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  • New Thunderbird Beta Raises the Bar

    December 13th, 2006

    Only a few days ago, I confessed that I was a regular user of Microsoft’s Entourage 2004. As an email client, I felt that it did everything I wanted. But I wasn’t totally happy, and maybe that’s my obsessive/compulsive streak. You see, it could be dog slow at times, even on the fastest PowerPC Mac. If only someone could do better?

    I’ve informally tried other email clients and always ended up with a few concerns. Mac OS X Mail gets better and better, but there are still some quirks, such as occasional bouts of disappearing messages, which requires rebuilding a mailbox. Performance is decent, but there are occasional lapses. Maybe the expanded feature set of Mail 3.0 for Leopard will deliver perfection, so I’ll revisit this subject at the appropriate time.

    A casual check of the Mozilla’s site brought news of a previously-unannounced Thunderbird 2.0 beta one release. A quick download and a few quick tests brought smiles.

    Where Entourage moves at a snail’s pace, Thunderbird sprints. Application launches are quick, even faster than Firefox. Message retrieval and folder updates are sometimes so fast that it’s near-instantaneous. Now, since most of my accounts are specified as IMAP mailboxes, some of this depends on the speed of my Internet connection, but the application is no longer the bottleneck.

    New features for Thunderbird 2.0 include message tags, which allow you to organize your mail into such categories as Important, Work, Personal and so forth. The standard theme has been spruced up with fancier icons to match Firefox. In addition, when you mouse over a folder that contains new messages, you’ll see a summary of the contents.

    The rest of the new features include Folder Views, to provide a way to check favorite, unread or recent folders. This helps you more easily home in on the messages you want to see, especially if you’re managing lots of accounts, with a number of extra folders. As with the previous version, Thunderbird is provided as a Universal Binary.

    These enhancements and the rest of the bunch are not major in the scheme of things, and it may not be sufficient to justify a wholesale migration from earlier versions of the program. But it may be a compelling reason to consider switching from other email clients.

    Not everything is perfect. Thunderbird’s Mac import options, for example, remain pathetic. Message and address book retrievals are limited to Netscape Communicator 4.x (talk about ancient history) and Eudora, the latter useful since the next Eudora will be built on a Thunderbird foundation. You’ll be forced to rely on third party tools, such as Emailchemy, to grab your messages from another application.

    In my case, this didn’t present much of a problem, thanks to my recent switch to IMAP, since my messages are now stored on my hosting service’s servers. In addition, the folks at Mozilla recommend Address Book Exporter to convert your contacts to a text file, which can be read via Thunderbird. Despite the cross-platform nature of Thunderbird, however, it would be nice if the Mac version would integrate with Address Book.

    If you’re a Windows user, there’s also support for importing data from Outlook and Outlook Express.

    If you’re starting from scratch, simple setup wizards will handle the basics of account configuration. You’ll be able to handle standard POP and IMAP accounts, and there is limited support for Microsoft Exchange.

    Despite the fact that it’s an early beta, Thunderbird 2.0b1 didn’t display any obvious symptoms of not being ready for release. I didn’t encounter any crashes, performance hangups or glitches introduced by the new version. One minor issue, a remnant from previous versions, curiously involves AOL. When I sent a message from my AOL account, it had a problem putting the message in the Sent Items folder, but that shouldn’t be a big deal for most of you.

    The long and short of it is that if your present email client isn’t doing it for you, go to Mozilla’s Web site and grab a copy of the latest Thunderbird.



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