Why you might want an email client in the era of webmail

New beta versions of Thunderbird (and Firefox, while we're at it) to help set you up

It's beta season in Mozilla land and some cool shiny stuff is on the way. Versions 114 of both the Firefox browser and its distant cousin the Thunderbird email client are heading our way.

As Thunderbird is usually based off the stable Firefox Extended Support Release (ESR), this implies that Firefox 114 will be the next ESR version of the browser, although Mozilla hasn't confirmed that yet.

Firefox 114 is not heading up to be a very exciting release — which is probably what you want from a long-term support version, anyway. All the same, there are some welcome new features: there are new search functions for bookmarks and browser history, for example.

There is also a built-in feature which attempts to suppress cookie banners — those irritating messages about whether to accept cookies or not. Unlike the "I don't care about cookies" add-on which we wrote about a few months ago, the Mozilla version attempts to always reject cookies.

Less visibly, DNS over HTTPS is now enabled by default, and there are three levels available: above the default level, Increased Protection allows you to choose your provider, and Max Protection restricts the browser to only using DNS over HTTPS. There's also a de facto fourth level: you can disable the feature.

A rather nice feature for Linux and BSD users is that now you can use the middle-click function, which pastes whatever text is currently selected, to create a new tab. Google Chrome has done this for years, so it's welcome to see it come to Firefox. It works for URLs and for plain text — if what you're pasting doesn't look like a web address, then Firefox will search for it.

New Thunderbird, and why you should care

Thunderbird 114 has also gone into beta, and this version looks rather more exciting than the corresponding Firefox. The team are working on revamping the user interface. It's not that the program desperately needed it —some of us were pretty happy with how it looked before, but we confess that we do like the new look. Perhaps slightly less significantly, a new icon is coming too.

The new user interface has been cleaned up and simplified a bit. There are a few more buttons on the vertical toolbar which let you switch between the different Thunderbird tools — email, address book, task list, calendar, chat and so on. These appear as tabs, and if you close all but one tab, the tab bar disappears automatically. The revamp clarifies the difference between the built-in quick views (unread mails, starred mails, etc.) and the more comprehensive search tools.

Screenshot of Thunderbird 11

UI ... Thunderbird 114 gives the venerable email client a bit of a facelift

We tried the beta on the latest macOS, and sadly missing from that build is the sync feature which was announced on Twitter last year. Firefox has had a sync feature for years, and it's quite handy. As well as the ability to synchronise your bookmarks and saved passwords between different installations of the browser, for example on different computers, it also much reduces the risk of losing your profile. If something does go wrong, there's an encrypted back up on Mozilla's cloud servers, so you can just fetch it back again. If you also use Firefox on your phone, Firefox Sync lets you pick up tabs from the desktop on the phone and vice versa. In other words, it's still useful even if you only have one main computer.

Desktop-to-mobile synchronization is also the reason that the Thunderbird organisation is working to add Mozilla's synchronisation tools to Thunderbird. Last year, the Thunderbird foundation bought K9Mail, and is turning it into Thunderbird for Android… and in time, to iOS as well. Thunderbird Sync will be a slightly different tool to Firefox Sync. It is not intended to synchronise your email between different copies of Thunderbird. What it will synchronise is your settings. The theory is the most modern email servers use the IMAP protocol, in which case your email is kept on the server anyway. So as long as different instances of Thunderbird know to talk to the same servers with the same credentials, they'll all pick up the same email database… so there's no need to synchronise your local data (which could be quite big) when that's the servers' job, and all the sync tool needs to do is synchronise your settings (which are quite small).

We were quite looking forward to trying this, so it's a bit of a disappointment that it doesn't seem to be in the latest beta… But we hope that it shows up again by the time the product is released. If you want to try it out, the beta has built-in support for keeping its profile separate from that of the release version.

If you discarded Thunderbird years ago for being a bit bulky or slow or unresponsive, it isn't anymore. It's slimmed down a bit, computers have got faster, and while most software has got vastly more bloated… Thunderbird hasn't.

About six years ago, this vulture carried out the exercise of comparing every email client offered by the Linux vendor he was then working for. For him, only about three or four of them were worth serious consideration in terms of offering a full range of functionality. After using Claws Mail for a while, he ended up going back to Thunderbird. It does pretty much everything that any other email client out there does, it's totally free, it talks to proprietary services such as Gmail, Hotmail, or Office362½, either unaided or with the aid of a free plug-in or two. If you're cursed with an email system that doesn't support proper quoting, such as Yahoo! or Outlook, Thunderbird will do that for you.

It also still supports classic USENET news, the original social network. Yes, that is still going, there's a new Big 8 committee, and Eternal September will get you back on it for free. Thunderbird is also a decent RSS reader, and since the last version, it's also the easiest-to-use Matrix chat client we've seen, as well.

It's worth taking a fresh look. ®

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