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Turn Thunderbird into the Ultimate Gmail IMAP Client

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Votes: 0
Posted: 02 Mar, 2017
by: Sonta N.
Updated: 02 Mar, 2017
by: Sonta N.

Turn Thunderbird into the Ultimate Gmail IMAP Client

Gmail's IMAP support roll-out this week had nerds all atwitter about the possibility of synchronized email access across devices, computers, and clients. IMAP is far superior to regular old POP for fetching your messages and maintaining your folder list whether you're on your iPhone, office or home computer. If IMAP's got you curious but you're not sure what desktop application to use with Gmail, consider the extensible, fast, cross-platform and free Mozilla Thunderbird, our beloved Firefox's little sibling. Here's how to get the full Gmail experience in Thunderbird with IMAP.

What's IMAP?

Internet Message Access Protocol (Wikipedia page) enables email programs to read messages stored on the server. Unlike POP, with IMAP it's as if you're browsing a network drive of files on a remote server with an open, live connection to that server; whenever you open a folder or view a message, it's displayed from that server live. IMAP maintains a constant connection with your server and updates real-time.

Why is IMAP better than POP?

POP downloads and copies new messages to your local inbox. With POP you can download once and disconnect from the server, which is its one advantage. But you cannot download messages that have already been archived and labeled in Gmail via POP, and your client has to poll the server to get new messages. With POP access, if you move a message to a folder or star it in your desktop client, that change is not reflected in Gmail and your messages get out of sync. Any rules or mail filters you set up on one machine with a POP client have to be set up and reprocessed with a fresh download on all your other machines.

Think of POP as copying files from a server to your computer and working with them on your hard drive. Think of IMAP as connecting to a remote server and working with the files saved there.

Why Thunderbird (and not Mail or Outlook)?

We're naturally biased towards open source software here at Lifehacker, but there are good reasons why Thunderbird is the best desktop client choice out there for Gmail IMAP access:

Set up Thunderbird correctly for Gmail IMAP

First things first. Once you're fetching your email via IMAP with Thunderbird (here's Google's tutorial on how to do that), there are two settings you'll want to set manually: specifically, where Thunderbird should store sent messages and drafts. In your IMAP account settings, the Copies & Folders area, be sure to change the default location for Sent and Drafts to [Gmail]/Sent Mail and [Gmail]/Drafts respectively, as shown.

Even after you do this, you'll notice a few strange labels in your Gmail account: [Imap]/Sent[Imap]/Drafts and [Imap]/Trash. These are Thunderbird's default Sent, Drafts, and Trash folders. Once you make the change to your account settings, you can delete those labels in Gmail and they won't get regenerated. (Note: except for [Imap]/Trash, which I can't rid myself of entirely, since T-bird seems married to it. Bueller? Update: see the next section for the solution to the [Imap]/Trash label.)

Set Thunderbird to use Gmail's Trash folder (UPDATE)

  1. rom the Tools menu, choose Options.
  2. Go to the "Advanced" Option menu and the "General" tab. Hit the "Config Editor" button next to the "Advanced Configuration" label.
  3. Now you need to look around in there a bit to find which server you need to modify. Using the filter entry box at the top, type in mail.server.serverand you will see a list of keys and values. One of those keys will be, where X is a number and the value is the name of your Gmail IMAP account. Remember X.
  4. Right-click somewhere in the box and select New->String.
  5. A dialog box will pop up asking for the name of your new key. Put in mail.server.serverX.trash_folder_name, where X is the number you remember from above. (For example, mine is mail.server.server2.trash_folder_name.)
  6. A new box will come up asking for the value of your new key. Put in [Gmail]/Trash.
  1. Go to Gmail's web interface and delete the label [Imap]/Trash.
  2. Restart Thunderbird.

UPDATE 2, Nov 8th: A Gmail IMAP engineer writes in with more information about the implications of the Trash tweak:

Using the [Gmail]/Trash as your Trash folder can lead to some unexpected issues, and the Gmail team doesn't recommend it.

Our recommended client settings page doesn't go far enough to explain why this can be an issue. The problem is that gmail only keeps a single copy of a message with multiple labels. If you apply the Trash label by placing the message in the [Gmail]/Trash folder, you are telling GMail to remove the message from all labels, and GMail will also delete the message in 30 days.

If for some reason you actually expect the message to be in multiple folders, and you delete it from one thinking that only removes it from that folder, if you set your Trash to [Gmail]/Trash, you will mistakenly remove the message from both folders.

So, suppose you have a filter set up to keep a copy of every message in another label/folder, and you normally just go through your inbox in Thunderbird deleting every message, knowing you have a copy saved in another folder, you will be actually deleting both copies. Or maybe you think you are relying on the automatic "second copy" that Gmail has in the "[Gmail]/All Mail" folder: again, moving a message to the Trash will remove it from there as well.

Or, perhaps you mistakenly "copied" a message to another folder, instead of "moving" it, so you then "delete" the copy that was left behind: this will actually delete the message from both places.

In short: If you're using Gmail's Trash folder, expect that all copies of any message you put there will be deleted, not just the one you move there.

How Thunderbird actions map to Gmail

Before we move into Thunderbird tweaks and add-ons, check out this chart of what actions in your client will do in web-based Gmail, courtesy of Google.

Note that Gmail labels do NOT map to Thunderbird's tags. Each label is represented by an old school folder in Thunderbird. If a message has more than one label, it will appear in multiple folders, which is very cool. To label a message in Thunderbird, move it to the appropriate folder. To create a new label in Gmail, create a new folder in Thunderbird, and so forth.

Subfolders and Slash Labels

If you move a message into a subfolder of a folder in Thunderbird, over in web-based Gmail you'll see a label named parent folder/child folder. Conversely, any labels with forward slashes in them will create subfolders in T-bird. You Folders4Gmail users in Better Gmail may absolutely love this. (Note: the Folders4Gmail script has been updated to support the IMAP forward slash as well as a backslash; Better Gmail to follow very soon. Thanks, Sean!)

Combine Gmail's Spam-killer with Thunderbird's Adaptive Junk Filter

Along the same lines as setting the Sent and Drafts folders to align above, if you enable Thunderbird's Junk filter, make sure it moves junk mail to Gmail's Spam folder so that Gmail marks it as spam as well. That way the bird's adaptive filter can teach Gmail as it learns. Here's that setting:

Get Gmail Goodness in Thunderbird

Thunderbird has a few features built-in or easily added that are similar or match Gmail web-based functionality in a rich desktop app. Like:

Threaded conversation view. Ok, so it's not quite as nice as Gmail's web-based implementation, but you can view messages by thread. Click on the tiny "display message threads" button to see replies in a hierarchical order in Thunderbird. Image by Digg user D14BL0. Here are the results:

Collapse the thread by hitting the - sign, and new replies to a message won't create a whole new line in the list.

  • Gmail search operators and keyboard shortcuts. The GMailUI Thunderbird extension adds Gmail keyboard shortcuts (like y to archive, j/k to move up and down the message list), and Gmail advanced search operators to Thunderbird's search box (like subject:hi from:gidget.)
  • Set the y key to move messages to your [Gmail]/All Mail folder, which will archive messages in Gmail.

There are other Thunderbird keyboard shortcut extensions (I'm also partial to TB Quick Move) but nothing as elegant as Gmail Macros on the web side for you Greasemonkey or Better Gmail users. Let us know if you've got a better alternative.

Enjoy Thunderbird-Specific Features

Getting your Gmail in Thunderbird via IMAP means you get T-bird-specific happiness too, like:

  • Sorting messages by size. Anyone who's had a nearly-full Gmail account knows the tedious, manual process that is freeing up space. In Thunderbird, you can do the one thing Google wouldn't let you do in Gmail: Sort your messages by size, so you can target the space hogs. To do so, hit the small button on the right-most side of the column header list, and select Size to show message sizes. Then click the Size header to sort ascending or descending, and delete the hefty messages directly from Thunderbird. Thanks, Vsack!
  • Drag and drop message import. Want to bring old email from other accounts into Gmail? While connected via IMAP, drag other messages stored in Thunderbird to your Gmail folders, for instant import with all the old message headers intact. Much better than the other convoluted methods we've recommended in the past. Thanks, Irian!
  • Reply before or after the quote. You need a Firefox extension like Better Gmail to do this in web-based Gmail, but in Thunderbird you can easily set whether you want your replies to appear above or below quoted text, as shown in your account preferences:

You can also automatically select the entire quote for easy chopping up in your reply, and set whether your signature appears above or below your quote.

  • Better multiple identity and signature management. Set up multiple "identities" in Thunderbird with email address-specific signatures, which you can't do in web-based Gmail. Hit the "Manage Identities" button in your Account Preferences dialog. The various identities you choose will be available as a dropdown in the From: field in new messages, just like in web-based Gmail. You can also create and automatically attach a vCard to your outgoing messages on a per-identity basis with T-bird, and choose to compose your messages as HTML or plain text per identity, too. (Click to enlarge screenshots of the identity manager.)


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