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As much as I’d love to be able to tell you to have your customers dump their copies of Outlook and Outlook Express for Thunderbird, I can’t do that … yet.

But if you’re willing to work at it, you can make Thunderbird, Mozilla’s open-source e-mail client, a lot more useful even while you’re waiting for the next version to make its appearance.

For example, while Thunderbird has many great search capabilities, they just don’t seem to work that well for users like myself who have thousands and thousands of messages. All too often, the various search functions don’t find the message I’m looking for.

Of course, I use filters to automatically make my mail more manageable, and Thunderbird has outstanding filters that are easy to set up. If you’re not using filters yet, start now. Just setting up something as simple as automatically sending all mail from your fellow workers’ domain into a folder named “My Company” can make your life a lot easier.

You can set up filters with the Tools/Message Filters command.

This brings up the Message filters window, which displays your existing filters. From here, you click on New, and that brings you to the Filter Rules window.

From here, you can set up the filters to sort your messages automatically. For example, I work for Ziff Davis Media, so I have a filter that automatically drops everything from anyone with the mail domain “” into my “Ziff” folder.

You can do more than just a simple filter. You can set them to spot messages and sort them on several different criteria at once. For instance, I’ve set up a folder called “Linus Torvalds” for any message I might get with the subject containing the word “Linux” from some guy with the last name of Torvalds. The drop-down menus make setting up even very complex filters a snap.

Click here to read Channel Insider’s review of the Thunderbird e-mail package.

If you want to get even fancier, you can also use a Saved Search, or virtual folder, filter. With these, you run even more complex searches. Say I want to see only messages from my Ziff Davis bosses. I can do that too with a saved search.

This time, I head over to the Edit menu and choose Find/Search Messages. After you set up and run your search, you’re given the option of saving it. From this time on, any time you run Thunderbird, the search runs automatically and presents its results as a virtual folder. For all practical purposes, though, it looks just like any other mail folder you might have set up.

A saved search is useful when you regularly want to search for a given set of messages. For example, I have a saved search called “Boss Talk.” What it does is automatically search my Ziff folder for messages to me from either of my two bosses. That way, I can always find what my bosses want me to do without any fuss or muss.

While this filter and search functionality works well, it’s not perfect. It’s when I try to find all the messages out of the thousands I keep with the phrase “Wi-Fi compatibility” and the word “Linux” in them that things don’t turn out well.

While Thunderbird can’t help me with that yet, there’s another freeware program that can: Google Desktop Search. For those of us who don’t know it, it does everything Google does except that it searches only on your PC. Unfortunately, without tweaking, you can’t use it on your network drives. Since I keep my Thunderbird mail files on my local drive, that’s not a problem.

With Google Desktop Search, I can pinpoint messages on almost any search criteria I can come up with, and I don’t have to worry about deciding which folder to search on. Google automatically searches them all.

That can be a mixed blessing. For example, when I search for MSDN (Microsoft Developers Network), I find not only notes from MSDN; I also find junk mail boasting of low prices on MSDN software.

Still, by setting up the right search and using a critical eye on your results, Thunderbird and Google Desktop Search make finding the information you need, when you need it, a snap.

Of course, that’s only if I’m sitting at that one particular machine. Like many of you, I spend a good deal of my time on the road. That, in turn, means I need to find things in my e-mail whether I’m sitting at my office desktop or in a Best Western hotel room.

MozBackup transports messages from one machine to another

To take care of this problem I use MozBackup.This handy freeware, Windows-only program enables you to create backups of all your e-mail settings and messages and then lets you restore them to another system.

In addition to Thunderbird, MozBackup enables you to migrate settings between Mozilla and Firefox as well.

I’ve found it to be the easiest-to-use tool ever for transporting local messages from one PC to another for any e-mail program, not just Thunderbird.

Read more here about Mozilla’s Thunderbird e-mail system.

The program automatically copies your settings and messages to a file with the date within its name so you can’t mistakenly “update” your laptop with last week’s backup.

I usually use it by backing up one’s machine mail to a network drive. I can then update the other PC’s mail by using MozBackup to restore the mail on the other machine. You could also, however, use a burnable CD-ROM or USB drive.

You also have the option of securing the file with a password. This is well worth doing since otherwise anyone with a copy of MozBackup could grab all your mail and e-mail client settings if they could reach the file.

Finally, let me say a few words about Thunderbird’s spam protection. It’s a system that learns from you what’s spam and what’s not. It doesn’t take long for it to pick up your criteria, but you do have to take the time to train it in the first place by marking messages as spam. This is well worth your time and trouble. Just do it.

Even better, from where I sit, Thunderbird includes an automatic whitemail system. Thus, whenever you send a message to someone, Thunderbird automatically sets it so that if they write you back it won’t be flagged as spam, even if they write to you about how their young girlfriend is so impressed by their new Rolex watch—a message that otherwise would almost certainly be flagged as spam.

That said, I still see too much spam. So, I use an addition spam filter on my PC to keep myself from being buried in ads for V*IGara. My favorite two anti-spam programs to use with Thunderbird are the open-source POPfile and Norton Anti-Spam.

Both also require some training, but once you’re done … well let me just say that Thunderbird alone catches about 70 percent of the spam sent my way. With either of the other two brought up to snuff, 90 percent of all my spam is zapped.

Of course, you need to be careful when you use any anti-spam tool and even more when you use two together. That’s because it becomes a lot easier for a good message to be tagged as spam and never seen again.

Still, with work, I’ve gotten myself to a point where I almost never see a good message misidentified as spam.

Taken all in all, I have to say that I’ve arranged things with Thunderbird so it’s now my favorite stand-alone e-mail client. As it improves, I think it’s likely to become everyone’s favorite as well.