Mozilla Thunderbird 1.0 release candidate

The Mozilla Firefox browser has already won the hearts and mice of millions of disgruntled Internet Explorer users. Now, the Mozilla Foundation aims to do it again with its open-source e-mail program, Thunderbird. The newly minted 1.0 release candidate isn't entirely free of flaws, but it runs rings around the more well-established mail clients. It's as easy to use as Outlook Express but far more powerful, and it's superior to the idiosyncratic Eudora 6.0 or the ponderous Outlook 2003. This release candidate (for testing purposes, available in somewhat cryptic form at the Thunderbirds Builds forum) is nearly complete, but as with all beta software, we suggest you wait and install the final version on your primary PC.

Upside: Well designed, easy to use, free for the download (with no ads in sight)--what more could you want from an e-mail client? Well, how about a built-in junk-mail filter and an RSS reader? Or smart search tools that let you save the results in a folder and run the search again at a later date? Or the ability to color-code messages for easier sorting? Did we mention that it works across the Windows, Mac, Linux, and Solaris platforms?

But most compellingly, Thunderbird provides big gains with almost no pain. At install, it automatically imports account settings and addresses from Microsoft Outlook, Microsoft Outlook Express, Eudora, or Netscape Mail; the 1.0 candidate also transports unopened mail from your old in-box. The interface looks like a hybrid between the Firefox browser and Outlook Express, making it extremely intuitive. And though it doesn't have the contact management and scheduling muscle of a program such as Outlook, it's a lot sleeker and swifter--more sports car than SUV.

Hey, isn't that Outlook Express? No, wait, it's Firefox! Guess again: it's Thunderbird 1.0 release candidate, slick and easy software for reading your mail, blogs, and newsgroups.

Downside: There are a few small annoyances. For example, Thunderbird doesn't display the date on messages less than one day old, though you can change this by manually editing a user preferences file. In our limited tests, T-bird trapped almost all of our junk mail but also a large number of legit messages. You'll have to train the spam filter to make it fully effective, and when you mark a message by clicking Not Junk, you have to manually move it to your in-box. The new RSS reader was hard to find and somewhat spartan; newbies may find themselves at a loss. And if you run into snags, you must rely on FAQs, user forums, and the community of Mozillans for assistance.

Outlook: It's hard to find a free e-mail client that can go toe to toe with Thunderbird. Microsoft's continued support for future versions of Outlook Express is questionable, which makes the open-source Mozilla software even more attractive. When the final code appears--sometime in early December, say Mozilla Foundation folks--Thunderbird will undoubtedly win many converts.