E-Mail

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2707, 2009-02-13, as a feature article, in both their PDF edition (on pages 14-19) and their website.

Although there is a trend away from desktop e-mail programs (known as e-mail clients) and toward Web-based e-mail (such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail), there are still countless computer users who prefer reading and composing their e-mail messages within a desktop client.

There are a number advantages to this approach: You don't have to launch a Web browser to receive incoming messages, and you don't even have to be connected to the Internet to create new outbound messages. Secondly, filters have become a key feature within all e-mail programs, and are primarily used for automatic spam deletion and message management. While the filter capabilities of the Web-based programs are fairly strong, the better desktop programs generally have superior filters. On a related note, developers have had many more years for creating custom spam-blocking add-ons. Lastly, desktop e-mail programs are the clear choice for programmers who need to be able to automatically parse the contents of messages and use that data, such as submitting an online equity trade.

E-mail client programs come in all sizes and price tags, but perhaps the best all-around choice nowadays is Thunderbird, which was created by Mozilla, the organization that gave us the Firefox Web browser. Just like Firefox, Thunderbird is free, easy to install, easy to use, and packed with features not found in other programs — but without all of the bloat and adware. In addition, Thunderbird has a far better security track record than Microsoft's Outlook and Outlook Express, which are the most common culprit in security breaches on Windows PCs. Thunderbird is available for Windows, Linux, and Mac OS X.

Fantastic Features

Thunderbird offers all of the capabilities that one would expect to find in any decent e-mail program, either desktop or online, as well as enhanced capabilities not found elsewhere. You can download incoming e-mail messages from any e-mail server, automatically or on-request. This includes integration with Gmail and .Mac accounts, which means you do not have to give up the advantages of those accounts in order to utilize Thunderbird. You simply provide your username and password, and Thunderbird takes it from there, using a secure connection to download and upload your messages.

As with any e-mail desktop client, all messages can be organized into folders (within the program itself — not to be confused with Windows folders, though they may be utilized by the client program). You can set up newsgroup and RSS folders specifically for those types of messages. Each folder has a pop up that summarizes any new messages received in that folder.

Similar to Gmail, you can create your own tags, add multiple tags to a message, and use those tags later for searching, which avoids the problem of not being able to find a message easily because you could only place it into one of several appropriate folders. Tags can be combined with saved searches and mail views, further easing any future searching. Saved searches, just as the name implies, are handy if you find yourself frequently searching using a specific term or set of terms.

A unique feature of Thunderbird is message history navigation, which allows you to move backward and forward, through messages that you have read — similar to a Web browser allowing you to view previously opened Web pages.

You can compose new messages, and send them out immediately or save them in draft form, in case you would like to make changes later before sending, or delete them entirely (very handy if you are composing an angry message). Message templates are a smart way to save time, if you find yourself creating similar messages often.

Thunderbird has built in security and privacy measures that are second to none. It automatically detects potential phishing attempts, and it also warns you when the URL of a link in an e-mail message does not match the link text, which is the most common phishing technique. In addition, Thunderbird blocks the loading of remote images embedded in messages, which is the most common method that companies use for tracking e-mail messages and recipients.

The developers of Thunderbird undoubtedly detest spam just as much as the rest of us do, and they have built into their product junk mail filters that are designed to prevent any spam messages from landing in your inbox. Even if some spam messages make it through the filter, every time that you designate one of them as spam, Thunderbird learns and thereby improves its spam-filtering prowess. The program can also utilize the spam filters provided by your own Internet service provider (ISP).

Additional Advantages

Thunderbird, like Firefox, is open source, which means that it is being continuously examined and improved by a small army of developers and security experts all over the world, each contributing in their areas of strength. This is proving to be a more robust software development model than that of proprietary, closed-source software, whose code is only viewed by the relatively small number of programmers working for the given software vendor. Open-source products tend to have fewer security problems, and if any do escape the collective scrutiny of its developers, fixes are implemented and distributed much faster.

Another similarity with Firefox is that Thunderbird automatically checks to confirm that you are running the latest and greatest version of the product, and can automatically update itself if you are not. This greatly reduces the risks of online miscreants using a known security weakness to attack your system (had you not updated it manually).

Many people have the misconception that a free, open-source e-mail client would not be robust enough for corporate use, and that instead one must resort to licensing an enterprise messaging system from some software vendor or reseller. But Thunderbird is quite able to scale nicely for use by multiple people within an organization.

The built-in Add-ons Manager makes it easy to enhance the functionality and user interface of your Thunderbird program, by supplementing it with extensions and themes. Extensions exist that allow you to: detect and delete duplicate messages, collapse quoted sections of messages, use keyboard shortcuts for moving messages around, search for messages using Gmail's operators, and much more. As if that is not enough, you can even listen to digital music from within Thunderbird, which saves you the hassle and extra system memory for a separate music-playing program.

First Flight

To get started using Thunderbird, visit the product's homepage, and click the green button to download the latest version, which is 2.0.0.18, as of this writing.

Thunderbird homepage
Figure 1. Thunderbird homepage

When the installation file has finished downloading, open it. The installation wizard will pop up several dialog boxes — one of which asks for your acceptance of the license agreement, and the next allows you to choose either a standard or custom installation. Unless you want to specify an installation directory other than the default, the standard option will probably suffice. When the program first runs, it will ask if you want it to import your Microsoft Outlook Express settings.

Import Outlook Express settings
Figure 2. Import Outlook Express settings

Then you will be prompted to set up an e-mail or newsgroup account, so you can begin sending and receiving messages.

New account setup
Figure 3. New account setup

Continue working your way through the account setup wizard's dialog boxes, and then you will be ready to go. Afterward, you can begin making configuration changes, as needed and desired.

Program options
Figure 4. Program options

Once you have had some time to become accustomed to using Thunderbird for your message management, you will more than likely find it a far better alternative to any of the e-mail clients that might come with your copy of Windows.

Copyright © 2008 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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