Original URL: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2010/08/13/thunderbird_and_woeful_email_mailbag/

Mozilla Thunderturkey and its malcontents

And better email alternatives

By Andrew Orlowski

Posted in Software, 13th August 2010 08:36 GMT

Andrew's Mailbag The dire state of email clients today is an ongoing gripe of mine - and when I get three dozen emails on Sunday, it's clearly a source of frustration for Reg readers, too. It merits a bumper mailbag. For earlier installments, see here and here.

Thunderbird 3.x is the focus for this ire. Not all readers are unhappy with it. For precisely three (or around five per cent of my mailbag) version 3.x works just fine. But for others, is bloated and buggy. A couple of you reckon it's worse than Outlook. Harsh.

And what do we do when developers become complacent and unresponsive?

One correspondent complains that:

"When they're getting awfully fat from Google's cash they start to lose some of their spirit. They're getting shedloads of cash for not a terribly complex bit of software (not compared to the complexity of other FOSS projects like Linux, FreeBSD or MySQL) that should be much better than it is."

Sometimes, I wonder if chucking money at a developer the old-fashioned way isn't the simple solution. It worked in the past and two email clients that emerge with praise here are The Bat! and Pegasus Mail. Is there such a model in the F/OSS world? Let me know, I'll explore that in a future article.

As I wrote earlier this year, I can understand why email clients (or MUAs to you old-timers) are a minority interest. Most people have only ever used webmail, and Facebook is popular because it feels like a natural upgrade to a Hotmail or Yahoo! Mail user.

I'll divide this up into Thunderbird 3 and discussion of some alternatives.

Just want to add my voice to those who fully support your "whinge". It truly is remarkable that there just isn't a proper email client anywhere on Windows. I survived for years on Calypso, but without real IMAP support (and no development....), it's just not sustainable. I feel Thunderbird to be the least bad option. While a fan of Opera as a browser, there is something about it being my mail client as well that doesn't work for me, and have always preferred that one thing is done well.

Please keep on this topic, because there are no options that are acceptable, yet there seems to be little outcry. Keep bitching.

JD Parker

Your article is spot on. I recently updated the venerable Thunderbird 2.x to version 3.x and discovered, to my dismay, that it was a hog. It's slow, buggy, clunky, and seems to be full of all the new age crap Mozilla has deemed necessary since they found their Web 3.0 religion.

Back in my Windows days of yore, I used Eudora Pro and swore by it. I had tried Pegasus, and though I found it powerful and efficient (still had the best message filtering system available), I always thought it clunky and, well frankly, ugly.

Then, after years collecting dust and accruing bugs, when it became evident that the Eudora Pro product was dead and forgotten, I discovered "The Bat!" and renewed my love for e-mail once again. However, "The Bat!" always struck me as a developers' tool, designed by developers, meaning that it was clunkier than Pegasus, and--oh gawd--complex enough to give RMS a challenge (why do you need a "search" feature for your menu commands? Isn't that an indictment on your interface design?). Still, it was the best of breeds at the time.

Eventually The Bat! 2.0 came out, and it was obviously a victim of Second System Syndrome. Apart from the philosophical arguments (HTML vs. plain-text by default), it was another bloated and buggy piece of crap. Though I endured it for a while, my attention wandered, which brought me into the open arms of Thunderbird.

Once I switched to Macintosh, I was happy as a clam--except when I had to check my e-mail. I switched to the Mail.app, of course, but being a veteran of Eudora Pro and The Bat!, you can imagine how tragic it felt to suddenly have basically no extended functionality, and worse, the most basic of filters available to sort the myriad mailing lists and Internet connections I had accrued throughout the decades.

As it stands, I learned to live with it. I now use Mail.app at home, which I find adequate. Perhaps it's old age, perhaps it's user inertia; but I have homesteaded, and I don't feel like switching and playing with the latest toys.

That said, however, once in a while I can't help but wonder what else could come. Sometime, someone, must come up with something better. And the, against my better judgement, I'll probably try it.

So please, by all means, update your old article and keep the e-mail application reviews coming. I'll keep an eye out, and hopefully we'll both find what we're looking for.

Cheers, dZ.

I'm glad someone called this out. I'm around too many open-source fanatics that if I said the same, I'd no doubt receive many threats as a traitorous wretch.

After many years of blunderbird usage (including some as an OEM porting engineer working on Netscape server products) where I swore by dunderbird, I now have foresworn blunderbuss and have settled on Apple Mail for everything. And if I'm on a PC, I use my formerly-known-as-dot-mac account (can't stand the new name).

If I'm pushed in a corner, I'll even use MS Outlook – an over-busy abomination, but still preferable to the bird.


Matthew Barker

Nice article on what we must all be thinking about Thunderbird - it's all going very wrong and any copy that points to some possible solutions rather than the usual whingeing and "just stick with the last version" cop-outs is very welcome.

As I don't use Thunderbird all that often any more, I tend to just let it percolate and not obsess over where it's heading and what the next big shiny is going to be. However, the upgrade to 3.0 shook that rationale considerably.

What I think your article overlooked (though it has certainly been said enough elsewhere) was that the downloading of all IMAP messages is optional, but default. It's that choice as default that left me speechless and has led to me banning my nearest-and-dearest from upgrading unless I'm present to quickly turn it off. I haven't the words for the idiocy of crunching straight into this behaviour on launch without so much as an OK/No Thanks dialog, given the process will bring older boxes to their knees.

Moreso, it shows very poor judgement of the user's likely preferences. Most IMAP users (I humbly assert) do not want all the message bodies dumped on their client machine - if they did, they'd probably be using POP3. Likewise, if search indexing is the great payoff of doing this, many of us (especially those with KDE 4's woeful Strigi desktop search mcguffin etched in our memories) will judge that the benefits are unlikely to outweigh the overhead. We still have IMAP search which, while it has its limitations, costs nothing on the client end.

So while the code certainly needs some tough love, that episode showed that they also need someone with a little better sense of etiquette to plan the finer points of releasing new features. If you do revisit this topic in future, let's hope there is some better news to report by that stage. In the meantime, if you receive any good tips for alternative client apps, maybe it'd be worth a Mailbag post to share them?


Robin Bankhead (by webmail)

I completely agree about the need for good e-mail clients as I dislike webmail intensely (how many others feel the same way?). On the whole I find thunderbird is the least bad option. Using Outlook is like swimming in porridge (heavy, stodgy, hard to navigate). I have not tried Claws. I was recently surprised by the solidity of kmail (under Kubuntu), and how ergonomic it is once set up. Of course setting it up is hard work, the addressbook needs some fixes, it is not ready for full time use under Windows ...

Keep up the e-mail client campaign!

Andrew Horsfield

Unfortunately I have to agree.

I had switched to Thunderbird from Outlook, because Outlook kept falling over with my 4Gb+ .pst files - Thunderbird 2 had no such problems, although it sometimes complained.

When I upgraded to 3, it worked OK for a while, but then my laptop started developing hardware issues, diskdrive mainly. TBird 3 regularly blundered into the problem. Initially the lpatop would BSoD some 2-4 hours after TB 3 started. After a few months (with the hardware problems getting worse) it got to the stage the TB 3 could BSoD my laptop in less than 5 seconds after clicking the icon.

Trying to explain this on the TB forum proved fruitless. Yes it's a BSod, yes that means that hardware or a kernel mode driver is at fault. But why is it that the only software that could consistently trigger a BSoD was TB3? They just didn't want to answer that question.

I've had a gutsful of Thunderturd - I may look into v4, but they'll have to utterly overhaul everything it does in the background before I'd be even willing to even experiment with it.

On a related note I'm not that impressed with FireFox's memory consumption either. The only reason I stick with it is because Chrome sucks over Satellite links, and the DownThemAll plugin is the best thing on the web for downloading files.

Lee Humphries

I'm very glad to see this whole issue being raised. Thank you!

As you can tell from the headers I use Thunderturkey, I mean Thunderbird. I am really disappointed with it these days. I think it's an uggly mail client that lacks some critical functionality. I hate the way it doesn't adapt intelligently to Gmail imap, so messages don't update in all folders if I read them in one. I also can't understand why the search folders (a wonderful tool) are so limited. I want a search folder that filters my all mail folder for a particular client and because I have to choose from matching all conditions or any number of them I can't set up filters that I'd like ( (this and that) or (this) isn't an option).

I have been so tempted by Opera mail on more than one occasion but it tends to have it's own annoying niggles.

All I want is a simple well functioning email client for gmail IMAP that works nicely. I don't think one exists.


My biggest gripe with Thunderbird 3 is that it keeps screwing up the connection to my Scalix server. Several times a day I have to restart a couple of the Scalix daemons as it fails to save copies of sent emails to the sent folder. Version 2.X doesn't have the same problems. I keep thinking about rolling back to version 2, but it does make a really good job of sorting through the 500+ odd junk mails I get a day when working in conjunction with Spam Assassin. And lets face it, anything is better than using Outlook.



share your rant about email clients, thanks for the interesting article.

We're certainly a 'minority interest' of wingers, but maybe not a minority of sufferers.

I know it's not the topic of the article, but bad clients are especially antisocial because it's the recipients who suffer almost as much as the senders. Proper quoting and signature separators (remember them?) went first. Half of the buggers can't word-wrap correctly.

All we need is for Microsoft to re-invent these concepts as 'new' in Outlook using XML blah blah.

I jokingly say to my colleagues that one day I'll write a 'good' mail client (when I've done everything that's more important first). Opera Mail providing inspiration onto a command-line interface, most likely.

I share your concern, and add that if email is to remain effective we need to fix up the crap that other people are using, not just ourselves. Including Thunderbird.

Often I've wondered if I'd end up submitting patches to software I never use, just so I don't get broken emails from my colleagues...

-- Mark


I totally agree with you. Thunderbird 3 takes ages to startup compared to Thunderbird 2. It sits there telling me it's indexing my messages and won't let me use it while it is doing so. Office Outlook is now faster than TB3 on the same IMAP mailboxes! Disabling indexing doesn't seem to improve the performance so I prefer to use webmail (Roundecube) on my IMAP server.



As a Mac user, I'm even more used to problems picking a good (for me) email client. I've been using Eudora for many years - partly because all those years ago, there was so little choice in decent programs. A year or three after Qualcomm announced they would stop all development, I'm still using it because (even with it's faults), I'm more comfortable with it than anything else I've tried.

At work we are a Windows shop - with me as (almost) the lone Mac user, and they realised quite early on that forcing a Wintel box on me would be a bad move. For mail I've been more or less forced to use Entourage - lets just leave it as "I don't care much for it" !

Simon Hobson

The new IMAP behaviour (loading all by default) is especially bad if you run a Windows domain. All this data (often several GBytes) is stored in the user's profile which is loaded from the Domain Controller at logon and stored back at logoff. This can take a very long time. Having said that, it is easy to turn the feature off, but not so easy to remove stuff that has already been downloaded into the local profile (I'm still looking).

Cheers, Robert von Knobloch

Didn't notice until after Thunderbird 3 that the application window starts *behind* the front window of what ever was running when one launches from the Dock on MacOS X. Thunderbird is the top application in possession of the menu bar, but not the foreground window. If no other windows are open the Thunderbird window is still not active. Still needs to be clicked to be selected.

Mail.app is stinky for not properly threading messages but its much less stinky than Thunderbird.

David Kelly

What's the fuss about?

To be fair, there are a few readers with a trouble-free Thunderbird existence.

I use T-Bird for POP access to several accounts, and it works fantastic, as it always has. I use X1 for indexing, since T-bird search sucks and I already have a two-use license for X1 - the first license is on my work machine and indexes ~10GB of Outlook mail nicely. I just thought it was worth mentioning that not every one uses T-Bird for IMAP mail, and for those who don't it's a great email client.


Dave A.

Hang on. The first thing I did with the "updated and improved" Outlook forced upon me by my employer was to disable indexing. It was non-trivial, but doing so improved system performance measurably.


I have been running Tbird v3 (now v3.1.2) since it was released. I also run the Lightning calendar/appointments add-on.

As I write this email on Tbird (with Windows Task Manager open to monitor my PC's performance) my CPU usage is not going above 1%.

Looking at the Processes in memory, Tbird is using 80KB, Firefox is using 89KB and Windows Explorer is using 47KB. Everything else is less than this.

I really cannot see why you are calling Tbird a resource hog. I have it open all the time, and would certainly notice if it started to hog my resources.

Regards Oldsparks

(I emailed back enquiring about the size of the Oldsparks mail, but no reply yet.)

Read your article on the Register. Didn't agree with it at all.

I am using Thunderbird on my macbook pro. I've switched from mail.app recently.

My mail directory is just over 1 gigabyte (1.02gb) for 4,300 mail messages. I am using Thunderbird 3.12. I have no performance problems at all.

I loaded up activity monitor to see how much memory it is using. I was expecting a large number after reading your article. But it is currently at 115.6Mbytes.

I have also used Opera mail previously, it is a pretty reasonable client. But you do have to watch memory using. The web browser does like a lot of memory. I have opera open at the moment, and it is currently using 192Mbytes with 1 tab and no mail or other options enabled.

Regards, Mark.

Honestly, Andrew, I can't see what the fuss is about. (There was a recent thread on a similar topic on Slashdot). I'm running Thunderbird 3.1.2 on Windows 7 (64-bit) and it's currently sitting quietly with a working set of about 100KB - perfectly reasonable IMHO. I am an email packrat, and my profile contains everything I have sent and received since 1997 - many many thousands of emails, many with large attachments. I have never noticed the slightest impact on my PC's performance - although, like all Windows systems I have known, it sometimes hangs up for minutes on end (currently just after I've logged in after booting), when I'm NOT running Thunderbird.


Hi Andrew,

I've been running The Bat! successfully on Windows7 32bit for a couple of months now. It's version 4.0.38. No issues with it at all. Works as well as it always did. :-)



Whatever the relative speed of thunderbird is ... (It does run fine on a few of my netbooks)

My biggest benefit of Thunderbird is actually the enigmail plug-in that allow pgp encrypted emails.

The combination of Thunderbird/Enigmail/PGP/gmail-IMAP works cross platform on Linux, Mac and Windows.

I have not found I can replace my use of Thunderbird with something that does IMAP to gmail and also pgp encrypted emails.

Lately I did find out the hard way (again) that the Thunderbird/Enigmail teams need to synchronize releases a bit more so that prebuild enigmail binaries are available when a new TB arrives.

best regards,

linux ninja

Bugs? Don’t Complain To Us, We Only Work Here...

I'd never needed to know about IMAP until Thunderbird V3 changed my POP3 settings to IMAP and made it almost impossible to change them back. Worse, I'd only just persuaded my wife to convert from the ancient Demon Turnpike client, which had the overwhelming advantage of no development, so at least it worked.

Rather than doing these version changes, maybe it would be better to freeze the old version that works and put the developers onto a new project, which we can adopt later, if it's better.

Submitting bug reports now just gets grumpy responses - like they're used to everyone saying how wonderful it is, so now they're really defensive because everyone hates it.


I have to agree with you about Thunderbird - by any measure it's ancient. It looks ancient - in fact I think the interface to Netscape Communicator 4 (which I last used about 12 years ago) was superior. The act it has advanced so little in a decade is a pretty poor statement, though to be fair Outlook 2007 isn't that different from Outlook 98. I don't use Thunderbird at all any more - my wife uses it on her Windows PC but I found it just horrible and clunky on Mac. I use Apple Mail not because I think its terribly superior but because it integrates with the Mac Address Book and iCal.

The problem seems to be that binary mail clients are just a bit more secondary that they used to be. Web Mail clients are probably the primary interface people use these days simply because it's always there with them regardless of computer. I think the impact of this has dented the market for mail clients, no one wants to pay for them and less people use them. When I used to use Windows I used The Bat! pretty much exclusively. Like you say, it's an excellent client and I think it's miles ahead of anyone else. I haven't used it in about 10 years but even the version I remember is probably still better than most clients available today.

You can see the importance of web mail through the likes of Gmail and also through the development of of commercial products like Outlook Web Access. Today OWA is almost indistinguishable from the full Outlook client and I reckon a lot of users log on to OWA as opposed to using either MAPI or IMAP. On top of this is the growth in mobile usage. I reckon I read and reply to more mail on my BlackBerry than I ever do on a desktop client. Overall I think the future for decent email clients is a bit grim - the browser has become the universal client for just about everything including email. Also the mail protocol has fundamentally changed. 10 years ago just about everyone used POP3 and you needed a decent client to manage the mail. Today just about everyone uses IMAP - you want your mail available regardless of your client. With POP3 changing clients used to be a nightmare - trying to export and re-import mail into different clients was nearly impossible. I think there was only Eudora that standardised on the Unix Mbox format - everyone else used something proprietary.

Once email became truly mobile, it got IMAP, it got decent web mail and got onto phones, the die was pretty much cast for the future of fat clients. We got broadband so POP3 became pointless - no one needed to logon quickly download mail and then log off as they were being charged by the minute. With broadband you could stay online as long as you liked. You didn't need complicated clients to manage your POP3 messages because they were all saved online. Web mail interfaces got much better which meant you didn't need fat clients. I think set against this the effort in developing mail clients was in sent into a downward spiral; ten years ago there used to be loads of good, shareware clients that have all but vanished. I think mail has just taken another evolutionary change and the result is that fat clients are slowing drifting towards obsolescence.

Kevin Hall

Surely the state of email clients can't be a minority interest amongst El Reg readers? We all use MUAs.

Personally i find it one of the most important considerations. As a Linux advocate, i find the MUA can be a powerful element in 'turning' Windows users, to adopt spook terminology, and i bemoan the tendency to bloat codebases and require ever more system resources to perform standard tasks.

I'm very keen (as a TBird user) to look into some of the alternatives you've mentioned.

Charles Johnson

So without any delay, here they are:

Life beyond Thunderbird

Thought you might be interested to hear that I've been using claws since 2005, and before that Thunderbird and a few proprietary ones going back to 1994. Although it's had minor wobbles over the years, Claws is the only mail reader that I've never needed to do a database rebuild for.

-- Will J Godfrey

Just a quick note to support "Zimbra Desktop" as an alternative open source email application. Whilst it is designed to be supported by the Zimbra Server, it supports pop3 and IMAP. Furthermore it is cross platform, available for Windows,Mac and Linux.

V1 of Zimbra Desktop was in my testing a little shy on features, the beta 2 version shows promise.

Best Regards



Switching back to Alpine on a SDF UN*X shell account. Who needs graphics?


Pah. Real men use ssh and say HELO. But seriously,

I have read your article on this subject with some interest, since I, too, have been bitterly disappointed with Thunderbird's memory footprint of 105MB for my set of IMAP folders. When you suggested Claws Mail, I felt I had to give it a shot.

I must say that my feelings on Claws are somewhat mixed. On one hand, it does manage to improve on Thunderbird's 105MB memory footprint - it "only" uses 65MB of RAM. While this is a significant improvement, it just doesn't seem ground breaking. Pine manages it in under 4MB, so does the GUI itself justify that much bloat? Then again, after Evolution's 165MB memory footprint for the exact same data set, anything seems like an improvement.

The main issue for me is the lack of plugins to seamlessly support integration with Google Calendar and Google Contacts (I use an Android phone so this is important to me).

The other feature that seems relatively unique to TB is the message move functionality in the context menu, with recently used folders "cached" so they are quickly accessible. I find this much more natural and quicker to use for filing away mailing list messages than than Claws' and Evolution's pop-up menu setup.

Still, I think it is great that you indirectly brought up the wider issue of bloatware becoming a standard. The attitude of present day developers needs to change drastically if we are ever to see decently performing, well designed software become even remotely common. The "memory is cheap" view doesn't lead to good programming. What concerns me, as someone who has been a software developer for 20 years, is that the issue is so widespread that even in academia the fundamental fallacies such as "Don't bother optimizing, that's the compiler's job." are being openly taught to the next generation of computer scientists by people who really should know better. The fact remains that there are very few things we are achieving with computers today that we weren't achieving 15 years ago, despite the vast increase in resource requirements by software.

Best regards.

Gordan Bobic

Do we need better email clients?

Oh, Jesus Horatio Forgharty Christ, yes!

Probably the most important issue is that emails are still a deferred messaging service, which made sense back when the relevant protocols were invented, but is no longer valid today. Some suggest everyone switch to the likes of Facebook, Twitter, or one of the umpteen IM protocols, but this is just ridiculous: How many bloody communications applications should anyone need?

All these protocols serve the same purpose: getting messages from User A to User B, and vice-versa. There should be no need for multiple applications to achieve the same goal. I want to open up *one* messaging application and have access to *everything*. No need to run Mail, Adium, Skype ('cos Adium doesn't do Skype), Twitter widgets and Facebook widgets. Let's have it all in one damned place, please. (And yes, that should include videoconferencing and the like.)

Any solution to the email problem should therefore take a more holistic view: we need a protocol which can provide both deferred and real-time messaging, with none of that "ASCII vs. HTML" bollocks either—I'd go with Unicode and PDF. (The latter is an open standard format, but has the advantage of DTP-levels of precision, as well as re-flow facilities, so you get the best of both worlds.)

Add in strong, PGP-style, cryptography built in as standard and we can then send and receive messages and know that the people responding to us are who they say they are. It'll create a two-tier messaging system: open, "untrusted" emails would be automatically flagged as such; encrypted, "trustable" emails would be more common between friends, relatives and businesses.

Granted, this can never be 100% secure, but it's a lot better than what we have now.

One day, the above—or something like it—will happen. You could argue that I could write an application which supports all the proprietary formats, as well as email, Jabber, etc., today. But it'll never feel truly unified.


-- Sean Timarco Baggaley

I'm not so sure we need a "one shop" client for everything. So far people who've tried to integrate social networking have found a pretty strong pushback - have a read of this excerpt from Engadget's preview of Windows 7, and the problems that integrating "friends" into your address book causes: click here and grep for “facebook”.

Your Alternatives

I started using Opera at work after reading you previous article and haven't looked back. The 10.60 update solved virtually all the bugs I had filed.


I do like a good email client and my choice for Windows remains The Bat! I am not sure what version you are running, but 4.2.x runs fine under Windows 7 of both 32 and 64 bit versions.

Even better news is that Ritlabs is working on version 5, which will include substantially improved IMAP support. I use Thunderbird mainly as a backup, particularly when I am trying to retrieve or send mail from a flakey 3G connection when The Bat grinds to a halt trying to download messages from all my IMAP accounts.

Julian Beach

Here I put in a word for ProfiMail, a quite astonishing bit of software available for Symbian and Windows phones:

Julian -

No, I use an Android phone and K-9 Mail, which is lovingly developed by a team of developers who work in it in their spare time. Although good mainstream email clients are difficult to find there are a obviously still a large number of developers who know what a good email client is and are prepared to spend their time developing them for the enjoyment of other email enthusiasts, although increasingly for mobile devices rather than desktop computers.

OK, some more alternatives. This one is intriguing, called Sup:

There was never an email client that suited me, they were all abhorrently inefficient or just painful, until that is, I discovered Sup. A terminal email client that is unrivalled (well in my opinion).

I'll let you in on a little secret... It's called Sup, unfortunately, it's written in Ruby, initial import of 20,000 messages should take just a day or so...

Nonetheless. If your work involves dealing with a lot of email, it's very very fast at indexing and searching, kinda like Gmail but not in a browser, oh and you have the data.

Typical usage involves a hook to Offlineimap for download, it then parses and adds content to a Xapian index, serving up the completed product in a Curses interface.

If you can install ruby on Windows, there's a fair chance you could get it to work.

Hey it would be great to give the project more publicity, development seems to be slowing.

Best Regards,

Bryan Hunt

Thanks Bryan. Sup is here, and the engineer has impressive credentials. Unfortunately he also has a day-job at Twitter - what a waste - but if I'd nominate the most promising developer to chuck money at, it might be William Morgan.

You probably had a hundred emails like this, but in case this one hasn't been mentioned, have you tried Messenger Pro (formerly Gemini)? Available for Windows, Linux and MacOS

If you have tried it, how do you think it compares?


-- Graham

I haven't actually, I'm intrigued. It's here.

While I have to agree with your point about Thunderbird. I personally have many problems with Tb as the IT guy in my company (problems with file locking and performance with network shares, lost e-mail with IMAP, performance problems with large folders, etc.). You have missed one of the best mail clients on Linux - Kmail.

I haven't had any problems with it. Handles multiple accounts beautifully. Has no problems with large folders and works with IMAP accounts. Has very advanced filers, ability to answer automatically to specific messages or even lunch specific programs when an important mail comes!

The only downside is that is not yet available as native application for Windows. You can run it using AndLinux though.



Thanks for your response, everyone. It's very heartening. ®