Thunderbird 1.0 Review

21st March 2005 · Last updated: 5th October 2016

Introduction · Problems · Conclusion · Comments


I was used to Opera's built-in email program (codenamed "M2") until it started giving me too many problems. And I started losing emails! So I thought I'd test drive Thunderbird 1.0. (I have no allegiance to any brand. If I can't get something working, I will try and try, then give up and move on.) Besides, much like cars, email programs offer the same basic features, so switching isn't too hard. But would I go running back to Opera, or stick with Mozilla's Thunderbird?

Part of the answer lies in the way Thunderbird is a standalone program. The Opera browser is undoubtedly impressive, with an email program and chat program built in, yet still smaller in file size than other browsers. But this is a mixed blessing. Think about it. Every time you start the browser, your email program also starts. If the browser crashes, or you close it by mistake, the next time you open it, your mail is fetched and processed again. Do you really want that happening every time you reopen the browser? What if you want to browse, but don't want to bother with receiving any emails?

To use M2, you really need to keep the sidebar in Opera open. But that takes space away from the main browser window. Or you end up with a tabbed window with your emails open, as well as any tabbed pages you're viewing. The upside of this is that you can instantly click on the email tab to see the contents. The downside is that you're taking away space you could use for other tabs. (You can only fit so many on a line before the titles get so short as to become meaningless.)

Now consider how a separate email program works. Sure, the filesize may be larger, but so what. It means you have a permanent tab on the Windows taskbar (if you use Windows of course) that keeps your emails separate from the browser altogether, and no need for a sidebar or extra tab to be wasted in Opera. But there are more benefits:

For a start, you're not tied to browser upgrades. The email program may well be updated more frequently, with more developers focused on it. Also, if your browser is updated, you don't have to worry about the new version interfering with your emails. This was the bug that bit me with Opera and M2. I had reinstalled Opera several times, and managed to get the emails working perfectly. But the last two times, it just wouldn't work. M2 got confused, marking emails as new when they weren't, filling the Outbox with emails I knew I'd already sent, and other annoying problems I couldn't fix. The last straw was the RSS newsfeeds folder (which is part of M2) telling me I suddenly had thousands of new messages, all shoved into one feed! Bye bye, M2. I dare risk using you no more.

A pity as M2 offers an outstanding spam filter, that learns as you go along. Eventually I had it trained so that I hardly saw any spam anymore. Luckily, Thunderbird also has an anti-spam filter, which works in a similar way. But more on that later.

Both programs also offer newsfeeds via feeds like RSS. These work in much the same ways. Neither are perfect solutions - it may be better to run a separate newsfeed program, which is likely to offer more features. (Another reason integration isn't always the best idea perhaps.) Thunderbird scores over Opera 7.54 though in that double-clicking the feed refreshes it. (This should work in Opera but never did for me.)

One of the main features Thunderbird offers that M2 doesn't (at the time of writing) is the ability to compose and forward HTML emails. You can receive HTML emails in Opera, but not write them or forward them. If you try, the styles are lost. This may be ethical but many users do not like it. If you hate HTML in emails, there should be an option to simply turn the feature off. But if you do want to write HTML emails (to use simple effects like bold and links) then it should be there. The final choice should always lie with the user. (Note: both programs can show HTML emails without harmful scripts running.)

Links can be created from existing text, or typed in after pressing the Link button. There are some advanced possibilities here, such as adding rollover styles. Anchors can also be added, along with inline images, horizontal lines and even tables.

Before you change from your existing email program to Thunderbird though, I would recommend reading about the problems I've noted below.


Junk Emails

  • Spam (which I'll call "Junk" from here on, because that's what Thunderbird calls it) appears with images and styles turned off. A bar appears above the email saying that Thunderbird thinks it is junk (spam). You can click a button there to mark the email as not junk, which then turns styles on. Images are still missing. Another button then appears that allows you to load any images. This works well in practice, but what if you wanted to see the images in an email first, before deciding if it was junk or not? You'd have to mark it first as not junk, turn images on, then mark it as junk again. But wait...
  • I've seen images appear in emails marked as junk! These must be done as backgrounds, but then Thunderbird shouldn't show them at all, because styles are off if the email is flagged as junk. So it must be an oversight, or a bug. So some junk gets past their efforts after all.
  • The Junk filter repeatedly marks emails as junk, even when you've told Thunderbird not to. Any regular email newsletters you get need a filter creating to mark them as not junk, and move them out of the Junk folder! I now have more rules to do this than I do to filter actual junk. In Opera, it soon learns when you mark a message as not junk. Thunderbird needs some work in this area.

RSS Feeds

  • Ah, here we go. Firstly, because emails and feeds may use HTML, Thunderbird actually contains a working version of Gecko, the engine that handles the display of web pages in Firefox. So it's almost like a full web browser, but without the navigation buttons and menus. But this is not my complaint. The issue with this is that by default, feeds don't show the RSS post, usually a description of a web page you may visit via the feed. Instead, Thunderbird loads the actual web page itself!!! This can be turned off, but many people are likely to leave the default setting on. This means that millions of feeds are loading whole web pages, even if the user doesn't want the page. Think of all the extra bandwidth Thunderbird is causing! Feeds are meant to be a summary of the post, or at least a cut-down version of the whole post, not the actual web page, complete with the rest of the website loading as well.

    Because of this madness I have implemented a special link in all my feed posts. This loads into Thunderbird, but it is only a single link, nothing more. If the user then wants to read the actual post, they can click on the link. I apologise to people not using Thunderbird for the inconvenience.

  • The main drawback of RSS in Thunderbird is that there's only one setting for when it should check for new feed posts. So if you set it to an hour, every single feed is checked when the hour's up. (In Opera, each feed can be set to a different timescale.) The bad part here is that some feeds are only changed once a day, if not longer, so there's no point checking them every hour. But other feeds need to be checked regularly, hence the need for individual time settings for each feed.
  • I have an RSS feed that Thunderbird only shows a graphic for. In Opera, I get the full text.

Other Problems

  • After clicking a link in an email, Thunderbird disappears from the Windows taskbar. You have to click outside the browser that the link opened in to restore the taskbar. This is incredibly confusing (heaven help the newbie).
  • Signatures are crap in Thunderbird. Sorry, there's no other way to say it. To enable a signature, you have to use Notepad to make a separate file! Then link to this by going into the settings. The signature isn't then part of the email itself, meaning signatures are text-only, even if your email is HTML. I can only hope they're working on a better solution.
  • When writing an email one day, I found fonts got messed up when changing them. Bold words became overlapped.
  • There's no way to set fonts precisely from within an email. You can only make them "Smaller" or "Larger", through various menu selections. It reminds me of IE6's limited font sizing menu. Why not allow a choice of common sizes? (Eg: 10px, 11px, 12px.) With some fonts, you can't get the right size from the current method, unless you then go to the settings and enter a value there. (But that affects all your emails.)

    You can though select from a list of sizes (very much like Word), such as Body, Headers 1 to 6, Paragraph, Address or Preformat. The headings all look to be the same size though. (See screenshot.)

  • Another bugbear I find lacking is that there's no option to save an email into the Outbox, ready for sending when the time comes to check for new emails. Thunderbird sends emails as soon as you are done with writing them. Opera puts them first into the Outbox. Thunderbird can save an email to be sent later, but it stays on your computer forever, until you manually send it!

    At work, we use Eudora. I've always written emails using it that were sent straight away. They would often stick for several seconds, as the program connected specially to the email server for each email. But recently, I noticed an option to queue emails before sending them. They would then only be sent when Eudora checked for new emails. I've lost count of the number of times I've sent an email, only to remember I forgot to add something to it, or even an attachment. Ooops, too late, the email has just been sent! But if you queue the emails first, you have a chance to reopen and edit them if necessary. (I now rely on this quite a lot.) But Thunderbird doesn't allow you to do this.


Compared to Opera's M2, my overall impression of Thunderbird is... well, I don't see that much difference. Opera fanatics will point to the way M2 doesn't store its mail in folders, but a flat database. Any folders you use are actually filters. But count the number of complaints this gets on the Opera support forums. (From new users battling to understand the complex way this works in practice. Definitely not something for beginners.) Like it or not, people are used to folders, so that's what they want. (Luckily the filters in M2 look just the same, so the program can be used in much the same way as any other email program.)

As for speed, I don't find M2 any faster than Thunderbird when searching through emails. Both offer an input form you can type in to find words, or part of them, in realtime.

Thunderbird is good. But it has a few improvements to be made before it becomes a classic program. This doesn't mean it's inferior or incapable, but not quite the perfect all-round email program yet. Of course it's also missing some advanced features, like Outlook's calendar, but Thunderbird does allow extensions like Firefox, so you can add extra features you want to it. One thing is clear: it's got a bright future, and can only get better.

Comments (1)

Comments are locked on this topic. Thanks to everyone who posted a comment.

  1. chileverde:
    Your review is very helpful. Since you say you use Eudora at work, I would like to know more about how you would compare Thunderbird and Eudora. I currently use Eudora and generally am quite pleased with it. However, I am irked by the fact that Eudora will not display some non-English characters. From discussions in the Eudora forum, I have the impression that it is unlikely Qualcomm will provide full Unicode support. It appears that Thunderbird does. However, what are the disadvantages of Thunderbird? I noted one in your review (messages are sent immediately, rather than queued). Are there others?

    Posted on 3 April 2005 at 1:58 pm