Weaning Yourself Off Of Outlook With Thunderbird

ThunderbirdAbout a year ago I got so annoyed at MS Outlook that I started considering other options. I remember liking Eudora back in the day, but also I stopped using it in favor of Outlook because it wasn’t robust enough. This may have changed, and I know at least one devoted Eudora user, but have more friends who suggested I try Thunderbird. And really, after the awesomeness of Firefox, I was willing to trust Mozilla with my e-mail. First I used Thunderbird on my desktop for my three personal e-mail accounts. (Don’t ask why I have three… it’s a long story.) After a year of use, I was completely hooked. And the more I used it the more I became completely dissatisfied with Outlook at work. But switching my work e-mails over to Thunderbird was a more complicated decision. Out of the box, Outlook is a much more complex program. Both have Contacts/Address Books, but Outlook has Calendar, Tasks, Notes, and a Journal. There are Calendar, Tasks, and Notes add-ons for Thunderbird (several, in fact), but nothing that really replicates the Journal. Plus, I sync all my contacts, appointments, tasks and notes with my smartphone running Windows Mobile. My love for Thunderbird and my animosity toward Outlook gave me the impetus to see if I could overcome these hurdles. First thing was to find add-ons that would get the missing functionality into Thunderbird. Calendar and Tasks were easy since Mozilla already has a great solution: Lightning, the Thunderbird add on version of their calendar software, Sunbird. Lightning has all of the important functionality of Outlook’s calendar with a few extra features. You can add multiple calendars to Lightning, either locally served or on a network — this includes iCal and, with the addition of the Provider for Google Calendar add-on, Google Calendars. Users can add events via Lightning or the web interface and both will remain synced. Reminders pop up in Lightning and can be dismissed or snoozed just as in Outlook. When looking at your calendar you can choose to see one or many at a time, and, just like Google Calendar, you assign colors to each one so it’s easy to keep track. Tasks are part of Lightning but are only attached to your locally served calendar(s). When looking at the task list in the main mail window, you won’t see tasks if the local calendar is unchecked in the full calendar view. Other than that, tasks work the same as in Outlook. Finding a replacement for Notes was a much harder task. There are a few note add ons for Thunderbird, but most of them attach the notes to specific emails. (Of this stripe, XNote is my favorite.) I like this function, too, but I also make notes that aren’t about specific emails. The only add-on I could find that does this is called ThunderNote. It’s a new one, though, and isn’t as robust as it could be. It also doesn’t work quite the same as Outlook or provide the attractive Post-It note look. But it does allow you to put notes in different tabbed folders so they’re easier to find. It’s not a perfect replacement, but it has the potential to be even better than the Outlook version. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any add-ons attempting to mimic Outlook’s journal. As it’s a feature I suspect most people don’t use, this may not be a dealbreaker for you. I did use the journal and still made the switch because it was a small loss compared to everything I gained. So, I was able to mimic the most important functions of Outlook in Thunderbird and even gained some functionality I didn’t have before. Plus, there are many other Thunderbird add-ons to choose from to personalize and expand the program. The last hurdle left was syncing my Windows Mobile phone. For a long time I didn’t think this was possible, especially since Microsoft was not about to put out a program for this purpose. But about a month ago, on a whim, I googled around and found this article. It outlines two solutions for Thunderbird to Windows Mobile sync, one free and one not. In general, I tend to go for free solutions. When it comes to open source software like Thunderbird, I find that free stuff usually works better. In this case, the paid solution, BirdieSync, looked to be a better choice. Less hassle, less setup, less danger of messing it up. Plus, they give you a 20 day trial period, so I gave it a try. I ended up loving BirdieSync a lot. It works perfectly every time, it only syncs the calendars I want, and I haven’t encountered any weirdness syncing contacts or tasks. You can also choose which email accounts to sync, or opt not to sync any, just as with Outlook. And it all works through ActiveSync, just as before. BirdieSync just adds some new items to sync that correspond to Thunderbird. It costs 19.99 euros, which comes out to about $30 or a little less. The only snag is that it doesn’t sync Notes, mainly because there’s no corresponding add-on that stands out. Maybe there will be in the future, but for now my notes just live on my phone. I’ve started using tasks more for notes because of this, and that actually works out a bit better for me since most of my notes are action items. YMMV. Palm software and BlackBerry users are, unfortunately, out of luck when it comes to syncing. There was a PalmSync extension, but it was made for Thunderbird 1.5 and seems to have been abandoned. Plus, it only synced contacts… and not very well. Looking for BlackBerry sync options I found several people on forums asking if it was possible, but no add-ons or programs popping up. The bottom line is that you can make the switch from Outlook to Thunderbird without much loss of functionality if you’re willing to let go of your journal. Thunderbird, like any good program, will help you out by importing your contacts and e-mails. However, if you rely on syncing your contacts, appointments and tasks with your phone or PDA, the switch will only be useful for users with Windows Mobile devices.

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  1. Paul Says:

    Like you I have recently made the leap from Outlook to Thunderbird and I’m loving every minute. The add-ons do provide FAR more functionality and it’s my choice to install them. So if I want to create my own bloatware I can. My only problem, like you, is mobile phone sync. I have a symbian phone – Nokia N73 – at the moment and I can’t find anything that sync’s everything (incl contacts).

    The closest I have found is paid software (MobileMaster) but it doesn’t see the symbian contact file apparently. So right now I am missing quite an important tool…..any ideas?

  2. Art Says:

    Great guide, I’m giving up Outlook too. I have a droid and think it will work well by syncing google and thunderbird.

  3. Karol Says:

    I weaned myself off about a year ago and have been using Lightning with Thundernote but would really like to find a note program that sync’s with my windows mobile. Do you have any updates on items that you have found since you wrote this article?

  4. mdeck Says:

    Although I never used Outlook on my home PC, I did use it on my corporate PC, so I’m familiar with journaling — and it’s a feature I’d really like to see in Thunderbird (even better if it’s got a built-in dialer!).

    Has anyone added a journal to Tbird in the months since this article was written?

    — mdeck

  5. K. T. Bradford Says:

    not that I’m aware of. Thunderbird development on the add-on side is pretty low.

  6. marcus Says:

    Do you have an update for finding these functions or ability to synch with all Outlook functions on / for Android 2.1 (Motorola Milestone)?
    – Email (multiple accounts)
    – Contacts / address books
    – Calendar: appointments, meetings, requests, assignments
    – Tasks – must have
    – Notes – must have, and not exlusively tied to emails
    – Journal – VERY important for some of us that must track time and activity

    Need a sware that does all this on Android and synchs with MS Outlook, or replaces all MS Outlook features and functions without any loss.

    Any assistance you can provide will be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks and best regards,
    Vancouver Canada

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