15 November 2010

How to live without Outlook

As part of my series on ‘How to Live without Microsoft’ and bored of Outlook’s crashes and hogging of my computer I look for alternatives.

I've been using the various Outlook incantations for over 15 years. I think its a great concept and at times has been a great product but I'm just fed up with it. It hogs memory and it stores all MY information in its own bespoke Microsoft format like some spoilt child.

I have tried to turn away from this beast in times past but always been forced to return by the fact that I wanted to have a smartphone which synced seamlessly with my desktop calendar and particularly tasks. At the time that meant a Windows smart phone, which of course meant it was tied in with their utter delight in a complete lack of shared or sharing formats (although I have to say MS have been a lot better at this of late).

This morning Outlook took over 10 minutes to load, crashed when I tried to start writing an email (how dare I!), and then spent the next 5 minutes providing Microsoft with information about just how bad it had been. Enough is enough.

I knew about Mozilla Thunderbird from using Linux distributions and past attempts at abandoning Outlook. I found it to be a good email client but lacking in some areas: notably calendar and tasks. Since that time however GMail has come along, Thunderbird has matured and there are more add-ins for it available. I found dmfield’s post (here) on setting up Thunderbird which happens to be quite old and on a Linux forum, but that’s what I’m talking about: to my mind programs should work in much the same whatever platform I as the user chose (or are forced by circumstance) to run them on.

His post got me started (although some things were a little different and I searched for the plugins independently rather than using his links in case they were out of date).

The Process


  1. Get a Google Mail account (or Google for your domain)
  2. Install Thunderbird. If like me you use a separate disk for files, you might like to change where the profile information is stored.
  3. Run it, It will ask for your email address and password and then do the rest for you, although if like me you have a huge backlog of mails on the server you might want to restrict it to downloading only the last x days in Tools, Account Settings, [Account Name] Sync & Storage.


  1. Install Thunderbird plugins (which I’ve linked to here but you can find from Thunderbird, Tools, Add-ons, search:
    1. Lightning (Thunderbird Calendar)
    2. Provider for Google Calendar (to sync the calendar)
  2. Setup calendar: Refer to this link. NB the find the URL by going to Google Calendar, Settings, Calendar Settings, Calendars, Click on name of calendar you’re interested in, Right click Private Address XML link at the bottom and select ‘Copy Link Location’.


I found two options for syncing contacts with Thunderbird: Zindus and gContactSync. As of writing addresses aren’t sync’d between them and GMail by default. When enabled in Zindus they are done in a odd way,  see this page as to why so I went with gContactSync which for me seemed to handle them a little better.

  1. Get your Contacts out of Outlook:
    • If you have Google Apps for Education/Business then Install Google Apps Sync for MS Outlook and run it. NB: If you get “Google Apps Sync is not enabled for your email account. Please ask your domain administrator to enable it.” then you need to administer your domain.
    • If you don’t have Google Apps for Education/Business then do a one time export from Outlook and Import into GMail. NB: with this method any changes you make to your Contacts in Outlook will NOT be sync'd. This is not appropriate if you are going to continue using Outlook e.g. as an ‘bridge’ to sync to an old Nokia phone or something.
  2. Find and Merge Duplicates in GMail Contacts.
  3. Install Thunderbird plugin (gContactSync or Zindus) (to sync contacts).
  4. Setup Contact sync. Consider syncing with a specific address book (e.g. called gContacts) and not the Personal Address book until you're satisfied its working ok:
    • gContactSync: Select gContactSync from the top menu, enter your required settings. NB as of writing you need to enable Address sync as it is disabled by default: gContactSync, Preferences, Advanced,  Sync postal addresses.
    • Zindus: Under Tools, Zindus add your GMail settings. NB: As of writing Addresses are an optional Advanced option, disabled by default.


Currently there is no working sync for Google tasks as its not available via the API but it is likely to be released soon: http://gmailblog.blogspot.com/2011/01/top-tasks-for-google-tasks.html

In Addition

I also installed a plugin to enable calling via Skype from the address book: TBDialOut (I found selecting callto: and adding prefix +44 in options worked).

More Security

If you want more security in Google Apps you can enforce https connections under Domain Settings, [edit] and you can now add ‘two-tier’ authentication where it sends an SMS to your mobile to clarify ownership. For programs that don’t support two-tier authentication then you’ll have to create an “Application Specific Password” which is possible under Settings/Account Settings/ Authorizing Applications/Generate new app-specific password. You then just enter this where you normally enter your password.


I don’t have a working contact sync across the board yet as I have some legacy Exchange data to deal with, and tasks is quite a disappointment but it is working well so far for mail and calendar.

Other posts in the series:

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