Earlier this month Mozilla released the long-awaited version 2 of their Thunderbird e-mail client, and today I downloaded it to take a look for myself. So far I have been using the default Mail program that comes with Mac OS X Tiger, which has been superb, so Thunderbird 2 had stiff competition from the outset. I had used Thunderbird 1.5 on the PC before, which was certainly a vast improvement over Outlook Express, but for the Mac it seemed somewhat ugly and bodged.
So, how does Thunderbird 2 measure up?
In fact, Thunderbird 2 has been out since 19th April, and the fact that it completely passed me by may be some indication of the impact this program is not having so far. It has rather spectacularly failed to make waves in its release; when Firefox 2 was released there was much talk both positive and negative, but with Thunderbird 2 everyone seems strangely quiet so far.
Once downloaded and installed, Thunderbird 2 looks like an e-mail program. No surprise there. Everything is in exactly the sort of place you would expect to find it, everything works as you might anticipate, and it looks suitably clean and tidy. In terms of the interface itself, TB2 isn’t that far off Mail in terms of cleanliness and OS integration. In fact, there are so many similarities between the two that I wonder if Mozilla simply copied Apple and changed as little as possible to get away with not being sued. In the top right corner is a search box with those nice rounded ends, both of which find results as you type. Across the top are various buttons, though TB2 seems to have more, though nothing unexpected or radical. The folder pane has a light blue background, exactly the same shade as in Mail.
Now, clearly the visual side of TB can be changed with Add-ons and themes, so what about the actual operation of the program? Messages can be sorted in various different ways, as you’d expect, with the inclusion of sorting by group which, when viewing by date puts messages in drop-down folders depending on their date; there is a folder listing today’s mail, yesterday’s mail, last week’s mail, mail from two weeks ago, and old mail. Nice, but I can’t think where that would come in useful on a regular basis.
Composing e-mails is done pretty much exactly the way it was done in TB1.5, with those characteristic multiple lines already in place for addresses – I personally find it rather ugly, and quite unnecessary given that you don’t always want to send every e-mail to hundreds of people. In Mail the ‘To:’ box expands depending on how many addresses you add, which seems to make far much more sense. There are plenty of text styling options shown by default in TB2; all the usual suspects are there – bold, italic, underline, alignment, font size, etc.
However, there are some areas where TB2 simply doesn’t measure up to Mail in any way, and this is mostly to do with integration. Mail, being an official Apple program, speaks the same language as iCal, Address Book, iPhoto, Finder, and others. TB2 on the other hand, doesn’t. Sure, it has its own Contacts list, but it’s only accessible and useable from within TB, and it doesn’t seem to even recognise the existence of Address Book, and hence all the contacts I already have.
But perhaps the most amazing thing about Thunderbird 2 is how uninspiring it is. There is nothing revolutionary or daring about it, there are no idiosyncrasies that set it apart as superior, there are no sparkly special effects, there are no spectacular features that make you wonder how you survived without them before. Thunderbird 2 is just another e-mail client. It’s certainly not a bad e-mail client, but there is nothing about it that shouts at me to migrate to it immediately.