Moving from Kontact to Thunderbird

In my post expressing my disappointment in the direction Slackware is heading I had mentioned that I would be seeking replacements for a number of KDE based applications to which I have become attached over the years, and would have to learn to live without.

One of those applications is Kontact, which is a combination mail client, contact manager, calendar, scheduler, task tracking application (called a “Personal Information Manager” these days, I suppose). Kontact isn’t a perfect application, but I like it, and I’m unhappy with the version in KDE 4, so I started looking for a replacement some weeks ago.

The closest thing to it in the non-KDE universe is Evolution, which for those of you who have never used it, is a very full-featured Microsoft Outlook clone. I used Evolution on my Ubuntu laptop for a couple of weeks and had quite enough of it. It was constantly failing to connect to my POP servers, constantly locking up, constantly crashing, and was just all around unreliable.

There aren’t many other Personal Information Management applications out there that can do as much as Kontact or Evolution. So I figured a good spot to try and “make do” is Thunderbird. I had a pretty bad experience with Thunderbird the last time I tried it, but that was a couple of years ago now, so I thought it was high time I gave it another chance.

I was pleasantly surprised!

Thunderbird does the basics well

Obviously, the main task for which I use Kontact is for sending, receiving, composing, and reading emails. Thunderbird, being a mail client, of course does this, and it appears to do it pretty well.

Thunderbird has matured quite a bit over the past couple of years. It’s very stable, relatively quick (compared to some), and it’s well designed and easy to use. It has a lot of options and the filtering works really well. So far, the only account configuration related complaint I have is that when one is going through the “new account” wizard, the “leave messages on the server” option must be available. Without it, it can completely empty out a POP mail account in its first retrieval, and that is infuriating if all one is doing is testing out a mail client, or if one has multiple machines with which one retrieves mail from that mailbox.

My workaround for this in Thunderbird is to initially point it at the wrong place while I’m going through the wizard. Then, once I’m out of the new account wizard, I go into the account (via Edit=>Account Settings=>Server Settings) and check the “Leave messages on server” checkbox and THEN I point it at the correct server. This way it can’t retrieve any mail until I get a chance to fix that rather dangerous default behavior.

Compared to Kmail (the email client part of Kontact), Thunderbird matches up well, and I noticed one particular behavior that I prefer in Thunderbird. In Kmail, if you’re on a message and you use the arrow keys, it just scrolls up and down in that same message in the preview pane.

Maybe it’s just me, but intuitively, I expect that action to actually scroll up and down in the list of emails, like in pretty much every other mail client I’ve ever tried. Kmail is the only one that doesn’t do that right. In Thunderbird, using the arrow keys moves from message to message, the way they should. So that’s a plus in my book — after years of using Kmail, I still was constantly trying to hit the down arrow to go to the next message down in my reading of emails. Never managed to get used to that rather odd design choice.

Thunderbird is comparable to Kmail in all of the other emailing basics, as far as I have found. It allows you to create subfolders and create filters/rules to automatically send new messages to the appropriate folders, which I utilize quite a lot. It can do spell checking, and it handles plain text versus HTML composition sanely. I know that’s an odd thing to mention, but there is a surprising number of mail clients out there that give you basically no options in that area, which I find puzzling in this day and age.

One thing I wish Thunderbird could do was some level of basic email archiving… even if it just had the ability to periodically (like on a schedule) dump email to some simple, portable format and compress the file, I’d be happy with it. There may be an add-on that does this, but I have some more digging to do, so I honestly don’t know. I do feel that this behavior should be native in any email client; it’s just good file management in my opinion.

Something else Thunderbird does well is the address book. You wouldn’t think this would be a big issue nowadays either, but some mail clients do this pretty badly, without the ability to store more than just a name and an email address (ever think that someone might want to keep things like PHONE NUMBERS with one’s contacts as well?), and without the ability to export contacts to a sane format that can be imported by other mail clients. Thunderbird can do all of that, and it’s pretty flexible, though I wish it had the ability to allow the user to select which columns are visible in the list view. Interface quibbles aside, it does what I need it to do, namely store and make easily accessible contact information for a few dozen friends, colleagues, and associates of mine, and that’s better than many alternatives offer.

Another rather weird issue is that the version of Thunderbird I’m on (version doesn’t like to save some signature settings, but I found this to be very helpful, and that bug will apparently be fixed in the next version, so it’s a non-issue for me at this point.

With a couple of add-ons, we’re good

Like Firefox, Thunderbird has the ability to handle add-ons that can provide needed functionality that is otherwise missing from the out-of-the-box product. As a mail client, Thunderbird is full-featured enough that I found that I didn’t need anything in the way of email add-ons. However, since I’ve grown fond of calendaring/tasks/scheduling features in Kontact, I went looking to see if I could spiff up Thunderbird in a way that filled that need for me.

I found two add-ons that do this really well for me. Normally, in Kontact, I had my calendar (Kalendar?) set up to sync with a couple of my Google calendars, which, since Kontact doesn’t have the ability to directly do so, was a bit of a kludge.

Thankfully, in the Thunderbird world, there is the Provider for Google Calendar add-on, and the Lightning add-on. I installed both of these. Lightning seamlessly integrates a full-featured calendar into Thunderbird, and the Provider for Google Calendar gives that calendar the ability to talk to any Google calendar to which you have access, which is very convenient if that’s something you use.

I also use the Tasks functionality included with Lightning, mostly as a “to-do list”, so I don’t forget to do important things that I would otherwise have to write down to remember.


Some of Kontact’s other functionality (the ability to have RSS feeds on its “Summary” page, for example) is less important to me, and I can definitely live without it. Plus, with the two rather minimal add-ons I mentioned, Thunderbird does remote calendaring better than Kontact did for me, so it has a leg up on how I was doing things before.

The issues I have found with Thunderbird have been extremely minor, and frankly, if that’s all I can find wrong with it, I can do a LOT worse than Thunderbird as far as email clients go (and have, ugh).

I’ve been using Thunderbird as my main mail client for a couple of weeks now, and so far I’m very pleased with it. I’m always cautious about add-ons, particularly since I’ve found that more than just a couple installed to Firefox can make it flaky and sluggish (and that’s being nice about it), but I’m going to experiment with one or two more minor ones to see if I can add some other functionality I’d like to have available to me.

But even if that’s a no-go, I’m still very happy with my Thunderbird experience so far. I think I can safely walk away from Kontact for good with this as a replacement. I’m hoping that I can find replacements for a number of other KDE applications that are this good!

Let me know about your Thunderbird experiences, and point me in the direction of some good add-ons if you know of some that I haven’t explored. Thanks!

10 thoughts on “Moving from Kontact to Thunderbird

  1. Great article, Trent. You are quite right about Sylpheed and address book functionality (or rather, lack thereof), which is one of the reasons I keep both T-bird and Sylpheed on my Linux box: Sylpheed for speed, T-bird for full-featured functionality.

    I have had issues with T-bird in the past also, but it just keeps getting better with each release, and the 3.0 beta is looking really good. And the Lightning calendar add-on is a must-have, for me.

    • You know, I even tried out an address book that’s supposed to work well with Sylpheed, called Dlume, and indeed, it did work well with Sylpheed. And it provided the ability to store basic information that Sylpheed’s stupid address book couldn’t (like phone numbers).

      But the dumb program has NO WAY TO IMPORT anything. So to use it, I would have had to enter in about 100 contacts by hand. Lame.

      But I probably should have just tried Thunderbird first. I don’t know what I was thinking in trying out Sylpheed as a replacement for Kontact. They’re not even in the same ballpark. Duh.

  2. Yeah, definitely not in the same ballpark. I forgot to mention that I have basically come to the same conclusion as you regarding Evolution: unusable. I have tried a few times, but the result is always the same: ditch it and move on to Thunderbird with Lightning added.

    • Yeah, I’m glad I’m not the only one who tried using Evolution recently and ended up saying “WTF!!!?” and dropping it like a bad habit.

      Sad, too… Evolution used to be pretty good; I’m not sure what happened to it. It’s pretty flaky and buggy anymore.

  3. I’m sorry but I’m a bit surprised by much of what I’ve read here about your view of Slackware 13.

    I understand you have a right to your view, but I’m disappointed to find a claimed long term Slackware user slating a release that he doesn’t seem to have actualy used. For example you have said that you have a dependency on Kontact, and Amarok, both of which work perfectly well straight off of the iso.

    I’ll admit KDE4 has far too much eye candy and dumbing down of the UI for my liking, but in a world of Windows Vista and soon Windows 7 graphics the KDE team were always going to go big on eye candy at some point.

    Anyway, that’s my 0.2 cents, I wish you well with your exploration of other distros… I have a feeling you’ll be back to Slack soon. And please stop giving the impression that things that work perfectly well straight off of the iso, no longer work.

    • For example you have said that you have a dependency on Kontact, and Amarok, both of which work perfectly well straight off of the iso.

      You obviously haven’t read around here much. I have used Kontact and Amarok and other KDE apps in KDE 4. I don’t like the changes that have been made to them; that’s why I’m looking for replacements for them.

      I have used KDE 4.0, 4.1, 4.2 and 4.3. I don’t like KDE 4, plain and simple, as a matter of design philosophy. I find it unusable, and it is still lacking applications (KPDF anyone?) and the applications they’ve brought forward have all either been changed in ways that make them less appealing to me (Kontact, Amarok, Konqueror) or don’t work correctly at all (K3b).

      You’re entitled to your opinion, of course. But read before you post.

  4. In Kmail, by default, left and right keys scroll the message list, while up and down keys scroll the message itself. I find it very convenient.

    I need to say that after release of KDE-4.4 and “integration” of Kmail with Akonadi, Nepomuk, Strigi, Mysqld and god knows what else I switched to Thunderbird myself 🙂

    • In Kmail, by default, left and right keys scroll the message list, while up and down keys scroll the message itself. I find it very convenient.

      Wow, talk about counter-intuitive! I used Kmail for at least 4 or 5 years and I never discovered that!

      • You used kmail for 4 years and never pressed the left or right keys? Wow.
        But interesting, I use kmail at home for ~10 years and so I can’t get used to the default key bindings in thunderbird on my work machine, especially the different bindings for the arrow keys.
        Btw okular replaced kpdf.

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