Thunderbird Email Client: A Guide for Outlook Lovers (Part 1)


I’ve been using Thunderbird over the last year or so, and especially with version 2.0 I think it is a great client. In my opinion, it is the only decent email client that can compete with the easy of use of Outlook, yet totally dominate Outlook when coming to not being a bloated pig. I’m sorry, but when I run 4 IMAP accounts, and I have a PC with 4 gigs of RAM and a quad core processor, and Outlook is so slow and takes minutes to become responsive, it is just bad.

However, Thunderbird has a few really “features” that will annoy an outlook user. My co-worker, fed up with Outlook, tried Thunderbird as an alternative. Within an hour he told me “I’m sorry, but Thunderbird is just poop. I can’t stand it.” However, after talking with him, they were little “problems” that could be configured differently, but he didn’t want to spend time figuring out how to make some of the Thunderbird features more “Outlook-ish.” My hope is to help write a guide to make life easier for our fellow computer users that like Outlook, but want to benefit from Thunderbird’s performance.


If you have an Exchange account, there is no way to connect through Exchange, only IMAP4. However you will lose all sorts of features that you get from Outlook. Also, there are no built in Tasks, Calendar, etc. This is only for email. If you use all aspects of Outlook, Thunderbird currently is not a good replacement option. However, if you are like me, and only use it for Email, Thunderbird is an excellent choice.

Install Thunderbird

Open up your browser (hopefully FireFox!) and go to Click the Download Thunderbird icon and download the install file. Go ahead and run it and it will install. After installing open Thunderbird. It will ask you if you want to do any imports.

Problem #1 – Importing – If you use POP3, you really don’t have any choice but to import. However, if you use IMAP, I highly suggest you just start from scratch and add the accounts manually. Importing email files from Outlook can take a very long time, especially if you have thousands of emails every month. My friend made the mistake of doing an Import 20 mins before a meeting where he needed files from his email. Make sure you’re prepared to have the imports take a long time. Sometimes it can go fast, but better to be prepared for the worst.

If you do set up your accounts manually, the prompts shouldn’t be too bad. Its a lot like Outlook. However, there is something that will freak out Outlook users if they don’t know exactly what is going on…

Problem #2 – One SMTP (Outgoing) Server – This can be a turn off for Outlook users without understanding the reasons behind it. My friend was freaking out when sending an email and seeing it connect through a different SMTP server. To say the least he was not happy thinking it was going out over the wrong account. The way Thunderbird handles sending mail is that when setting up your accounts, it makes an SMTP Account to send mail through. However, when you add more accounts it sets them to use that original SMTP account.

The idea is instead of sending email on different accounts and having to connect to 4 different servers, it will just connect to one and send all of them. It doesn’t effect the “from” or any other aspect of the email. However, I can see how people do not feel comfortable sending personal mail through their work’s SMTP.

To change this, go to Tools -> Account Settings. On the left hand side you’ll see each of your accounts and their different setting categories. If you scroll down to the very end you will see Outgoing Server (SMTP). Click “Add” and put in the Description (I usually put the Account Name like “Personal SMTP”) and the server name. Then, under each Account’s settings on their main settings area (Where you can change the Account Name, Your Name, etc”) at the very bottom you can select which SMTP server to use. I would hope in the future with Thunderbird, they would have a section when setting up your SMTP account to check a box that says “Create Individual SMTP Server.”

General Settings

Alright, lets go through some setting that will make you feel a little more comfortable. Honestly, some of these default settings make me scratch my head, but they can easily be changes. Lets go through the general settings first. Go to Tools -> Options.

General – There really aren’t any settings that you really need to worry about.

Display – No real need to change these settings. However if you want to use “Tags” on your emails (like the ability to add categories to an email) they are under the “Tags” Sub-tab.

Composition – Alright, there are a few settings we’ll change.

  1. Change Forward Message to “As Inline” unless you like sending forwards as an attachment. The outlook default is inline.
  2. Change “Font” under “HTML” to Helvetica, Arial. The default font is ugly to many people. This one will make your emails look like you’re sending from Outlook. You can also change the color if you like to change it to something else.
  3. Click the “Send Options…” button. Under “Text Format” change it to “Send the message in both plain text and HTML.” Thunderbird will annoyingly ask you every time if you want to send as Text, HTML, or Both. This will just always send as both. Underneath if you want to send emails as HTML or Text always to specific domains, you can add them here. Usually don’t have to worry about that. Hit OK.
  4. If you want to have it check your spelling every time before sending an email, click the Spelling Sub-Tab and check “Check spelling before sending.

Privacy – There are some nice options here you can change.

  1. If you want to move Junk email to the “Junk” folder when you mark it as Junk, which I don’t see why you wouldn’t, check “When I mark messages as junk” and set it to the account’s Junk folder.
  2. If you use an Anti-Virus (if not, check out AVG) and want it to be able to quarantine (secure) harmful messages, check the box under the Anti-Virus tab.
  3. If you have a dozen different passwords, but want to protect your emails without trying to remember each different password, check “Use a master password” and click the Set Master Password. This will encrypt your saved passwords. This will also allow for you to have to enter the password when launching the program. This will give a little more security from other people going to your PC and snooping around.

Attachments & Advanced – there are useful/cool features under these tabs but really don’t belong to the scope of this article. You can check them out and play around if you want to see what they can do.

Individual Account Settings

To get to the accounts go to Tools -> Account Settings. When I list each “section” these sections are found underneath the Account name, and the “General” section is the section named after the account.

General – These settings are straight-forward and none are really “must change” to be more like Outlook.

Server Settings – If you have any custom ports to use, here is where you set them. Each account has an “auto-check for new messages” setting. If you want this account to auto-check for new messages, check “Check for new messages every X minutes” and set the number of minutes.

Copies & Folders – No really need to change unless you are an IMAP user (you know you are if you know what IMAP is). Most of the time “Outlook” and other clients will name folder using the word Items. Like “Sent Items”. However, Thunderbird will use the word Messages, so Thunderbird will create a folder called “Sent Messages.” If you use a lot of accounts (like I have Thunderbird at home, Outlook at Work, and my iPhone) you will end up with 3 differently named folders for “Sent” items. You can set which folders to use by selecting the “Other” option under each folder type and Manually select the folder to be used.

Composition & AddressingThis is an absolute must change. If there is anything you’ll get out of this article, it is this: Check “Automatically quote the original message when replying” and below select “start my reply above the quote.” This is the most annoying default setting of all. My friend couldn’t help but laugh at how non-standard that was. If you use signatures, I would set the second line to “Below my reply.” This is the default for Outlook.

Offline & Disk Space – Here is a preference for IMAP users. Thunderbird by default will no download messages, only headers, and will download the message when you get it. Outlook, on the other hand, downloads the entire message for everything. I like a mix personally. I would select “Make the messages in my Inbox available when I am working offline.” This allows for a little more responsiveness of your Inbox. However, if you use your folders a ton, then you might want to click “Select folders for offline use…” and select which folders you want to always have been downloaded.

Junk, Return Receipts, and Security Settings – These sections are useful, but none are needed for an Outlook feel. I would suggest looking them over, but non are “must change.”

Add-Ons & Extra Features

This is a part where Thunderbird excels. I’ve found almost zero useful Outlook plug-ins. However, Thunderbird has some very nice add-ons that can add a little extra to your Email experience. I would suggest checking out the Thunderbird Recommended Add-ons.

One thing I would highly suggest is getting the “own” theme. You can download the theme, install it, and select it under Tools -> Add-ons -> Themes. It will give you a little more of a Outlook “look-n-feel.”

Filters (aka Outlook Rules)

The last thing to know is a little different is that what Outlook calls Rules, Thunderbird calls Filters. This is the ability to move emails to a different folder, or mark a certain color, if they meet certain criteria. Instead of writing out an entire article on how to use filters, I’ll just link to a good one: Introduction to Thunderbird, Part 7 (Message Filters).

Things Missing

Right now my only pet peeve with Thunderbird is that there is no way, that I know of, to change the color of your reply text. Outlook will charge your text to be more “blue” color to denote that it is a reply. I cannot find any method or way to do with with Thunderbird. Maybe one day I’ll have to write an add-on.

Final Thoughts

I think I’ve tried so many different things trying to get the “perfect” email client. While Thunderbird is far from perfect, it meets my needs and priorities a lot closer than any other one I’ve tried, which include Outlook 2007, Outlook 2003, Outlook Express, Windows Mail (Vista), Windows Live Mail, Evolution, Spicebird, etc…

I hope to have found a few more  addition for Thunderbird to make it feel like Outlook a little more and will continue with the Part 2!

Note on Spicebird: I think Spicebird one day will be fantastic, it is just too beta right now to use.

7 thoughts on “Thunderbird Email Client: A Guide for Outlook Lovers (Part 1)

  1. Thanks. I’m a Thunderbird user myself, mostly because I never managed to figure out how to configure Outlook, and due to its impressive relative (Firefox). But after using it, it’s ease of use really hooked me. And you said it yourself, it’s not a bloated pig. For people who want the calendar functionality of Outlook, they can get the Lightning Add-on.


  2. Congratulations, absolutely the best guide any former outlook user would love to have. I think this blog entry should be included in the Thunderbird download package!

    Let us know if you discover how to get the “reply-in blue” feature!

    Many thanks,


  3. Oh, just one note: The “start reply above quote” is what Outlook does, but it is definitely the non-standard choice and leads to way worse mail chains. Yes, I do work in a 99% Outlook environment, and I believe I can compare the two.


  4. Great guide thanks.

    I can’t agree with ccr that “start reply above quote” is non-standard. Maybe for Thunderbird users given the default setting and the difficulty of changing it, but for the rest of the world in thousands of business emails, only a tiny handful of people follow Thunderbird’s approach.

    The reason for putting replies above previous messages is that it makes for quicker reading and responding. When email conversation are running into 20+ messages of half-a-page plus of complex material it is far easier to have the latest email at the top, than at the bottom cos it highlights the most important messages and saves interminable scrolling.

    Thunderbird has a problem with this though, for which I can’t find a solution. Instead of using the default text format in the reply, it picks up the format of the header of the most recent message. It doesn’t matter what defaults are set – if you want a body font you have to manually change it every time.

    Does anyone have a fix?


  5. “Smart Template” is an extension by which you can get “blue” color in fact any colour of your choice in reply format. I have tried, it works very well.


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