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Review: Sunbird 0.8

At a Glance
  • Mozilla Sunbird 0.8

    Macworld Rating

Sunbird is a free calendar program from the Mozilla Foundation's Calendar Project. It's aimed at people who like and use Mozilla's other excellent products, the Firefox ( ) browser and/or the Thunderbird ( ) e-mail client. Sunbird 0.8 is not nearly as mature a product as its older siblings, Firefox and Thunderbird in terms of looks and features and development has been slow and uneven. To get help with the program, you have to go to the Web and poke around (no help files ship with the program, though there's a detailed FAQ). Then again, you might not need much help, as Sunbird is stable and easy to use.

Stand-alone or add-on?

In many respects, Sunbird is similar to iCal. It allows you to create multiple calendars, quickly enter appointments and day-long events, invite others to these events, and set alarms that notify you that something important is coming up. Sunbird also has a task management feature, something that iCal lacks.

But, in many respects, Sunbird is quite different from iCal. It is available not just for Mac OS X, but also for Windows and Linux. It has a look and feel that's common to all three platforms but not specific to any, which may be helpful if you have to use it on different computers running different operating systems. But if you use it in Mac OS X only, be prepared for it to be a bit homely compared to the slick OS X interfaces you may be used to. Sunbird is somewhat customizable, because, like its older siblings, Sunbird supports add-ons that can change its look and augment its features. In fact, Sunbird itself is available as an add-on to Thunderbird, called Lightning. The major difference between Sunbird and Lightning is the mode of installation. If you use Thunderbird as your e-mail client, I recommend that you install Lightning. If you don't, you'd use Sunbird, the stand-alone program.

My calendar or yours?

Sunbird's calendar is the heart of the program. It does what iCal and most other calendar programs do, but it has a couple of special tricks. In addition to the usual grid views for month, week, and day, Sunbird lets you view a week in rotated view, where each day's events are oriented horizontally rather than vertically. Sunbird lets you assign events and tasks to categories as well as calendars, which is very useful, as it allows you to organize your events in more than one way or to create sub-groups within a calendar for different projects. When you create a new event or task, Sunbird lets you assign individual privacy levels to that task, so even if your Personal calendar is shared with your family, you can still use that calendar to plan a surprise birthday party for your wife without spilling the beans.

Sunbird also lets you invite others to events, but it uses the Thunderbird address book rather than Mac OS X's Address Book. If you use Thunderbird for e-mail, this is a plus; but if you don't, it may be a deal breaker. The other main weakness of Sunbird's calendar feature is that the notification options are rather limited, compared to those available in iCal or in Google's online calendar ( ).

Sunbird's look and feel is not as slick as iCal's but its to-do feature has some advantages over iCal's: you can assign Sunbird to-do items to categories as well as calendars, and you can track the progress of a task. A nice list view with columns makes it easy to get an overview of your tasks.

While it's easy to get iCal to send you an e-mail and Google Calendar to send a text message to your cell phone, Sunbird's main alert option is a pop-up on your computer accompanied by the sound of your choice.

Earlier versions of Sunbird made it difficult for Mac users to print calendars but this has changed in version 0.8. Mac users can now print in a variety of printing formats. As with everything else in Sunbird, the printing options are not as attractive as those in iCal, but they are serviceable.

Tasks vs. to-dos

In iCal, they are called to-do items. In Sunbird, they are called tasks. The difference in terms reflects that Sunbird takes them a bit more seriously, and here, Sunbird has the advantage. Like dated events, tasks can be assigned to categories as well as calendars. The status of tasks in Sunbird has several intelligent options (needs action, in progress, completed, and canceled) and if you want to get granular, you can show how close you are to completing a task by entering a percentage. And Sunbird's tasks list allows you to review your tasks quickly and see everything you want to see. The list is configurable and, if you want to push things, it can show 11 different task parameters in individual sortable columns. If you find iCal's to-do feature too limiting, you may like Sunbird better.

Sharing

Sunbird can publish its own calendars and subscribe to others. I had some difficulty getting details from online calendars in the .ics format (which iCal uses) to appear in Sunbird, but Sunbird is still a work in progress. I did not test this capability, but like iCal 3.0.3, Sunbird supports the CalDAV protocol. If you have a workgroup that includes a few PCs, you can serve your calendars using iCal Server (a CalDAV service) while the Macs use iCal, the PCs could run Sunbird.

As someone who has to use different computers and operating systems throughout the day, one sharing feature that I do like about Sunbird is how easy it is to share information between Sunbird on your desktop and Google Calendar online. To do this, you need to install the Provider for Google Calendar add-on and do a little setup. If you work on Windows or Linux, there's a tiny version of Sunbird called Sunbird Portable that will install and keep your calendar on a USB thumb drive that you can carry around and run on any computer; unfortunately, Sunbird Portable is not presently available for Mac OS X.

Macworld's buying advice

Most individual Mac OS X users will find iCal 3.0.3 a better choice than Sunbird 0.8, because iCal works so well with other parts of the operating system, including Address Book and Mail ( ) on your computer and .Mac online (soon to become MobileMe). iCal is easier to use than Sunbird because its interface is cleaner, and iCal is nicer to look at, too. iCal's notifications—a very important part of a calendar program—are much better than Sunbird's. But if you use the Thunderbird e-mail client, or if you need to access a calendar on a server from different computers running different operating systems, or if you need a bit more help than iCal provides for managing your tasks, then Sunbird is definitely worth a look. And, like iCal, Sunbird is free.

[William Porter is a database developer and event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.]

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At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Supports exchange of events with Google calendar (via add-on)
    • Lightning add-on to Thunderbird e-mail client adds Sunbird calendar inside Thunderbird
    • Runs on Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux

    Cons

    • Look is not Mac OS X style
    • Very limited notification options
    • Sunbird's to-do feature is no better than iCal's
    • Doesn't support Mac OS X technologies like iSync and Address Book
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