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My Aborted Plunge into Thunderbird

Migrating from Outlook, I jumped into the deep end of the pool … and jumped back out.

Update: Since this was recorded in 2006 Thunderbird has progressed significantly. I now recommend Thunderbird as a capable, full-featured, cross-platform email client, and have been using it for several years.

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Hi everyone, this is Leo Notenboom with news, commentary and answers to some of the many questions I get at

In my weekly newsletter last week I announced that I was considering a switch from Outlook to Thunderbird as my email client. I received a lot of good feedback on that plan, and, after having lived in Outlook since before it was Outlook, on Monday I took the plunge.

And after a couple of frustrating hours, I aborted my attempt.

But the news is most definitely not all bad, and I’m looking forward to trying again, after one little bug is fixed. It’s a show-stopper for me, but it might not be for you.

First let me say that almost every aspect of the migration went really, really well.

I was able to set up a new location for Thunderbird’s profile – where all the files and settings are stored – which is a key part of having Thunderbird play well with my backup and multiple computer strategy. Thunderbird imported my contacts, and my thousands of emails flawlessly. I manually recreated my email accounts, and things were looking very, very promising. Better, in fact, than I had anticipated.

Then I started to play with Filters.

Now, Filters, or as they called in Outlook, “Inbox Rules”, are a key component of how I manage the large volume of email that I get every day. I have 30 some rules that route mail to something like 30 folders, 14 of which I consider to be a kind of prioritized “sub inbox”. I’ve actually outlined what I do in more detail on

There is no migration tool for transferring rules. And while the concepts are similar, the syntax most definitely is not, so I found myself spending perhaps an hour manually transferring and translating my Outlook Inbox Rules into Thunderbird Email Filters. Worth it, if they work.

One type of rule that I rely on to archive mailing lists I’m on failed to work.

The good news is that the support forum for Thunderbird was exceptionally helpful in diagnosing the problem. The bad news is that the conclusion was: “yep, that looks like a bug”.

I’ve filed the bug report, but until it’s resolved, I’m blocked from migrating.

I’ll keep track of my issue, and I’ll take the plunge again, once it’s fixed. But until then, while I still do recommend Thunderbird for casual and personal use, it just failed the power user test for me.

I’d love to hear what you think. Visit ask leo dot info, and enter 10073 in the go to article number box. Leave a comment, I read them all.

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15 comments on “My Aborted Plunge into Thunderbird”

  1. Leo, I use The Bat! [ ] . The features I like best about it are:

    1) Handling multiple e-mail accounts with many completely separate settings (frequency of new mail checking, address books, filters, etc.)

    2) Backup/restore utilities (includes optional password protection)

    3) Filters and rules

    I did not previously use Outlook so I don’t know if there is a way to import the filters.

    Anyway, I think it’s worth a look. An evaluation version is available.


  2. For me, I didn’t care for the look and feel of Thunderbird. I also don’t like that, similar to Outlook, that it keeps attachments with the email. Instead, I upgraded my older copy to the latest (paid) version of Eudora.

  3. Try Barca – Poco mail – probably won’t import filters but maybe – have been using Poco mail for years – the best e-mail client I have ever tried- only one I have paid for….check it out

  4. I’m with John (above) – had a look at Thunderbird when it first came out and again when Leo mentioned maybe trying it but I can’t be done with the thing so I’m sticking with Eudora (latest paid-for version).

    I’ve been using Eudora since I first went on-line best part of a decade and a half ago and despite occasionally having a hunt around other peoples’ favourites I never actually use any others except occasionally Incredimail when I want to send one of it’s “funstuff” things.

    There are lots of customisable options in Eudora of course, including attachments being sent wherever you set up as the place you want them. I’m not sure whether it meets what I think I understand to be Leo’s stated desire to have email kept as plain text rather than proprietary format but any Eudora mailbox the user sets up can be opened and read with Notepad from in “my computer” (or in my case the favourite non-microsoft alternative xplorer2) so that might do.

    Best of all though in response to the latest AskLeo mailing is that I’ve put the ‘create filter’ icon on my toolbar so when I get (or send) any mail that I think is going to be repeated often enough to warrant a filter rule I just select the mail (either have it as the front one of however many I have open or just highlight it in a mailbox list) and click on ‘create filter’.
    The options that then pop up should meet most desires so the whole thing is simple enough that even creating 30 filters individually by hand is a breeze so the absence of an automated import is no problem.
    (Eudora will of course import mail and account settings automatically when instructed to do so)

    But, for anyone interested, the main reason I stick with Eudora is that no matter what emails or mailboxes I have open they are all contained in the one Eudora window, each open mail or maibox having it’s own tab at the bottom to be clicked on when I want to select it – (or they can be cycled through with ctrl+tab or closed with ctrl+w)
    I’m only a light user of email but I’m sure this would make life easier than having lots of windows open like I know many people do with email. I can’t imagine trying to handle mail with an email program that doesn’t work this way.

    (In this respect, incidentally, Eudora matches my other essential non-microsoft alternative, the Opera browser – which I recommend everyone to give a thorough trial! – far better not only that msie but also better and been around much longer than the more widely publicised firefox).

    Hope this helps somebody to choose good software

  5. Further to my posting above, I forgot to say that when creating a filter rule in Eudora it even offers the option to create a brand new mailbox (with a name of your own choosing or one it suggests) right there in the create filter dialoge – no need to make a mailbox first. This I love!!

  6. Poco also has the mailbox filter thing – but easier – just drag the mail onto the mailbox column – it automatically creates a mailbox AND incoming filter rule…drag mail onto a contacts name – automatically forward it…also supports scripts if you are into writing your own and uses it’s own html viewer so not susceptible to the weekly Outlook/Express problems – images can easily be toggled on/off…their .mbx mailbox format can be read in notepad if you like…I have tried Eudora but thought Poco did it better -mailboxes can be “pinned” with tabs as well…they have a pretty good trial time so it’s worth downloading to check out – just the mail client is about 4 MB in size – not bloated for all the features…my only complaint with it is it doesn’t support Asian language ( which I sometimes need so fall back on Outlook/Express for that)

  7. I’m a Thunderbird (TB) as well as Outlook. Although I only use Outlook for my work email, and TB for my personal emails. The thing with TB is a change of email mentality, at least that was what happened to me. Before using TB, I used Outlook Express, and as with other email users, I had tons of Filters distributing my incoming emails to tons of personal folders.
    TB also has Filters, and it works as you’d expected, 90% of the time (apparently, as Leo had proved), but TB has also introduced a new way of organising you emails, and it’s called ‘Save Search Folder’.
    So basically, when you search your inbox (or folder) with some sort of search-criteria, you can ‘save’ this ‘criteria’ into a ‘live’ folder.
    The contents of this folder will dynamically filled-in with the result of the saved-criteria. As for the physical emails themselves, they are staying in the inbox.
    This kind of mentality seems to be coming along with the new force of Web 2.0, which spearheaded by GMail with its slogan ‘Never Delete’.
    Another new paradigm which came along with this ‘saved-search’ is the idea of Tagging. Basically, you can ‘tag’ or give a ‘meaningfull’ keyword to each of your email. And combine with the ‘saved-search folder’ functionality, it can become a very powerfull way of orginising your email, because you use this tags as your seach-criteria ! Practically creating folders based on these tags.
    Unfortunately, TB doesn’t allow you to create your own tag, so you are stuck with 5 defaults that they have. Hopefully this will be rectify. But GMail give you the feature to create your own.
    If you are into Get Things Done (GTD), there is this article in the net, describing how to use TB as a GTD tool. You can read it here:

    So, my conclusion is, if you willing to change how you organise your email, TB (or GMail) is a very powerfull tool.

  8. You should try gmail. I used thunderbird for about a year or two, then about 6 months ago started using gmail exclusively for all my work email. Filters (labels) are beautiful. Uptime is comparable or better than paid service providers. You can forward all your email accounts to it and “send as” any email account – it does put some stuff in the mail header about gmail, but aside from that, works great.

    Has pop and smtp support if you ever need it. Search is a-frickin-mazing. The one or two tenths of a second that its slower b/c its web based than a desktop application are more than compensated for by the speed of search.

    Don’t know why I’m such an google lover. I think pretty soon they might become my competitor as a web developer (see but alas, their technology is top notch. Anyway, you really should check it out – I’m interested what the potential problems for a self proclaimed power user might be?

  9. I tried Thunderbird, and I really like the way it handles, but somehow I cannot seem to get it to import my emails from Outlook correctly. I have a couple of thousand emails in Outlook, and when I import them, the majority look like gibberish in Thunderbird, displaying the source code in stead of the actual email. So I can’t really use Thunderbird unless I solve this. Any suggestions? Thanks, Charles

  10. Leo, I’d also be interested in your comments on Eudora. Are you using Outlook for contacts and appointments management as well as email? If you are just relying on email have you looked at/what do you think of the current version of Pegasus?

    Peter Wills

  11. Chris wrote: “Unfortunately, TB doesn’t allow you to create your own tag, so you are stuck with 5 defaults that they have. Hopefully this will be rectify.”
    Check out TB 2.0!
    The same goes hopefully for the bug mentioned by Leo.

  12. I unfortunately have run into the same problem and will be unable to complete my transition. I have, however, been using TB in Portable Apps on my thumb drive as an emergency tool when I am with a client and for some reason need to access an email and print it on that clients otherwise secured network. Where my notebook could not access their network more often than not the USB option could.



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