A guide to Thunderbird for Gmail users

James Fallows of The Atlantic — a highly-recommended journalist and blogger, for those who have not come across his writing yet — recently re-expressed his dissatisfaction with Gmail’s new UI; and mulled switching to Thunderbird but worried about memory usage.


From Screenshots

As someone who did the same transition a while back, I remember going through that issue and then some. Memory usage, lack of integration with Google Contacts (exacerbated with the seamless contact sync of Android phones), a UI that makes it hard to manage multiple email accounts, and vertical space being taken up by the menu bar.

Thankfully, Thunderbird being extensible, there are setting tweaks and extensions for all of these; as James found them useful, I thought I’d re-share them here:
  • Memory usage - a well-documented problem; the solution is to not synchronize your All Mail folder.
  • Using Gmail folders – While you’re at it, Thunderbird’s auto-configuration for Gmail accounts does not use the special folders by default; you’d want to set them in Copies & Folders and Junk Settings. You’d probably also want to visit Server Settings and disable “Check for new messages” (so TB would use Push-IMAP instead of polling) and set the deletion behavior to “mark it as deleted” instead of moving it to Trash – remember that Google would archive your mail instead of deleting it. Optionally disable Message Archives in Copies & Folders – just use the web interface to find old messages
  • Drafts folder - an advantage of using Gmail’s drafts folder, instead of the local one, is that you can access drafts from other computers. A drawback, though, is that TB auto-saves regularly as you edit your message, and if you use an IMAP folder, it discards old drafts by moving them to trash. The Auto Save Drafts Folders extension let you adjust this behavior (in Copies & Folders); just use the local drafts folder for auto-saved copies.
  • Handling multiple inboxes - View->Folders->Unified. This really ought to be the default…
  • Contact syncthere’s an extension for that. It’s flawless for reading your Google Contacts; I’d not use it to edit contacts though, just in case some information gets lost due to mismatches in available fields
  • Compact menu - Firefox’s main menu has recently been reworked, but Thunderbird’s has not; you can use this extension if, say, you use a widescreen laptop and want to recover vertical space real estate.

Hope that’s of some use to some folks!

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6 responses to “A guide to Thunderbird for Gmail users

    • That’s a great extension — it’s supposed to eventually ship with Thunderbird, isn’t it? I used to have it installed, but as you can see from the screenshot, I read a lot of mailing lists through Gmane’s newsgroup interface, and sadly Conversation view only work for mail accounts, not news… (and tree-style threading still works better when you have a long-running conversation involving multiple people)

  1. In the native GMail web interface, it is possible to search for mail containing certain phrases in the message body. Is this functionality available in Thunderbird with GMail? What about any other non-GMail mail server that supports IMAP or POP3?