Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Windows Live Mail versus Mozilla Thunderbird

I like Windows Mail, the free mail client on Windows Vista. It grew out of Outlook Express, and finally does almost everything I would want. So, naturally, Microsoft has decided to discontinue it on their next operating system, Windows 7. In fact they will not be providing any email client at all, counting on the user to download something, or on the internet service provider to do that for the user.

Microsoft has developed a new mail client, apparenty based on Windows Mail, called Windows Live Mail. Sorry for the confusion in names, but I didn't cause that, Microsoft did! Users will be able to download Windows Live Mail (WLM) at no cost. But it isn't the same. So I installed Windows Live Mail Version 2009 (Build 14.0.8064.0206) alongside Mozilla Thunderbird 3 (Beta 2). Thunderbird is a free, open-source, collaborative email client developed by people who say they want to provide the "most useful and enjoyable communications tool possible." It's a mature product, certainly as mature as WLM. Thunderbird Release 3 Beta 2 is stable on my machine. The comparison between Thunderbird and Windows Live Mail is interesting.

Windows Live Mail:

THEY DUMBED IT DOWN! Windows Live Mail is Windows Mail with fewer controls. They added a calendar and included it with a large set of other applications called Windows Live Essentials. Here are some comparisons between Windows Mail and WLM:Windows Live Logo
  • WLM supports multiple POP accounts, but each is treated quite separately, with no way (that I have found) to direct mail from all or several POP accounts into a common inbox. This is most inconvenient. I have lots of POP accounts and do not use web-based accounts.
  • Further, when a new, unread email does come in, WLM says there is a new one but doesn't say which inbox it is in! Inconvenient and annoying. There is a "Quick View" that can help, but it takes space in the list of accounts, see next.
  • The list of accounts cannot be deleted or moved and has way too much space between accounts, so that scrolling to search for an email is always necessary if there are several accounts.
  • WLM has no "Send All" command. When you finish an email, it's gone. No "Outbox" unless the send actually fails. This can be good or bad, but I don't like it because I'm accustomed to clicking on Send All to really send it.
  • WLM apparently uses yet another type of address book. For sure it does not use the "Contacts" directory used by Windows Mail, though it will import that directory into its book. I'm not sure where the WLM address book is, actually, though I probably could find it if I cared. It will export its address book in only two formats: VCF and CSV.
  • The "New Mail" sound file cannot easily be changed. I like a louder one in case I'm not at my computer.
  • When I installed WLM it tried to copy all of the mail in Windows Mail into its own file system, but failed. Email POP accounts also did not transfer over. I don't know why.
  • Help, like all Microsoft help these days, is entirely web-based. Don't plan on any help without an internet connection.
  • The good news is that WLM works and seems quite appropriate for a user with one POP account, or with only web-based accounts, because the list of accounts will be trivial, and there are fewer things to screw up. Too bad Microsoft couldn't include an "expert" button of some kind to make it more configurable for the rest of us.
Mozilla Thunderbird:

I tried both Release 2.0, the current "stable" version, and Release 3b2, ending up with 3b2. Comparing Windows Mail and WLM with Thunderbird:Mozilla Thunderbird Logo
  • WLM and Windows Mail have a "drag and drop" capability, allowing the user to drag an email out of the Inbox, for example, into a normal Windows Folder as a .EML file. I love that feature and use it all the time. Thunderbird does not have that feature. Why would anyone want that? I like to keep all files for a project together, whatever their file types. For example, if I'm planning to run a marathon in Paducah, there will be a folder named Paducah containing an internet shortcut to the race web site (.url), maybe one to the hotel web site (.url), a copy of the course map (.jpg or .gif), printouts of car, air, or hotel reservations (.pdf), and copies of communications (.eml). No need to look in different places for different file types. Thunderbird will correctly display an email in .EML format, and will export them too, but not as easily as Windows Mail and WLM will do.
  • Like WLM, Thunderbird has no Send All command. In fact I haven't found anything quite like WLM's Sync command. I admit I haven't missed it though.
  • Thunderbird would not import my email messages from Windows Mail. There is a separately-installable extension called ImportExportTools, but it only imported the file structure and not the files themselves. Perhaps it would work better with a simpler file structure than I have.
  • Thunderbird would not import POP accounts. But neither did WLM.
  • It will export contacts only in LDIF, CSV, or tab-delimited formats.
  • HOWEVER, Thunderbird does have a global-folder structure called Local Folders. Any email from any account can be directed into the global Inbox on Local Folders, or the global Spam box that I created, for that matter. This allows me to pull email from any of several POP accounts into one place.
  • All three clients have filters that can be configured to redirect or simply delete known spam, or to direct email from specific addresses into specific folders. Thunderbird allows these folders to be global, hence accessible to any POP account.
  • Further, Thunderbird has a "Junk Mail Learning" feature that seems to work pretty well, far better than the simple junk filter levels in WLM.
  • Thunderbird has WAY more controls than WLM, and more than Windows Mail as well. So it's possible for a user to get things pretty screwed up. The good news is that the most dangerous options have a "restore defaults" button. I haven't needed that yet, but ...
  • Thunderbird can include "add-ons," contributed extensions which may add class and functionality for the discerning Thunderbird user.
  • Thunderbird won't go away. I hate that about Microsoft - they just want to sell new copies of operating systems, so we (obviously) can't depend on them for continuity.
For my money (they're both free), I far prefer Thunderbird over Windows Live Mail, even without drag & drop. I have already switched to Thunderbird on my Vista x64 system, even though I do have the venerable Windows Mail on it too. But there are other users on my network, people with only one POP account. It may be a while before they have computers with Windows 7 (or beyond), but perhaps I will install Windows Live Mail for them when they do. We shall see.