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E-Mail Race Is Picking Up the Pace

Even Eudora's interface -- vast amounts of blank space and toolbar icons that appear to have been drawn with crayons -- looks ugly.

Thunderbird is a hot rod in comparison. I haven't seen it crash in months of use, and the only thing that seems to slow it down is a balky mail server. Routine operations also show some of the same elegant simplicity as Thunderbird's better-known sibling, the Firefox Web browser. But dig deeper and you'll see major components in need of rewrites, such as a cluttered "Account Settings" interface and a help file that exists only on the Mozilla Web site.


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Thunderbird and the paid version of Eudora try to filter out spam, but neither has nailed more than about half of my junk mail. Eudora also suffers from a foolish default setting that doesn't exempt people in your address book from this filtering. And because Eudora will display any linked images in e-mail unless told otherwise, spammers can tell when you've read their junk; Thunderbird automatically blocks such images unless they're in messages sent by people in your address book.

Eudora's ad and paid versions do, however, introduce an overdue defense against "phishing" e-mails that try to lure users to give their financial data to fake Web sites. "ScamWatch" warns you in a yellow pop-up box if a Web link in an e-mail will send you to someplace besides the address displayed in the message. ScamWatch can be fooled, but it's better than what other mail readers do about phishing -- nothing. (Thunderbird 1.1 will add a similar feature.)

Once you've gotten rid of spam and phishing e-mail, Eudora excels in keeping track of the messages you do want with its message filters. You can have the program sort your messages by dozens of criteria, then undertake a dizzying variety of actions in response -- beyond just color-coding or filing a message in another mailbox, Eudora can print it, forward it or even speak its sender and subject in a synthesized voice.

Thunderbird's filters are capable, if not as comprehensive. But it blows past Eudora with a slick message-finding system. It's like finding a song in iTunes: Start typing a query into the search box, and results appear below in place of the normal mailbox view, changing as you continue to type.

Thunderbird normally scans both the subject and sender lines of messages, but you can focus a search on other parts of a message. You can also store queries for quick reuse.

Thunderbird offers a couple of non-mail features absent from Eudora: It doubles as a reader for Usenet newsgroups and can subscribe to and display RSS news feeds from Web sites (though it can't bring over news-feed subscriptions set up in other programs).

There is a great deal to like in both programs, either of which I can recommend over Outlook Express. Use Thunderbird unless you make intensive use of a POP account; otherwise, go with Eudora. If you employ IMAP, Thunderbird also beats Outlook (that Microsoft program does IMAP badly enough for me to have switched to Thunderbird long ago). But if, like most people, you use a POP account, Eudora and Thunderbird can't compete with Outlook in one crucial way: their address books.

It's not just that these two challengers are so awkward at managing non-mail address data, such as phone numbers. It's that their address books are islands in themselves, offering no easy way to share their data with other programs, handheld organizers or cell phones. (For the same reason, they also don't match up against Apple's Mac OS X Mail.)

I have the most hope for Thunderbird, thanks to the flexibility its open-source development allows. Eudora, by contrast, spent a year or so in limbo when Qualcomm couldn't decide whether it wanted to stay in the e-mail business. Considering how Thunderbird has evolved so far, it looks like the e-mail program of the future.

But until Thunderbird gains a real address book, I can't blame users who conclude that Outlook, for all its defects, remains the e-mail program of the present.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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