Thunderbird and Gmail: A marriage that lasts forever

Mozilla Thunderbird is a great email alternative to Outlook.  In many ways, it’s the successor to Eudora.

But here’s the funny thing: Mozilla officially stopped development on Thunderbird in the summer of 2012.  Since web applications were becoming ascendant, the theory was that less people would want to use dastardly desktop clients for email.

The ubiquity of SaaS (Software as a Service) tools such as Gmail, Outlook.com and Yahoo meant anyone could access their email from anywhere there was a network connection.  People were no longer fettered to their desktops.  So Mozilla pulled the plug on Thunderbird: no more future innovation was expected.

But there’s a wrinkle in this story… and the bird refused to die…

On February 27th 2015, Kent James, Chair of the Thunderbird Council, posted data showing that Thunderbird usage continues to grow.

The acclivity of usage reminds me of the XP debacle that swept the world last year.  You remember what happened right?  When Microsoft euthanized Windows XP, people didn’t immediately stop using it.

In fact, the Thunderbird data is showing almost a million active daily installations in the US for the month of February.  And this metric has continually climbed month over month.

W00t!

Alrighty, so given the prominence of Thunderbird you’re probably wondering how to integrated it with other popular email services such as Gmail.

When you marry Thunderbird with Gmail you’ll get a bunch of cool things that you never knew you could do.  In this article I’m going to show you a few things:

  • A few of the most popular Thunderbird extensions
  • How to setup Thunderbird to work with Gmail
  • The proper way to configure your Gmail Sent, Spam and Drafts folders
  • What to do if Thunderbird refuses to accept your Gmail username and password
  • How Thunderbird actions to map to Gmail actions
  • How delete your largest emails

 

Let’s go!

Exploring Extensions

Thunderbird is super extensible so you can always plug in features to improve functionality in the same way that you add Extensions to Firefox.

Adblock Plus and Lightning are some of the most popular.  Initially you might wonder why you would need an ad blocker for an email client.  The reason is that some HTML emails can load annoying images that make it hard to read the message content.  Adblock Plus gets in there and improves your reading experience.

The other one, called Lightning, is a full fledged calendar add-on that lets you create new events and tasks and send invitations like in Outlook.

There are also useful extensions like Quote collapse that let you expand and collapse quoted content in lengthy email threads.  Nostalgy is another good one that lets you navigate email folders like the windows command line.

For example, instead of scrolling through the dozens of labels I have in Gmail, I just typed the letter “g” to open the Nostalgy search box and typed “cert” to immediately open my Cert folder.

Nostalgy

Get Thunderbird

To get started, download and install the Thunderbird desktop client from Mozilla.

It’ll be the best 10 seconds you ever spent this morning.

Assuming you didn’t just sleep with your wife..

Um, alright that was graphic.

Moving on…

Courting Thunderbird with Gmail

Getting Thunderbird to become infatuated with Gmail isn’t really that hard.

Open Thunderbird, click the hamburger icon in the upper right corner of the app.

Now mouse over to Options and click on Account Settings.

Thunderbird Account Settings

Click the Account Actions drop down box and choose Add Mail Account.

Mozilla Thunderbird Account Settings

Enter your Gmail credentials and click Continue.

Adding Gmail to your Thunderbird Client

Thunderbird should automatically find your Gmail settings for you.  If not you can manually enter your Gmail settings by clicking the Manual config button.

Make sure you leave the email protocol set to IMAP.

IMAP is a billion times better.  POP is predisposed to sync problems (moving emails on your local client might not immediately update in gmail.com) and a bunch of other stability issues.

Trust me, you don’t want to deal with POP pains, just go with IMAP and you’ll never look back.

Gmail IMAP settings in Thunderbird


Incidentally, after entering your top secret password, you might get an error that says:

Configuration could not be verified - Is the username or password wrong?

This happened to me.

After being 100% sure I was entering the right password I had to explicitly allow less secure apps to access my account.

Allow less secure apps in Google

Of course, this could introduce a weakness in your email security so make sure you only do this on a machine you trust.

Since you’re using an third-party app (Thunderbird) to manage your credentials Google sees this as a security risk.  And to be honest it is, but it doesn’t present a significant risk beacuse Mozilla is a reputable company.  It’s not like we’re entering our email credentials in some stupid app we downloaded off filehipp.com.


Once you sign in, you’ll see your account in the main Thunderbird window with all your glorious labels appearing as folders.

If messages have multiple labels, they’ll appear in multiple folders.  So creating a new folder in Thunderbird creates a new label in Gmail.com.

Easy enough right?

Thunderbird and Gmail

So we’re almost done here but we just need to tweak a few things.  Let’s go back to Account Settings.

We need to change the default location where you sent emails and drafts live.

Click Copies & Folders in the left pane then click the Other radio button in the right pane under the “When sending messages, automatically” and “Drafts and Templates” sections.  Drill down to [Gmail] and choose Sent for the first section and [Gmail]/Drafts in the second section.

Setting the correct folder destinations in Thunderbird

I also suggest moving your junk messages to the [Gmail]/Spam folder so that Google will treat your junk as spam.

In the left pane, click Junk Settings.  Under Destination and Retention in right pane, pick the [Gmail]/Spam folder from the dropdown box.

Change your Thunderbird junk settings to Google Spam folder

Ensuring a happy marriage

To make sure Thunderbird and Gmail live happily ever after you need to know how they communicate.  As in every marriage communication is key so you don’t want to have this problem.

Fortunately, Google published a pretty little chart that shows how IMAP actions map to Gmail.  For example, moving a message to [Gmail]/Spam has the effect of clicking ‘Remove a message as spam” in the Gmail.com web interface.

Image credit Google

Flying with the bird

Thunderbird is full of all the features you would expect from a complete email client.  And as you could probably guess, Mozilla keyboard shortcuts abound.

If you already know your Gmail shortcuts you don’t have to learn new Thunderbird shortcuts.  Just add the GmailUI Thunderbird extension to the bird and you’ll be pressing c to compose a new message in no time.

Another way Thunderbird makes Gmail a little more sexy is that you can easily find your largest emails by sorting column by size.

In the main window, the right most column looks like a miniature data table.  Click that and choose Size from the context menu.

Displaying the Size column in Thunderbird

Now you can easily find and zap your most corpulent emails.

Deleting the largest emails from Thunderbird

Try doing that from Gmail.com

Ha!

The Bottom Line

Thunderbird is still flying.  In fact, Thunderbird 38 is expected to land in May and more people will undoubtedly continue to use it.

What’s your favorite email client?  Do you think Thunderbird beats Outlook?  Why or why not?  Do you use any Thunderbird extensions that I failed to mention? Shout at me in the comments!

Thanks!

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