IMAP – Making Thunderbird 3 Behave More Like M2

Thunderbird is a great email client. 3.x is even better than 2.x. But, Thunderbird (latest trunk even) still has some bad defaults when it comes to IMAP handling. Further, Thunderbird has the capabilites to handle IMAP more like Opera's built-in mail client, M2. They're just not enabled by default. In this post I'll show you an alternative way to use Thunderbird that works better with IMAP and works more like M2. …

Fixing IMAP 'move' Operations

IMAP doesn't have a 'move' command. So, when you choose to move a message from one IMAP folder to another, the action is carried out in 3 main commands:

  1. Copy the message to the target IMAP folder.
  2. Add the \Deleted flag on the original.
  3. Expunge the original.

However, by default, Thunderbird doesn't do #3. This leaves a bunch of messages marked as \Deleted on the server and forces you to expunge them via the "Compact folders" option under the File menu or the "Compact" option when you right-click on a folder.

To fix this, goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Options.
  3. Advanced.
  4. General.
  5. Click on "Config Editor".
  6. Search for "mail.imap.expunge_after_delete" and set it to true.
  7. Restart Thunderbird.

Fixing Folder Checking

When Thunderbird checks for new messages, it doesn't check all the IMAP folders. It just checks Inbox, which will cause the summaries for other folders to not be updated until you manually select them.

To fix this, goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Options.
  3. Advanced.
  4. General.
  5. Click on "Config Editor".
  6. Search for "mail.check_all_imap_folders_for_new" and set it to true.
  7. Restart Thunderbird.

Adding support for Views

M2 has a bunch of views (like Unread, Trash, Spam etc.) for different kinds of messages. That way, you can see only certain types of messages you want. This is very useful.

You can kind of have this in Thunderbird too. Just:

  1. Right-click on the toolbar.
  2. Choose "Customize".
  3. Drag the "View" drop-down widget to the toolbar, inbetween "Tags" and the search field.

Marking Messages as Read

By default, Thunderbird marks messages as read when you open them. M2 doesn't do this because opening a message does not necessarily imply reading. Instead, you mark the message as read when you decide yourself that you've read it.

Thunderbird can do the same thing. Just goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Options.
  3. Advanced.
  4. Reading and Display.
  5. Uncheck "Automatically mark message as read".

Now, whenever you want a message to be marked as read, you just right-click on a message, goto "mark" and choose "as read". As an alternative, you can right-click on the toolbar, choose "customize" and drag the "Mark" button to the toolbar. That way, you'll have easy access to the read state for a message.

You can also hide read messages by clicking on the View drop-down and chosing "Unread".

Marking Messages as Spam

By default, Thunderbird just marks messages as Spam (well Junk) and doesn't move them to any IMAP folder. M2 works the same way. However, M2, by default, doesn't display Spam with other messages. It has a view (All Messages -> Spam) specifically for it. You can do something similar in Thunderbird by creating a customize Junk view (it already has a custom "Not Junk" view).

To create a custom Junk view:

  1. Click on the View drop-down, goto "Customize" and click "New".
  2. Name it "Junk" and give it a rule of "Junk Status is Junk".

Then, you'll have a custom Junk view that you can select in the drop-down under "Custom Views". The "Not Junk" view is there too.

Now, if you want Thunderbird to learn from you marking messages as Spam, goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Account Settings.
  3. Goto "Junk" for your IMAP account.
  4. Check "Enable adaptive junk mail controls for this account".
  5. Optionally check "Trust junk mail headers set by:" Spamasassin.
  6. Uncheck "move new junk messages to:".

Adjust Draft Saving

M2 can't automatically save Draft messages to an IMAP folder. It just saves drafts locally, which you can view in All Messages/Drafts.

M2's behavior can be mostly simulated in Thunderbird. You just have to adjust some settings.

The first thing you need to do is update the draft auto-save interval.

  1. Tools.
  2. Options.
  3. Composition.
  4. General.
  5. Set "Auto save every" to 1 minute.

Then, you need to change the Drafts folder to the local Drafts folder.

  1. Tools.
  2. Account Settings.
  3. Goto "Copies & Folders" for your IMAP account.
  4. Set "Drafts folder on:" to "Local Folders".

Now, Thunderbird will just save drafts locally somewhat like M2 does. Instead of using a folder, it'd be better to use a \Draft flag and a custom view. But, it seems you can't create a custom view like that.

Adjust Message Check Interval

Thunderbird uses 10 minutes by default. That's a tad long. M2 uses 5 minutes, which is much nicer.

To fix this, just goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Account Settings.
  3. Goto "Server Settings" for your IMAP account.
  4. Set "Check for new messages every" to 5 minutes.

Adjust the Delete Action

M2 has no option to move a message to a certain IMAP folder (like Trash) when you delete a message. It instead just adds the \Deleted flag to the message. Then, you can view \Deleted messages in All Messages/Trash (they're not shown in other views by default) and expunge them (wipe them out locally and on the server) or undelete them (remove the \Deleted flag from them). It is good that M2 does this as it's how IMAP is supposed to work. Unfortunately, Thunderbird doesn't do this by default, but you can fix that.

To make Thunderbird just mark a message as \Deleted when you delete a message, goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Account Settings.
  3. Goto "Server Settings" for your IMAP account.
  4. Set "When I delete a message:" to "Just mark it as deleted".

Then, when you delete a message, the \Deleted flag will just be added to it and the message will be crossed-out in the message list.

Then, if you want to expunge messages marked as \Deleted, you can do it for all folders via "File -> Compact Folders". This is like emptying M2's All Messages/Trash. But, you can also do it per-folder by right-clicking on the folder and choosing "Compact". (Thunderbird should use a more descriptive label than "Compact".)

Now, if you don't like \Deleted messages being displayed in the message list, you can click on the View drop-down on the toolbar and choose "Not Deleted".

Warning!: Do not check your email in a client that auto-expunges any \Deleted messages it sees. If you do, you'll lose all your \Deleted messages. As an example, SquirrelMail does this by default, which is evil. So, if you're marking very important messages as \Deleted just to archive them instead of moving them to a safe folder, you might get burned. Usually though, this is not a problem.

Change Default Compose Mode

By default, M2 composes messages in plain text. Then, if you want to compose as HTML, you can switch to HTML composition mode right in the compose tab. This is a great default because you're not composing in HTML unless you need to.

You can make Thunderbird compose in plain text by default too. Just goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Account Settings.
  3. Goto "Composition & Addressing" for your IMAP account.
  4. Uncheck "Compose messags in HTML format".

Then, Thunderbird will compose in plain text by default. Then, if you want to compose, reply or forward in HTML mode, just hold down SHIFT when you click the Write, Reply or Forward button.

No Confirm on Keyboard Send

When using keyboard shortcuts to send a message, Thunderbird asks you to confirm. M2 doesn't do this.

To stop Thunderbird from bugging you, just goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Options.
  3. Composition.
  4. General.
  5. Uncheck "Confirm when using keyboard shortcut to send message".

Only Download Message Bodies for Opened Messages

This is what M2 does by default with its "Make messages available offline when I click them". It's a good default as it generally saves hard drive space. But, it also cripples searching and exporting.

Thunderbird doesn't have an offline setting like this. Well, at least there's no offline option whose label describes something like this. Thunderbird just downloads all messages for offline use by default. You can tweak it though, but not like M2, so there's nothing you can do about this.


So, that wraps up some things you can do to make Thunderbird more like M2. There are more, but that's enough for now. But, the following are a few general tips that will help with using Thunderbird 3.

Message List Sorting

M2 and Thunderbird don't sort messages in the message list propertly by default. They should sort by sent time in descending order.

To fix this in Thunderbird, click on the Date header in the message list so that the arrow in it is pointing down. Then, your messages will be sorted correctly.

Setting a Signature

You should set a signature for messages you send. Just goto:

  1. Tools.
  2. Account Settings.
  3. Goto "you@example.com" (as in, the top-level section of your IMAP account's settings).
  4. Type your first name in the Signature text field.

Threaded View

If you like viewing messages in a threaded style, you can enable this by clicking on the thread header in the message list. It's the first one on the left.

Disabling Message Pane

If you don't want to automatically open a message when you click on it in the message list, you can turn off the message pane. Just goto View -> Layout and uncheck "Message Pane". Then, you just double-left click the message to open it in a new tab.

Get Rid of Smart Folders

By default, Thunderbird 3 displays a Smart Folders tree. It's just too noisy and chaotic. To disable it, click the right arrow to switch to "All Folders".

Gmail IMAP

Gmail's IMAP server does things way differently. Best to read this guide before using it.

7 Replies to “IMAP – Making Thunderbird 3 Behave More Like M2”

  1. Originally posted by alexremen:So much to change… I think I’ll stick to M2!Indeed. Definitely shows how much different their defaults are.Originally posted by alexremen:The other way around would be more interesting :-)Yes, Spam, Trash and Draft folder support, plus different ‘mark as read’ and compose mode defaults, and you pretty much got it.

  2. Anonymous writes:changing the folder view away from the smart folders does NOT disable them. smart folders will continue to download mail for all your accounts (even if the account is set to not check for mail!) and suck up system and network resources in the background.

  3. Neil Smithline writes:I want to thank you for all of your effort on this. I have been struggling with GMail/Thunderbird configuration for some time now and this did it for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *