A Return to Thunderbird

Microsoft dominates the e-mail software world.  Outlook is an outstanding program and is substantially enhanced when used well with Microsoft Exchange servers.  But without that Exchange connection, an open source application like Mozilla’s Thunderbird can provide just as much e-mail performance.  I moved to the latest version (45) when I found that the Windows 10 Mail client was missing a couple of basic features.

It’s worth stating that the Windows 10 Mail app is probably the best default app Windows has had.  I’ve used Outlook Express and Live Mail along the way and neither was very good.  The 10 app supports multiple accounts (Exchange and IMAP), has an integrated calendar, personalization, and is a good mail handler.  I’ve also looked at Inky, and Nylas.   Both are nice but were either lacking in features I liked or, in the case of Inky, seemed to need to connect to Inky servers to process my mail.  So it’s on to Thunderbird (again).

This is not intended to be a review of Thunderbird, but rather an update since the last time I used it.  At that point, it had a typical early-Windows interface and, while feature rich, was a bit hard to customize.  I downloaded Thunderbird version 45 and it is a completely different … bird.

IMAP accounts were easy to set up and Thunderbird enabled me to correctly use two-factor authentication to complete setup.  It does not support Exchange out of the box but there are add-ons.  I found the e-mail one to work seamlessly but the calendar one, not so much.

Moving Mail

This is such a basic function.  I have 4 e-mail accounts – 3 using IMAP and one using Exchange.  In Outlook, when you have multiple accounts open, you can move e-mail among them.  Not so in Windows 10 Mail.  Thunderbird offers two nice features.  First, you can drag and drop a message (or bunch of selected messages) from one account to another.  Second, there is a Local Folders option so that you can set a local backup of your email.  Like the Outlook PST file which you can open as if it was an e-mail account on Outlook, Local Folders exists on your machine.

I use Outlook PSTs for local backup of content that I don’t want to leave on the Exchange server.  Because it is local, it doesn’t count towards my mail quota.  I can password protect it and disconnect it from my Outlook app.  You can’t secure Local Folders, but they exist on the computer (right click on Local Folders, select Settings and it will show you where).   I prefer IMAP or Exchange accounts because it leaves the e-mail on the server, and I assume the server will back it up.  Having a local copy is nice when I am archiving the e-mail for posterity and don’t need it taking up server space.

Customization & Add-ons

Windows 10 Mail actually does a pretty good job with server customization but a lot of it is hidden.  It’s also not proven to be stable.  For example, the default “Sent from Windows 10” signature has come back once or twice even after I reset it to a personal e-mail signature.  Thunderbird has a lot more exposed options for making changes to how e-mail is delivered, where it’s stored, and other nitty gritty.  Not for everyone, but I use 4 different e-mail servers and one of them will sometimes require a slightly different setting to work.  It’s nice to have access to this.

Thunderbird has the productivity tweaks that make it as powerful as Outlook.  Like it’s web browser relative, Firefox, you can extend Thunderbird with add-ons. There are loads to choose from, but the one I used to immediately install – the Lightning calendar – is now integrated as soon as you install Thunderbird.  The extensions I’m using are:

  • Exchange EWS provider, (f/k/a provider) to sync your Exchange calendar.  It can’t find mine.  It’s unfortunate that it can’t ride on top of the account settings for Exchange mail.
  • ExQuilla for Microsoft Exchange.  E-mail and contacts on Exchange.  You can customize whether address lookups include Exchange or not.  This is *NOT* free but has a $10 annual license.  I’m likely to go back to Windows 10 Mail on the Exchange account because (a) it’s work and (b) I’m not willing to pay for an alternate to Outlook Web (OWA) email.  Alternatively, I’ll just stop checking work e-mail from my desktop.
  • gContactSync to synchronize Google Mail contacts.
  • Lightning
  • Stylish

I am finding that many of the add-ons don’t work with the latest version, but the one that I use heavily in Firefox – Stylish – does.  This has been useful because, while you can make some global look and feel changes, you can’t impact everything using the application.  But Thunderbird 45 looks like a web browser and you can style the underlying HTML representations in the same way.

Using Stylish, you can highlight unread e-mails in a color so they’re easier to see.

I used this style

treechildren::-moz-tree-cell(unread) {
    background-color: #FF3333 !important;  color: #ffffff !important;}
treechildren::-moz-tree-cell(unread,selected) {
    background-color: #cccccc !important; color: #ffffff !important; }

to recolor unread e-mails so they’re more noticeable.  Every style I inserted required the all-important !important, so if you try something that doesn’t work, it may be because you aren’t forcing this override.  I also used Stylish to retheme Thunderbird’s stylesheets to make the font size larger in certain places and smaller in others.

I have not found Thunderbird to be very helpful in exposing what the necessary CSS is.  Pages like this one document some of the most common elements, and that’s where I started.  But I’m going to see if there isn’t a more obvious way to just look at all the styles.  I’d really like to see if there is a way I could retheme e-mail based on the account they belong to – like VMWare’s Boxer mobile e-mail app – so that, when I use the unified view that I prefer, I can see more quickly see which e-mails are tied to which account.

I’m unlikely to use some of the other functions of Thunderbird.  While neither it nor Microsoft Outlook integrate Microsoft’s Skype, you can integrate other chat services with Thunderbird.  And, of course, there are other add-ons.  But Thunderbird is a more complete e-mail package than Windows 10 Mail for my purposes and I’m looking forward to having the extra power.

David Whelan

I improve information access and lead information teams. My books on finding information and managing it and practicing law using cloud computing reflect my interest in information management, technology, law practice, and legal research. I've been a library director in Canada and the US, as well as directing the American Bar Association's Legal Technology Resource Center. I speak and write frequently on information, technology, law library, and law practice issues.