Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Thunderbird 3 Beta Review

  • Thunderbird version 3 is a significant upgrade and improvement to the Thunderbird line
  • The application is faster and more responsive
  • The new search capabilities are impressive
  • The user interface has gotten more cluttered and difficult to use, especially in regards to the message pane and "gloda" search results
  • Indexing and re-indexing seem a little clunky still
  • The Dock icon on the Mac has become next to useless for me now

I've been using the Thunderbird email client for the past 2-3 years, and it has been pretty good. It hasn't received a real refresh in that time, but that is about to change. Thunderbird version 3 will be coming out soon. I've been using the "beta" versions (beta's 2, 3, and 4) to see how it works.

The first very noticeable thing is that the client is much faster. Thunderbird 3 is now using underlying libraries which are faster (and the basis of Firefox version 3). The speed is most noticeable at start-up. Also, accessing messages, which often used to require a long pause, are now available much more quickly.

Another big change is the new "gloda" search engine. The engine basically indexes all of your messages, regardless of mailbox, into a giant database that you can search. Where before, you had to choose which mailbox to search ("inbox" or "outbox"?), now you just search everything. The resulting display is actually quite cool: you see a little time history of all your messages with your search terms, and you can click on a particular month, year, or person to zoom in on something more specific. It seems quite handy.

A final big change relates to the user interface. In previous versions, the "toolbar," which appears at the top of the main window, provided a lot of actions which you could apply to the message or messages you were viewing. Now, these tool icons appear attached to the message itself, not on the main toolbar. If your muscles are used to clicking in a certain position for "reply" or "delete," they will now be quite surprised because most of the tool icons are gone.

I think this is one area where Thunderbird as started to derail. The user interface appears to be getting cluttered and unpolished. Some icons are still sitting in the main toolbar (such as "tagging"), but others are relegated to the message pane. How these choices were made is unclear, but it makes for a tacky and confusing appearance. Thankfully, you can customize your toolbar, and bring back many of your favorite icons if you want.

I'm also unhappy with the layout of the message pane in another respect. In early betas, the message header was nice and compact, occupying a few lines of screen real estate showing the most important properties of the message such as the sender and send date. In beta version 3, this option was removed, and the message header occupies an enormous part of the screen, usually with irrelevant stuff that most people simply will not want to see. This is a big step back in the usability of the client because it forces you to scroll more, or to open the message in full screen mode just to see its contents. Thankfully, there is an extension called CompactHeader which brings back a more compact look, and also allows you to choose which "action" icons are visible for each screen. The mainline developers should look at putting this feature back in.

There's another area where polish is not quite up to snuff yet. The new gloda search can be quite handy, but the search results appear cluttered and a bit unreadable. The results are mostly message text with very tiny separators between each message. Search terms should be highlighted but are not, which makes it harder to determine the relevancy of the message to your search. For that matter, it's unclear how search results are ordered, and it's difficult to wade through all of them when you get a large number of hits. Some effort needs to be expended to make the presentation a little better in order to fully exploit this feature.

A bit more on performance. The first time you start up Thunderbird 3, it will spend a long time indexing your mail folders. This is more or less a one-time operation, but it will consume a significant amount of time and CPU while its happening. The upside is that once it's complete, you get all of those great search features. The downside is that the program seems to want to re-index quite often. Re-indexing doesn't try to do everything at once, but it's unclear what it's actually doing since there appears to be a bit of fumbling around by the program before it declares itself done.

I have a few peeves. This new version of Thunderbird no longer shows the number of "new" messages - messages I have just received - in the Dock icon. Instead it shows the number of "unread" messages. For someone like me who has thousands of unread (but useless) messages, the unread message count is next to useless. I want the icon badge to show me when new mail has arrived!

The new index files consume a significant portion of disk space (a few gigabytes). In this day and age, that's not a big deal, and we should use disk for these kinds of conveniences. However, every time any one of your messages changes, or if you get a new message, the index file changes. If you have a regular backup schedule (you should!), then you will find that it is now backing up a huge monolithic index file every time. This is a recipe for exhausting your backup space that much more quickly than before. There is not much the developers can do about this, but I would recommend that the new index files be placed in a separate directory. Most backup programs like Apple's Time Machine, allow you to exclude directories from the backup operation. If my hard drive crashes, it's no big deal that I wouldn't have a backup: I'll just reindex my mail.

Overall, this is a significant improvement, and it's nice to seem some activity in the Thunderbird line. There's some creative work going on there, especially regarding the message search functions. On the other hand, the usability of the application has taken a hit, which is unfortunate.


Tod Strohmayer said...

I'm gloda I'm still running 2 UB!

Francesco Qba said...

has anyone found a solution for the dock icon message count problem? :-(

Craig Markwardt said...

No, I haven't, sorry.

Anonymous said...

Agreed on the message count problem. REALLY frustrating.

Chad said...

I hate the new functionality on the dock icon too! I filed a bug on Bugzilla. Hopefully if enough of us chime in, they'll consider adding a preference to allow the dock icon to be "new" messages only.


Lizz said...

I'm finding the indexing to be a BIG headache. Where is it indexing them to, and how can I change that directory? Can I turn indexing off (until I clear the backlog of 2 years of emails, some important, some not)?

Craig Markwardt said...

@Liz, I don't believe you can change the indexing cache directory. There was some developer discussion about allowing users to change this directory, but I don't think anything was implemented yet.

There is a global pref to disable indexing, mailnews.database.global.indexer.enabled, which you can set to 'false'. You have to enter the Config Editor on the Advanced preferences tab in order to reset this.

When you first start TB3, there is a little wizard that allows you to set indexing on a folder-by-folder basis. I can't figure out how you make those changes after the first time though. Each folder does have some indexing properties that you can experiment with.

Anonymous said...

You can change the behaviour in TB 3.1 by setting the following preference to true (in the config editor):