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02/01/2005 Archived Entry: "New browser and email software"

Something about the new year prompts me to start upgrading software. So in the last week, I've downloaded and installed the Thunderbird email program, the Firefox web browser, and the latest Opera web broswer. Here are my initial reactions.

Thunderbird is basically the standalone version of Mozilla Mail, with a number of tweaks and improvements. I've been using Mozilla Mail as my email program for two years, so I was keen to upgrade.

Downside. The worst problem is the most easily corrected: the Linux Thunderbird came without installation instructions! Worse, neither the download page nor the "readme" file told where to find them. The Thunderbird FAQ gives only Windows instructions! I did finally locate them by searching the Mozilla web site. You have to unpack a tar.gz archive, and then run the "thunderbird" executable...and take note, the program will be installed wherever you unpacked it. Then, if you want it on your desktop or in your launch menu, you have to use your system's menu editor to create the shortcuts by hand. None of this is a task for the newbie! Unless you're at least a low-level guru, you'll need help installing Thunderbird on your Linux system. (On the other hand, this approach has a minimum of system dependencies -- one download for all Linux systems -- and is trivial to uninstall.)

I'd been led to believe that the user interface had been revamped -- it hasn't. It's still the nearly-ubiquitous three-panel email display, with only trivial customizations; no one has yet duplicated Eudora for Linux.

I was also hoping the (very good) filtering features had been improved to allow "forward email" as an option. Alas, no.

I haven't figured out yet how to configure the "default" web browser used by Thunderbird. When I click on a URL in an email, it opens the Firefox browser, not Opera as I would have liked.

Upside. The very worst problem with Mozilla Mail is gone. Under Mozilla, when the web browser was busy loading a page, the mail program would stall (wouldn't display mailboxes or messages). Now that Thunderbird is a standalone program, it doesn't share the display software, so it doesn't get stalled. I can read my email while I surf slow web pages!

Another of my grumbles eliminated: Thunderbird can save attachments automatically to a folder. I always liked this about Eudora, because it meant that a 4 MB attachment didn't bloat my In box by 4 MB. (Under Mozilla, my In box got huge, and I was always having to delete messages in order to delete their attachments.)

And another: Multiple accounts can share a "global" In box. Mozilla required each email account to have a distinct In box, which was a bit of a nuisance when you have several email accounts and you want all of your incoming mail in one place. (However, I've now consolidated my email accounts, and learned to deal with Mozilla's limitation, so I probably won't use this feature much.)

A new feature allows messages to be "grouped" in the folders, by various categories. Since I use labels to tag messages for particular actions, I may find this useful.

There's also a different grouping feature called "saved search folders." Basically this lets you define a search -- always a strong point in Mozilla Mail -- and then have the searched messages appear as a "virtual" folder. I think this is in response to Opera's feature that lets a message appear in multiple folders. Opera's feature seemed clumsy to me; I've yet to try out Thunderbird's version.

Finally, Thunderbird now offers support for RSS news feeds. This does seem to require an associated browser, however, to view the items -- and Firefox has its own RSS support.

Firefox Firefox is the flip side of Thunderbird: the standalone, enhanced version of the Mozilla browser.

Downside. Everything that I said above about installing Thunderbird applies equally to Firefox, in every detail.

Upside. My biggest complaint with Mozilla was it's slowness, and this has been corrected. Firefox is much faster than Mozilla. Even better, Firefox now seems able to display one web page while another web page is loading. With multiple pages open, the Mozilla browser had the same "stalling" problem as Mozilla mail. I surmised that Mozilla used a single graphics rendering engine which was not re-entrant...i.e., couldn't multi-task. This seems to be fixed now.

Also, Firefox now displays the text of a page while the images are still loading. Opera has done this for years, and it makes a huge difference when you're on a dial-up connection! I suspect that Firefox has also followed Opera's lead in using multiple connections to load images in parallel.

I'd heard that the Firefox team ruthlessly pruned unnecesasry icons and taskbars and whatnot from the browser page...and it shows. Almost 90% of the program window is devoted to the web page itself; the tool bars are all narrow. Since I still use 1024x768 and even 800x600 displays, this is a huge benefit!

Firefox also fixes some minor gripes. Opening a web page in a new tab now leaves the first page displayed, and leaves the new page in the background. (This is how I use that feature.) And -- at last! -- when I print a web page, I can select which printer to use. Firefox didn't come with Flash support, but installing it was trivially easy the first time I visited a Flash web page.

Finally, Firefox offers its own support for RSS news feeds. Under Firefox these appear as bookmarks, which makes browsing them particularly easy. I think I prefer this to the Thunderbird approach.

Opera has been my primary browser since mid-December, so I decided to upgrade to the latest version, 7.54. This offers more customization, and RSS support.

Downside. For most people, the main disadvantage of Opera is that you either have to buy a registration, or put up with an advertising window. And that advertising window does consume a good bit of display space. I finally coughed up the US$29 (sale price) to register my copy. (If you use multiple operating systems, one fee is sufficient for all supported platforms.)

Opera stores bookmarks in its own proprietary file format. This may make them faster, but it means I can't share them easily with Mozilla (or Firefox). Mozilla, on the other hand, always stored its bookmarks in an HTML file, so it's easy for me to read them in Opera. Opera can export bookmarks to Mozilla, but it's the kind of operation that you only want to do once, not every day. This isn't an issue if you only use one browser, but I use three.

I didn't evaluate the Opera email client; I looked at this last year and found that their handling of labels and folders wasn't to my liking. But that's a matter of taste.

Upside. As befits a company trying to sell a product, Opera is really easy to install. Their download page deduced that I was running Xandros Linux, asked me which version, and offered the appropriate DEB package, which is what Xandros' install/remove tool wants to see. A few clicks, and the program was installed and in my menus.

Opera still seems to me to be faster than Firefox, e.g. when I switch tabs.

Also, I still prefer the much-more-informative Opera status bar, which tells me how much of a web page has loaded, how many images have loaded and remain to load, how much time has elapsed, and what transfer rate I'm seeing. When a web page stalls, I can usually tell if it's the web server or the DNS.

Opera and Mozilla/Firefox take different approaches to changing font size, and each has its place. Opera provides a "zoom" control which enlarges/reduces everything, including images. Sometimes this is nice to see a tiny image on a web page. But usually I want to enlarge just the text, not the images; and this is what Firefox does. This is a tossup as far as I'm concerned.

It's true that, as distributed, Opera devotes less window space to the web page, and more to its various tool bars. But this is supremely customizable with Opera. In about ten minutes, I managed to remove all the controls I don't use, and rearrange the remainder to use less space. When I did this, I found that I had as much window space for the actual web page as with Firefox! I've taken a screen snapshot (227 KB), showing the two browsers side by side, so you can see this for yourself. (Firefox is on the left.)

Bottom line. I think that Firefox and Opera are simply the two best browsers available today. They are steadily converging, as they adopt each other's best features; choosing between the two is largely a matter of taste. I'll be using mainly Opera, but I'm sure Wendy will prefer Firefox. Opera is easier to install on Linux, but costs a small bit to get rid of the ads.

Thunderbird is a worthwhile upgrade to Mozilla Mail. But if you're a non-technical Linux user, and Mozilla came with your distribution, and you haven't been bothered by speed issues, and you don't need the new features, then you may be better advised to sit tight....at least until they've improved the installation instructions.

If you're a Windows user, these should all be easy to install; and it's worth whatever installation effort it takes to get rid of the security flaws of Outlook and Internet Explorer.

Thunderbird, Firefox, and Opera are all available for Windows, Linux, and Mac.


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