Gmail and Thunderbird (Conversations + Threading)

Man! What a long and frustrating journey… here is how it started.

I am subscribed to a programming discussion mailing list at UNC Chapel Hill which can get very bursty at times. The problem is that its very hard to find out the relationship between posts in Gmail’s conversation view. I really like message threading in such cases as it helps me follow subtopics etc. I don’t mind having a separate message viewing pane for message viewing.

So I searched ( a lot! ) for a webmail or otherwise mail client which would help me see the message threading but let me keep my email in gmail. The only thing that looked half decent was zoho’s email ( this page shows the kind of UI zoho mail provides). However, the main mail view is still list based and you have to select a mail and opt to view it separately in a conversation + threading style. I wish they had provided threading as an option in the main mail view.

After a futile search for a webmail app (I preferred webmail so that I can store all my preferences/settings at one place) I bit the bullet and downloaded thunderbird 2. Thunderbird does provide a threading view ( I like keeping a 3 pane vertical view with a threaded list of messages in the middle pane). Below is a collection of tips and tricks (some collected from other sources) to get to my conversations + threading setup. Thunderbird IMAP setup for Gmail is officially detailed here.

  • Gmail IMAP behavior: Gmail labels show as folders in IMAP. So the actual behavior in IMAP causes a corresponding non-conventional behavior in Gmail. This diagram shows it all

    Gmail IMAP behavior

    Gmail IMAP behavior

  • Gmail Conversations: The good thing about gmail conversations is that it shows related incoming and outgoing messages together. By default, Thunderbird threading (say in Inbox) will only show you incoming messages. Thunderbird doesn’t allow you to merge the Inbox and Sent Mail folders in a view (search folders through which you may be able to create a view don’t support threaded display… 😦 ). So I resorted to the following hack. I copy sent mails to Inbox instead of a Sent mail folder ( Google recommends not to do anything for sent items as it automatically stores and tags sent messages with “Sent Mail” ). This basically just adds the Inbox tag to all my sent mail. Now, I can just thread the Inbox view to see all related messages together with threading.
  • Drafts and Templates: I set the Draft and Templates folders ( Thunderbird account settings ) to the Gmail Drafts folder.
  • Gmail Trash folder with Thunderbird: Thunderbird doesn’t allow me to change its trash folder from the UI. The default Trash folder causes an [Imap]/Trash label to be created. The work around ( courtesy lifehacker’s guide to Gmail + Thunderbird ) is to add a mail.server.server<x>.trash_folder_name = [Gmail]/Trash config string through the config editor ( Tools -> Options -> Advanced -> Config Editor ). After that, I removed the [Imap]/Trash label using Gmail’s web interface.
    I also set the “When I delete a message:” to “Remove it immediately” in my Tools -> Account Settings -> Server Settings. I didn’t want my messages I archived ( by deleting from Inbox ) to be moved to Trash.

I hope this helps others with their own Thunderbird + Gmail configurations.

Threading is not the only reason why I shifted to Thunderbird. Gmail’s webmail interface is heavy on compute and memory resources. Thunderbird consumes < 20MB to show me the threaded conversations view of my inbox (~25 messages). However, this quickly climbs up to 100+MB if I try viewing a large folder such as [Gmail]/All Mail. I do that only when I am searching for something.

I also integrated Google calendar into thunderbird by installing the Lightning and Google Calendar provider addons.

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12 Responses to Gmail and Thunderbird (Conversations + Threading)

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  4. Dan Roberts says:

    I somehow overlooked the thread view capability of Thunderbird so thank you for posting this info.

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  8. Pete Farmer says:

    > Thunderbird doesn’t allow you to merge the Inbox and Sent Mail folders in a view (search folders through which you may be able to create a view don’t support threaded display…

    I happened on your 2-year-old post via Google. Here’s another tip. In addition to having Thunderbird place a copy of sent messages to “Inbox,” use the Thunderbird extension “Show InOut” ( This adds two columns to the list of mails — one with an indicator whether a mail is incoming or outgoing, and the other to show the sender or the recipient of the mail, as appropriate.

    These columns are designed to replace the sender and recipient columns for people who mix their incoming and outgoing mails in one folder.

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