Thunderbird on Multiple Machines
March 8, 2012 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Since I'm frustrated with gmail, I'm thinking of installing Thunderbird to manage my email on three computers (home, office, laptop). Is this a good idea?

I've been getting annoyed with gmail, since its "threaded view" doesn't work well for me.

First, regarding gmail: I teach at a university and have to send out group emails sometimes. I find that students and others often reply to group emails when contacting me about unrelated matters, creating "threads" containing material about unrelated subjects. Gmail's "unthreaded" view is pretty terrible--it won't display an icon telling you which email you've replied to, and emails aren't sortable by sender. So both gmail views imho make it too easy for me to accidentally skip replying to some emails.

I have two main email accounts, my gmail one and my university one. I forward the university one to gmail.

What I think I might need to do in order to get control of my email is install Thunderbird on 3 computers--my home desktop, my laptop, and the computer in my office.

How likely is this to produce problems syncing or other issues? Will I be able to send email directly from gmail (from my phone, for example) and have my Thunderbird installs automatically download these emails into the "sent" folder?

How much trouble am I asking for by using multiple Thunderbird installs to access my gmail account? And can I also configure Thunderbird to include the option to send email via my university's email server?

Very grateful for any tips or warnings you might be able to provide.
posted by washburn to Computers & Internet (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I can't speak to whether or not Thunderbird will address the issues that you mention but I can assure you that there is no harm in trying it out and it should be easy to do.

The easiest ( and maybe the only way ) to use thunderbird with gmail is to set up gmail as an IMAP account. The latest version of thunderbird does this pretty much automatically for you.

If you use IMAP you can access your gmail content and folders in a non-destructive manner. There doesn't need to be any syncing involved. Thunderbird basically reads your gmail account and presents it in the thunderbird style.

There should be no problems with accessing your gmail account from thunderbird on multiple computers ( I do this ). You *should* be able to configure thunderbird to use your university server. In the past I have used a gmail account to store my e-mail and a different e-mail account as my send (SMTP) server. I don't do that anymore because there no longer seems to be any benefit to it. Of course, not knowing anything about your university server, I can't say for sure.

Yes, e-mail sent from your phone will be captured in your "sent" folder. One *very* minor issue that your might run into is that the default IMAP "Sent" folder is different from the gmail "sent" folder. Both are accessible from both gmail and thunderbird but depending on how you set up your phone/thunderbird/gmail, sent mail might go into two different places in the folder hierarchy. Again, no big deal as both folders are accessible from all interfaces.

One nice thing about thunderbird is that you can configure it to simultaneously access multiple gmail accounts. That's not something you asked about but it can be convenient.
posted by metadave at 7:02 PM on March 8, 2012

FWIW, Thunderbird has one of the stupidest, most non-intuitive search interfaces I have ever come across. That alone has made me avoid it in favor of Gmail. YMMV.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 7:06 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can turn threaded view off in GMail by going to mail settings and clicking on the conversation view off radio button.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:16 PM on March 8, 2012

Ignore previous answer about conversation view. I see you tried that. Apologies.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 7:18 PM on March 8, 2012

Seconding that IMAP is what you want, but just a caveat that it isn't necessarily "non-destructive" as mentioned by metadave -- you could for instance permanently delete mail on the server, rather than just locally, ... you have to explicitly make a local copy (for offline use) if that's what you want, and Thunderbird is pretty clear about that.

Just be aware that IMAP is really accessing the same account through a different interface, and I'm sure you'll get on fine. Just don't make the mistake of changing your mind and thinking "oh, I don't want these messages here after all", and purging your actual mail account on the server, in error. I've seen it happen, but fortunately not with Gmail so I was able to restore said users mailbox from back ups.
posted by dirm at 8:21 PM on March 8, 2012

I love Thunderbird. I use it on my main computer to read my Gmail by Pop (because I like to have it all offline), while leaving the emails on the server for access through my phone, iPod and work computer. Works great.
posted by jb at 8:29 PM on March 8, 2012

emails sent from gmail or my phone are downloaded by Thunderbird with me as the sender; if I copy them to my sent folder, they are listed by recipient.

but if you want to use Thunderbird on 3 computers, IMAP is a good idea. (I use Thunderbird with POP on the main computer, native email applications on my iPod and phone, and gmail webmail on my work computer. The webmail is the most frustrating).
posted by jb at 8:32 PM on March 8, 2012

I haven't found Thunderbird to be that great in my experience. It depends on what you're used to and comfortable with. Online interfaces are quite different from offline ones. There are pros and cons to both, but I think for email online interfaces have always trumped offline ones for me. Your mileage may vary.

I will say, though, that I do know of the issue you you're referring to, and it is very annoying. Personally, I found a semi-comfortable solution in using automated filters, labels, and one of the Gmail labs that extended the stars/icons you can apply to a message. In the end, that actually gave me a whole lot of control, but it did take some getting used to. I only mention this because if you don't like Thunderbird, you may be able to find some other solution like this.
posted by iamfantastikate at 9:17 PM on March 8, 2012

Best way I know to set up Thunderbird to talk to Gmail is via IMAP. I will generally tweak a few things after letting Thunderbird set that up:

1. Set up IMAP synchronization to download all messages from the Inbox, and other folders you check regularly, for offline use. Set everything else (especially the [Gmail]/All Mail and [Gmail]/Sent folders] to download headers only. If you don't do this, Thunderbird will download everything by default and you'll use twice as much bandwidth as is useful.

2. Turn off IMAP synchronization entirely for the containing [Gmail] folder, which isn't a real IMAP folder.

3. Under "Copies and folders", change the location for sent mails and drafts to Local Folder->Sent and Local Folders->Drafts respectively.

Anything you send out via the Gmail SMTP server will get captured in the Sent folder in your Gmail account independently of IMAP, and if you tell Thunderbird to put sent messages there as well it will waste bandwidth by uploading a second copy. Saving outgoing stuff to a local Sent folder avoids the need to waste bandwidth re-downloading sent messages via IMAP.

Thunderbird's auto-save feature tends to cause a buildup of drafts if you let it use Gmail's own Drafts folder for the job, so unless you value the ability to half-compose a mail in Thunderbird and finish it later using a different PC or via the web, just using Thunderbird's local Drafts folder works better.

You can leave out step 3 if you frequently switch between computers and would rather spend more bandwidth to get offline access to all sent mails and drafts on every computer without needing to think about it.

I used to do all this, but after a while Gmail's web interface got good enough that I stopped bothering. The new look is a definite regression though, so once they stop letting me use the old one I will probably set up my Thunderbirds again.
posted by flabdablet at 9:45 PM on March 8, 2012

I have 5 different devices (1 Linux machine, 2 Macs, an iPad, and an iPhone) talking to multiple GMail and Google Apps accounts over IMAP. It's almost completely seamless, and I just leave everything set to the defaults in Thunderbird. In recent versions, it recognizes that you're setting it up with GMail and sets preferences appropriately (for example, it doesn't put a copy of sent mail in your [Gmail]/Sent Mail folder, because Google does that automatically when you send through their servers).
posted by zsazsa at 10:12 PM on March 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I use multiple machines using Thunderbird to access a single IMAP account (not Gmail). The synching between the multiple clients is flawless. I don't think I've ever had a single problem with that once its set up and configured. IMAP is very good for this.

I agree with These Birds of a Feather that the search in Thunderbird is not super-great at times. I find it okay for finding a message from the past few days, but for deep searching of stuff from long ago, it is not super-great. In my case - I keep a sort of second-copy of all my mail in a Gmail account that I use for searching. If you are actually using a gmail account it should be even easier - just open a browser and search in there.

To the best of my knowledge, there's nothing saying you can't use Thunderbird *and* gmail's web interface, taking advantage of the strengths of each where appropriate.
posted by ManInSuit at 7:38 AM on March 9, 2012

Use Portable Thunderbird on a flash drive. Plug it in to whatever computer you are sitting in front of at the moment. Get it here:
posted by cmdnc0 at 1:14 PM on March 9, 2012

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