Monday, July 11, 2011


Geeky post ahead: I'm a long-time Linux user1, and Evolution has been my mail client of choice for many years. It works well enough, but it's always had its share of bugs and shortcomings - with the calendar especially - and I've kept hearing good things about Thunderbird, the Mozilla foundation email client. I've been wanting to try it out but the effort of switching held me back. But now Ubuntu, the Linux system I use, has announced that they will switch the default mail application from Evolution to Thunderbird with the next version and that has prompted me to finally make the switch.

In short Thunderbird mostly works the same as Evolution, but with fewer bugs and annoyances. The big difference - the one feature that had me thinking of switching - is that Lightning, the Thunderbird calendar, can seamlessly synchronize both ways with Google Calendar. Other benefits are quite minor; for instance, with Thunderbird you can always jump directly to the next unread message even when it's in a different mail folder, whereas Evolution requires you to select the folder manually. You can undo message deletion with the general "undo" command, while in Evolution you need to view your deleted messages, find and select your email, then undelete it. Small things, true, but they add up for a much smoother overall impression.

There are a few areas where Evolution is clearly superior. The automatic account set-up worked better with Evolution; I had to manually re-edit my mail accounts after setting up Thunderbird in order to get them to work, and it never gave me any useful feedback as to what wasn't working (or that one account wasn't working at all). Also, the manual mail check button doesn't seem to work consistently with Thunderbird, and there is no visual feedback when it fails. Overall, though, Thunderbird is an improvement, if an incremental one.

A final note of caution: actually moving my accounts, address book and my archived email from Evolution to Thunderbird was a bit messy and error-prone. You need to set up your accounts manually, add a temporary account to import your old email, and you need to export your address book then use an external converter to get it into a format Thunderbird can read. It's certainly doable and there's step-by-step guides out there but it's still nothing I would do lightly. I expect that Ubuntu will will have an import function to automate the move from Evolution for the next version. If you're not in a hurry to switch I would suggest you wait for that.

#1 I've been using it as my OS of choice since my days as a computer science student and I'm happy with it. But that's not the sole reason; nowadays Linux is the de-facto default operating system for much of neuroinformatics, computational neuroscience and high-performance computing. Simulators, languages and related software tend to run primarily on Linux, and most computing clusters and supercomputers today use Linux adapted for their particular hardware.


  1. It's a pity evolution is still so buggy. But I believe most gnome developers use thunderbird, which could explain why it's better.

    Me, I'm still using mutt ;)

  2. Apart from Lightning and the Provider for Google Calendar plugins, I'm now also using Zindus to keep the contact list in sync. It works as well as can be expected, I guess - syncing contacts is always a problem, because no two applications seem to agree on how a contact should be specified; for example: arbitrary amounts of phone numbers and e-mail addresses, or just one or two?; is the person's name split into first and last names or just a single display name?; are snail-mail addresses a single free-form text field or split into a bunch of separate fields (and if so, how many, and what are they named)?; etc. But it does work, and it means that you can keep your Gmail (or Zimbra) account as your main address collection and get up-to-date autocompletion in Thunderbird, and you can enter addresses in Thunderbird and have them pushed to Gmail. Very convenient.

  3. I've sort of given up on contact synching. As you say, it's pretty much impossible to get it right even in principle. I'll just move stuff over manually as I need it. In reality I don't communicate with that many people on a regular basis anyhow, so lack of synchronization isn't a major concern.


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