Improving Thunderbird on Linux


As it should be apparent by now, I’ve completely moved off of Windows and moved to Linux for my servers and desktops.  As part of that move I had to find a new mail client, as Outlook has been my go to app for years.

The obvious choice is Thunderbird, its cross-platform and is mature, supporting everything I need, including contacts and calendar from NextCloud.

Unfortunately, the default configuration of Thunderbird on Linux looks a little… well.. terrible to be honest:

This might have been acceptable 10 years ago, but in comparison to a modern version of Outlook, it’s hard to take that big of step backwards.

But what if it could look like this instead:

Well that looks a little better doesn’t it?

To accomplish this there are several steps/requirements:

  • You must be using Thunderbird 60 or above.
  • You have to be comfortable editing TB’s advanced settings.
  • You have to install a custom theme/add-on.
  • You have to customize the toolbars.
  • And add a few extensions and other settings as well.

So here’s each step broken down.

Note: This guide is for Linux, but all of the below customizations should work on Windows as well, but I haven’t tested them so try at your own risk.

Install Thunderbird 60

I’m not going to go in to any detail on this, your distro will probably already have a package all ready for you, so either go to your software store or command line and download it.

If you’re not sure which version is installed, just go to the Thunderbird Menu -> Help -> About dialog and it will be there for you.

Hiding the Application Title Bar

One of the most annoying things about Thunderbird and Firefox is that on Linux, by default, they don’t use client side decorations (the min/max/close buttons) and therefore require the application title bar to be present, wasting screen real estate.

For Firefox, there’s a simple check mark in the customization screen to either enable or disable the title bar, but Thunderbird for some reason decided not to add that.  It still has the functionality, just not the UI to make it easy to enable.

So, as per this helpful article, do the following:

  1. Go to the Thunderbird Menu
  2. Select Preferences -> Preferences
  3. Select the Advanced tab and the General sub tab
  4. Click the Config Editor button near the bottom
  5. If this is your first time running it, accept the warning and tell it to go away for good 😉
  6. In the search field, enter (without the quotes) “mail.tabs.drawInTitlebar”
  7. Double click on the preference name in the list below and Thunderbird should now be titleless (you may need a restart if it isn’t)

Adding A New Theme

This is a little tricky, because if you’ve ever added a theme before, we’re not going to do it that way.

Instead, what we’re really going to do is add an extension:

  1. Go to the Thunderbird Menu
  2. Selection Add-ons -> Add-ons (the add-on manager should be displayed)
  3. In the left had menu, select Extensions
  4. In the search field at the top right, enter “Monterail” (again, without the quotes)
  5. Three items should show up in a new tab:
    1. Monterail (a blue coloured theme, but has some issues with add-ons like Lightning due to contrast)
    2. Moterail Dark (the version I used in the screen shot above)
    3. Monterail Full Dark (makes the message list background dark as well)
  6. Select “Add to Thunderbird” for the theme you want to use
  7. Restart Thunderbird

When Thunderbird restarts it will be using the selected theme, and if you go to the add-ons page you’ll notice that there is no extension that matches the new theme, but instead it is listed under Themes.

Customize Your Toolbars

This is probably the easiest part of this change, but the most tedious as well, all of the below are optional and you may select which ones you want to add, step one is to open the customizer by right clicking on the toolbar and select Customize, then:

  • Move the Thunderbird menu all the way to the left
  • Add a divider between the Thunderbird menu and the first item
  • Remove the Get Messages, Chat, Address Book, Tag, and Quick Filter buttons.
  • Add Reply, Reply All, and Forward buttons
  • Add another divider
  • Add the File and Delete buttons
  • Add a divider
  • Add the Print button
  • Add a divider
  • On the right of the search bar, add a spacer

Once that is done, at the bottom of the customizer window should be a “Show:” combo box, select “Icons and Text” and then close the customizer.

Now, go and open and e-mail and repeat pretty much all of the above and remove the duplice buttons below the message toolbar as well 😉

Extensions And Other Settings

In addition to the above, there are a few other extensions you may want to use:

  • Hide Local Folders: By default Thunderbird shows some local folders to support POP accounts, but if you don’t have any, they’re redundant so this extension hides them from the list.
  • FireTray: Thunderbird doesn’t have a very good way of showing new mail, this extension adds a gnome tray icon which you can customize.  unfortunately FireTray hasn’t been updated for Thunderbird 60 support yet (and may never be), fortunately someone else has forked it and updated.  unfortunately it’s not in the Thunderbird Extension store yet, you’ll have to grab it from the GitHub Repo directly.
  • LookOut (fixed version): If you’re sending messages back and forth with Outlook users, this will add support for Microsoft’s proprietary message extensions.
  • CardBook: For getting your contacts from NextCloud or other CardDAV servers.
  • Lightning: For getting your calendar from NextCloud or other CalDAV servers.

There are a few other settings you might consider:

  • Hide the message pane via Menu -> Preferences -> Layout -> Message Pane
  • Hide the Quick Filter bar, either by clicking the button before you remove it above or via Menu -> Preferences -> Quick Filter Bar
  • Open messages in a new window via Menu -> Preferences -> Display -> Advanced
  • Close message window on move delete is the same place as above
  • Disable the crash reporter via Menu -> Preferences -> Advanced -> Data Choices

What Else Could Be Improved?

After you finish with the above, you’ll have a much better Thunderbird experience than you get out of the box, but it’s not perfect:

  • The message list is from the 90’s (ok, maybe the 2000’s).  Specifically each field is one column in the list, which makes poor use of the horizontal space.  Outlook moved away from this years ago.  Unfortunately we’re going to have to wait for Thunderbird to fix it themselves as the research I did seems to be pretty clear an add-on can’t fix this.
  • When you compose a message, you get the full, ugly drop down menu at the top of the window.  I did find a plugin that hides it, but not until after it’s been displayed so I don’t think that’s better.
  • The hamburder menu is ugly, this isn’t specific to Thunderbird, I just think all hamburger menus are ugly.  The “blue” Monterail theme does replace it with a little Thunderbird logo, so it is possible to change, but it looks like a complete new theme is required to do so.
  • Remove the tabs.  I know most people like them, and for a web browser they probably make sense, but for a mail client they just rub me the wrong way.  Being able to disable them would be nice but I don’t expect it to happen.

And that’s it… happy Thunderbirding!



[sc:software-category ]Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while will know that I was a big fan of Opera, right up until they moved to Chromium for their rendering engine.  It wasn’t the choice of Chromium per say (though I do think they had a lot of benefits writing their own engine) but the complete change in direction of the browser.

Opera moved from being a great user experience to being just a clone of Chrome in a single version and the complete lack of features really ended my use of it.

Well it looks like the founder of Opera feels the same way and he’s created a new browser, Vivaldi, which looks like it will bring back the old Opera’s design philosophy.

It’s currently available as a technical preview and it certainly has its limits at this point but it’s already better than the current Opera releases.  While it uses the Chromium engine as well, it looks to be a very tight team developing it and hopefully that will bring the kind of features more advanced users want in their browser.

Messeging Apps: Threema

[sc:software-category ]There is a plethora of messaging apps out there these days but most of them are tied/owned to big social networks of some kind.

I recently talked a bit about Bleep but development of it has been pretty slow.  I found Threema in the Windows Phone Store and decided to give it a go.

First things first, it’s not free, but that’s to be expected.  Threema focuses on security and that pretty much negates a “free” business model that involves advertising as their revenue stream.

It is cross-platform, so you don’t have to have Windows Phone to use it, though there is no Windows version.

Setup is simple, they use a random sample of swiping to generate and private/public key pair and then your off t the races.

Threema is both secure and can be anonymous as well as it doesn’t require you to enter your phone number of e-mail address as part of the sign-up process.

Of course you have to find someone else who has Threema to message them but that isn’t a big hurdle since the app is only $1.99.

Adding contacts is perhaps the only weak point I found with Threema.  A friend downloaded it and I scanned the QR code for him.  It added him to my contacts and so I sent him a message.  On his end, there wasn’t an obvious way to add me to his contacts (without scanning my QR code) but after fiddling around a bit we found you could start a new chat with me and then add my to the contacts list from there.

Threema supports group chats and delivery and read receipts and just about everything else you might want in a messaging app so I’m going to see if I can get a few more people on it and give it a good work out.

I’m still interested to see what happens with Bleep, but it may be a while before anything happens with it and even longer still before there is a Windows Phone version.

BitTorrent Sync

[sc:software-category ]Using cloud services to store my data isn’t something I’ve been a big fan of, I do use OneDrive a bit, but only for things that aren’t very important but I need to share with others.

BitTorrent Sync on the other hand looks to solve many of the concerns I have and provide a solution that keeps control of your content in your own hands.

It’s still beta at the moment and I think I’ll wait till it’s out of beta to give it a try, but I’m defiantly interested in it.

Messaging Apps: Bleep

[sc:software-category ]Messaging apps have been centralized services for a long time, but Bleep from BitTorrent looks to change that.

Currently I have four different messaging apps that I use; Skype, WhatsApp, Viber and BBM.  They all have a centralized service of some kind (Skype being a kind of exception but not really) and security is not a high priority with any of them.

Bleep uses the BitTorrent protocol to make s distributed network with encryption built-in and no centralized servers.

If they can get broad OS support I’ll be very interested in moving away from all of my other messaging apps on to Bleep.