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Last month Thunderbird broke horribly for me… Whenever I would try to start it, it would never show the main GUI, it would just grow and grow until it reached 3GB of RAM usage and then die. My laptop is running a 32-bit install, so 3GB is the max single process size. Not being able to get anywhere in the GUI made it hard to do any diagnostics, and starting in “safemode” wasn't helping either. I decided to give Claws-Mail a try.

Read on for my comparison between them.

The single sentence review of them, for the impatient, is: I used Claws for a month, but have switched back to Thunderbird.

Claws Benefits

Claws has the ability to use an external editor to edit your e-mail, similar to the Thunderbird “External Editor” add-on. However, Claws has an option to bring up that external editor when you start editing a new message. In Thunderbird, you have to click a button from the Compose window to bring up the editor. Having the editor come up automatically was great.

Claws has a function to search a folder and add all the e-mail addresses it sees to the address book. This is a nice feature, but note that I never really found I needed it under Thunderbird (see below for details).

The search function in Claws seems to work more predictably. In Thunderbird I seem to often end up doing a “search everywhere”, which, despite the name, never seems to come up with any results. Despite the search box appearing to have been set to search “to/from/subject”.

Claws does seem to have a very small memory footprint… Seems to only use 250MB virtual and 32MB resident when I was running it. Thunderbird seems to be using more like 900MB resident and 95MB resident. I'm not normally concerned about Thunderbird's memory footprint, but I realize many folks are, particularly on laptops with less memory (mine has 4GB).

The plugins for notifications are really nice and configurable. I particularly like that I could have a icon in my task bar that would show the mail status (empty, read messages, or unread) at a glance, and could be configured to reflect only on certain folders. This is the biggest feature I will miss from Claws.

There is a “mutt” key-binding compatibility mode that I really wanted to investigate more, since I used mutt for a very long time (until I had to start sharing my mail folders with others). I really didn't explore this though. Of course, Thunderbird has “muttator”, which I haven't tried (odd since I LOVE Vimperator in Firefox).

I'm not sure if this is a strength or not, but Claws has two types of tagging: by label and by color. The tagging of messages in Thunderbird changes the color of the message in the title list, but in Claws those messages show up not as a color but with a label. It might be useful to have 2 different types of tagging, but it really didn't work out with everyone else that I share my folders with using Thunderbird.

Thunderbird Benefits

Thunderbird doesn't seem to crash as much as Claws. Thunderbird is not immune from freaking out, but it seems to last around a week where Claws only seems to last around a day.

I really love the “undo” function in Thunderbird. In particular, I seem to have a habit of occasionally deleting a message only to realize there's something I need to look at. In Thunderbird I can do a Control-Z or Edit->Undo to get it back. In Claws I have to hunt it down in the Trash.

Operations like Delete and Send are a lot faster in Thunderbird. I think what happens is that they are done in the background, where Claws does it in the foreground and you have to wait for them. Not a big deal on a fast connection, but on my cellular wireless, or at a coffee shop with crappy Internet, Thunderbird behaves much faster.

Thunderbird has much better ways to manage a large collection of folders. I have 3 to 4 IMAP accounts that I regularly monitor, but even with the less frequently used folder groups collapsed I still have over 50 items in the folder view. In Thunderbird I can go into alternate folder views where it will show me either only folders I have marked as “Favorite” folders, only folders with new mail, only folders I've recently viewed, or “Smart” folders (kind of combining folders like a single view of all my “Inbox” folders). This is the biggest reason I switched back to Thunderbird.

I like that Thunderbird will start offering me address completion when I start typing the address. In Claws you have to explicitly ask for the completion, which is great if it has the correct address right there. Thunderbird's mechanism seems to just be less obtrusive; it's there if I want to use it, I have to guess with Claws.

Thunderbird will add addresses to your “collected addresses” address book (based on a config setting). I couldn't find a way to get Claws to do this, so I had to manually ask it to scan my inbox or Sent folders to build up a list. I really like that Thunderbird just builds up the address book based on who I get mail from and send it to. It's just been automatic.

The Enigmail plugin for Thunderbird makes using GPG signatures/encryption really easy. I never ended up getting Claws working with GPG keys, and while I didn't spend a lot of time working on it, in Thunderbird the Enigmail wizard made it super easy.

The Lightning Thunderbird plugin to show my calendar information. I really like having it off on the side of the screen so I can see it at a glance. Should it be built into my mail program? I don't know, but with meeting invitations being sent and confirmed via e-mail it does seem to make some sense.

In Conclusion

Claws is a fine mail program, and it was really awesome to have a choice when Thunderbird crapped out on me. And it's particularly nice that now I have the choice of switching, if Thunderbird has issues in the future. But, in the end I think that Thunderbird better fits my needs.

In particular, I really prefer being able to put it in a mode where I only see my most important folders, and can ignore the others. This allows me to focus on only those things, instead of being distracted by other conversations.

In the end, I solved the problem with Thunderbird by blowing away my “~/.thunderbird” directory and configuring it again from scratch. Once I did that, it's been behaving fine. Note that I had used Thunderbird for probably 2 years before that happened.

Claws is good, but Thunderbird is, for me, better.

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