Thunderbird Beta (Firefox-related email client) finally available

If you’re still muddling along with Outlook, or suffering under the curse of some hopeless rubbish like Apple’s OS X Mail, salvation may well be on the horizon… ThunderBird version 3 is now in beta (and looks like it will be the first version of TB that will be usable as a general email client; IME the previous releases never really worked properly). Try it out!

This release is much much better than the alpha releases. It is fast, like the old Mozilla News and Mail (which preceded TB, and had awesome features that none of the TB’s ever had – basic essentials (like instant-search) that got cut when they transitioned to TB). It also has some funky new features, like tabbed-browsing of emails.

Bar one massive bug, IMHO it’s good enough for daily usage right now. Sadly, that bug is a showstoppper. It’s partly due to a big bug that the developers are aware of (so big they hilight it on the download page), but it seems to also be partly due to something else. The overall effect is that ThunderBird 3 Beta simply “doesn’t” download IMAP emails. As far as I can see, this makes it useless for the most common uses of a dedicated email client (but … it *is* a beta).

According to the bug report for the bug the developers are aware of, the inability to download IMAP email shouldn’t be a problem because they have a new super-secret invisible “automatic background download”. Obviously, this is a stupid feature for any finished app – there’s no way you can have something like that be non-inspectable – but they’re a long way away from a gold launch, and I’m happier to get early access to it as-is rather than wait ages for bells-and-whistles.

However, either Gmail has an extra bug (quite possible – Google broke the IMAP standard when they added IMAP to Gmail), or OS X has an extra bug, or the TB team simply don’t realise quite how bad the situation is – right now, as an IMAP email client, TB beta is practically useless with OS X + Gmail, and having used it for the past 3 weeks or so, I don’t see how you could think of it otherwise. Since it won’t batch download IMAP emails (the bug they hilight), and the alleged new feature of “background download” simply isn’t working (they dont mention this one :( ), you have to manually click every single one of your emails in every single folder in order to get them to download. How long does it take to click on 1,000 emails? Quite a long time…

(and, NB: you have to wait for each one to start downloading before clicking the next, or it appears to cancel the download)

I tried it out on a gmail account that had 5,000 or so emails – randomly a couple (about 10-20) got downloaded. The vast majority did not. I had a look at the traffic going through the network card, and after a few seconds it was idling, so Thunderbird wasn’t even attempting to download anything. If I go offline, all the messages have “this message hasn’t been downloaded” errors. Surprise! Nothing I do has any effect (unsurprising, given the bug report).

I wonder if it’s partly got by unnoticed because the developers already had most of their mail cached (successive installs of TB re-use the cache of downloaded IMAP email), and didn’t get to see what happens with a fresh install of this “new” mail client? Maybe the bug only shows up when you have more than, say, 10 new emails to download? (when you first install, any Gmail account is likely to have many thousands to download)

Sadly, since there’s not even a progress UI to tell you what’s happening, I can’t really tell what’s going wrong.

But *apart* from that it’s looking really good, and – assuming that IMHO critical bug doesn’t affect you (I suspect it doesn’t happen on Windows, perhaps?) – I think a lot of people will be doing a mail-client switch soon. And after a few weeks of usage it already seems to work much, much better on OS X than Apple’s own Mail application.

If you don’t need offline IMAP, give it a try: Downloads page for Thunderbird beta

One final note to OS X users: the beta still has at least one nasty bug from the alpha, so be warned: it interacts very badly with OS X’s window manager, and after about 10 minutes of running it suddenly takes about 50% of your CPU usage in OS X windowing libraries. So you probably dont want to leave the app running in the background permanently. Although your CPU has spare processor time, TB has basically taken exclusive control of the windowing library (perhaps they’re acquiring locks and failing to drop them?).

Once that happens, the whole OS grinds to a halt: you’ll find it very hard in *any* application to click on buttons, dialogues will take ten seconds to appear (instead of 0.01 seconds), etc. Kill TB, and your system goes back to normal. Check your CPU usage, and it’s being gobbled by the OS X Window Server, or related OS X internals. I am sure this is an OS-X only issue, since it seems to be the OS X libs themselves that are going AWOL.

6 Replies to “Thunderbird Beta (Firefox-related email client) finally available”

  1. I’m using it on my Vista x64 box at work in lieu of Outlook and it’s worked well so far. The built in calendaring syncs up fine with our exchange server and the background imap is pretty snappy. I do have to ‘force’ check nested folders (I have some server-side imap filtering active) but as you said, it’s probably related to the imap issues in general.

    Still prefer mail.app for my home OSX machine.

  2. You … what? mail.app? Prefer?

    OK. Who are you, and what you have you done with the real Scott Jennings?

    (in the nicest possible way)

  3. I gave up on Mail when I found out the latest version could not:

    * mark viewed messages as read automatically after a few seconds while also allowing previews
    * “do” autocomplete of addresses (failed nine times out of ten)
    * quote messages the way around I wanted them
    * handle GMail IMAP properly (as noted, this is Google’s fault, but still … if a hundred million people use it, you kind of need to support it :( )

  4. Well, I gave up on Google IMAP long ago. Among other charming features, if I checked IMAP from two places at once, it would often lock me out with a “Overrun in Sector 5” or something similarly stupid. I know, it’s a stretch that anyone would want to keep an IMAP account synced between two locations, not like that’s what it was designed for or anything silly like that. So I don’t really fault mail.app for that. As far as read automatically while previewing – uh, mine does that fine, in fact I thought that was its default behavior.

    Quoting and autocomplete I can see, but I usually do both manually out of force of habit :)

  5. Hm. Is the baesian filter in Thunderbird actually worth anything now? Last time I tried it (4-5 months ago), it only had an 80% accuracy rate.

    I use Pegasus Mail, and there’s a fair bit of inertia on my part in that.. (also, I do prefer windows and multiple visible windows over the outlook-type fixed view)

  6. I’m afraid I haven’t tried the filtering, the only accounts I’m using at the moment are all serever side managed (that’s the way I like my IMAP ;)).

    I suspect it’s not good … yet … from looking at the bug notes and list of things left out of this release for being too unstable. But you should definitely try the next beta, looks like all the candy should be in by then!

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