Make Thunderbird 3 Your Ultimate Message Hub

Make Thunderbird 3 Your Ultimate Message Hub

You may be a diehard Gmail user, prone to declaring desktop email clients dead. That’s fine. We still think you’ll find Thunderbird 3 to be a better offline email solution, and a really convenient aggregator for all your inboxes.

What follows is a guide for getting Thunderbird 3 set up as a dedicated offline email client, as well as a more convenient and powerful online inbox aggregator — allowing you to manage everything from your regular email accounts to Google Voice, Google Wave and other non-email inboxes with a little setting up. If you’re using a standard Gmail account, setting it up with Thunderbird 3 is really easy — just type in your username and password when you first start up. If you’re a Google Apps user or have another IMAP-available email client, follow Google’s IMAP instructions to get started.

Set up content tabs for Google Wave, Voice, or any site

We showed you last week how easy it is to create a persistent Google Wave tab in Thunderbird 3, helping you keep tabs on the not-quite-there-but-really-interesting messaging and collaboration service. The short version? Head to the Tools menu, select Error Console, then enter this code (copy the whole thing) and hit Evaluate:

Components.classes[';1'] .getService(Components.interfaces.nsIWindowMediator).getMostRecentWindow("mail:3pane").document.getElementById("tabmail").openTab("contentTab", {contentPage: ""});

If you’re a Google Voice user, you can pull off a similar persistent Voice inbox tab, per commenter steelpitt’s advice:

Components.classes[';1'] .getService(Components.interfaces.nsIWindowMediator).getMostRecentWindow("mail:3pane").document.getElementById("tabmail").openTab("contentTab", {contentPage: ""});

And, as trstn points out, you can easily enter just about any web site as the address in the contentPage section. Heck, you can even keep your web-based Gmail open, if you feel like having a fallback if Thunderbird frustrates you.[imgclear]

Learn its search and filter powers (and let it index overnight)

Thunderbird’s new search powers are, in a word, awesome. One of the most powerful arguments for sticking to Gmail’s web interface is its uber-powerful search operators. Thunderbird’s search powers aren’t quite as comprehensive, but they do help you quickly find a message using the same kind of filters and operators.

For my personal Gmail account, search results loaded about as fast they did on the web version. After a quick keyword search, you can filter by sender, prioritised by how many emails they’ve sent you or by folder location, and add filters like “To Me”, “From Me”, starred items, and with attachments. Those are, of course, the basics of web-based Gmail, but when you’re using Thunderbird offline, they can still search through every single message, not just the three months’ worth you’ve loaded into Google Gears.

A good bit of advice, though, from Seth Rosenblatt at CNET: give Thunderbird time to run through your messages. Leaving it running overnight is about what’s needed for accounts that have been active for a few years, and overnight plus a day in the background should work for most accounts.

Set up permanent and one-shot offline sessions

Gmail offers offline inbox access and composition and even offline message attachments, but it’s limited in size, and even Google warns you that you’ll see some serious slowdown if you stash more than the standard three months of messages in your Google Gears database. Thunderbird, on the other hand, is a tried and true road warrior, and lets you keep as much material as you want on your hard drive.

To edit which messages and how many of them are kept local for searching and retrieval, head to the Edit menu and then Account Settings. Under the Synchronization & Storage menu for a particular email account, hit Advanced to set which folders get the synchronisation treatment. Don’t select all of them out of security, though — you’ll see that you can do one-shot folder syncs, just below. When you’ve got a good set checked off, set the maximum message size in back in the main storage settings.

When you’re getting ready to head out on a trip, hit the File->Offline menu and select Download/Sync. You’ll get the menu you see above, asking you to either go ahead and use your default settings, or choose certain folders to bring offline for this offline jaunt. Do the sync, and you’re ready to read, write and do your general email thing without a net connection.

You’ll still want to “compact” your mail folders ever now and again — made easier with one of the buttons in the Toolbar Buttons add-on.

Install ThunderBrowse

At its core, ThunderBrowse is a tiny, fast browser that bakes itself into Thunderbird to allow reading websites without switching over to your browser. More than that, though, ThunderBrowse’s preferences let you to fine-tune how JavaScript, images, and plug-ins like Flash are handled in HTML-formatted emails. Put simply, ThunderBrowse makes it more convenient to stick to text-only emails, clicking to open the HTML-formatted space hogs only if you choose.

“Yeah, that’s nice, but I like my Chrome/Safari/Opera,” you say? ThunderBrowse is still worth the very quick download.

To start with, ThunderBrowse lets you customise how your external browser is launched. You can open most links in ThunderBrowse, but save middle-clicked links for your high-powered browser. Customise how email links are launched in that browser? You sure can. ThunderBrowse is also fairly snappy and light, so even if you’re using an ultra-speedy browser, it might be just as fast to launch a site you’re glancing at inside Thunderbird, rather than wait for an external browser to pick up the URL and load it. Your mileage may vary, but I’ve found ThunderBrowse tremendously helpful in running through emails with speed.

How does Thunderbird fit into your own online/offline messaging life? What features or add-ons does it need to remain relevant? Tell us your take in the comments.


  • This is another “maybe check it out if I could be bothered some day” task, because really, Gmail works just great, and how often do you not have internet? And have the need to check email at that time?

  • Thunderbird is our primary email client/aggregator. It is such a convenience to be able to send and receive all of our email from one program.

    We use Google Apps for our business and personal emails. I have 16 email addresses from three businesses using 4 gmail accounts, one blackberry and two yahoo accounts. All of them POP or IMAP into Thunderbird.

    So what are the reasons to do this?

    Is our “out of the cloud” email backup/storage solution.
    TB helps to store synced contact lists between gmail and Blackberry.
    Can be used to send and receive email from any or all 16 of our email addresses from one window.
    Has apps to make typing letters in a business environment faster and easier to do.

    The only reason I ever go directly to my gmail accounts is to browse the spam filter to catch the very rare good message that gets trapped there. Unfortunately, I have to log into each gmail account one by one and scan each individual message because Google does not allow me to sort the emails by subject, as TB does. If I could sort all the spam messages by subject, I could save several hours a week.

    Thunderbird does let me do that.

  • While the features really look quite interesting and quite useful, I really doubt that I’ll be persuaded to move over when I think about the hassle it’s going to be to port my messages in storage and archiving (and in any of my inboxes for that matter) over to a different platform. Add that to the fact that you may have to rework your email addresses and inform a whole bunch of people that you’ve got a new host website or address, I’ll be the first to say No Thank You! At my age, I’m just going to keep things simple. Being contactable over the internet is more than enough for me!

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