Font settings in Thunderbird

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This article was written for Thunderbird 1.5. For earlier versions, the menu sequences described below may differ.

This article provides an overview of the various font/character settings in Thunderbird, which are often a source of confusion for new users. Broadly speaking, font settings can apply to three things in Thunderbird—message display, message composition, and the Thunderbird user-interface—and the settings for each are controlled separately. Please ask for help with font-related issues in the MozillaZine forums.


Basic terminology

Key concepts and terms related to font/character settings in Thunderbird:

  • Text format: plain text vs. HTML—see the overview in the plain text e-mail article.
  • Character width: variable width (proportional) vs. fixed width (monospace)—in fixed width fonts, all characters are the same width. E.g., "i" and "l" are not narrower than "w" and "O", as they would be in a variable width font (visual examples). Traditionally, plain text messages are viewed in a fixed width font, but you can set Thunderbird to use a variable width font if you prefer.
  • Font style: serif vs. sans-serif—see these visual examples. Serif is the default variable width font style in Thunderbird, but you can change it to sans-serif if you prefer.
  • Character encoding—most likely you won't need to worry about this unless you send/receive messages in more than one language. E.g., if you send a message containing Japanese characters, you won't want to use to "Western" character encoding because the Japanese characters won't get rendered properly.

Message display

This refers to what messages look like when you view them. Changing the message display settings will not affect your outgoing messages in any way. For instance, if you set Thunderbird to display messages in Verdana font, size 24 (pixels), this does not mean that your outgoing messages will be sent in the same font and same size by default.

Settings via the Options/Preferences dialog

On Windows, these settings are accessed in Thunderbird via "Tools -> Options -> Display". Linux and Mac OS X users, see Menu differences in Windows, Linux, and Mac.

  • Text format ("Tools -> Options -> Display -> Formatting"): if you don't like viewing plain text messages using a fixed width font, this is where you can change it to use variable width instead.
  • Font and font size ("Tools -> Options -> Display -> Fonts -> Fonts..."):
    • Using the "Proportional" pulldown menu (screenshot), you can choose either "Serif" or "Sans-serif" as your default variable width font. Using the "Serif" and "Sans-serif" pulldown menus, you can choose the specific fonts (Arial, Times New Roman, etc.) that you want to use for each font style.
    • Font sizes are set separately for "Proportional" (variable width) and "Monospace" (fixed width) fonts.
    • Minimum font size: it's useful to choose a minimum font size if you sometimes receive HTML-formatted messages where the sender uses font size that's too small on your monitor. Overly small text will be enlarged to you minimum font size so that you can read it more easily.
    • Language-specific font settings: in addition to your standard font settings, you can also adjust the font settings for other languages that you use. In the "Fonts for" pulldown menu, select the language you want to change (e.g., "Japanese"), and then make your font settings as desired.
  • Character encoding ("Tools -> Options -> Display -> Fonts"):
    • Thunderbird will normally auto-detect the character-encoding of messages that you view, but you can set a default character encoding for message display by using the "Incoming Mail" pulldown menu.
    • "Outoing Mail" pulldown menu: although this is listed in the "Display" dialog, it's actually not a message display setting. Instead, it applies to messages that you send (see the "Message composition" section below).

Other message display settings

  • Font size (temporary): "View -> Text Size", then select "Increase" or "Decrease" to temporarily display the text in a larger or smaller size. This will reset to "Normal" the next time you start up Thunderbird. Keyboard shortcuts: hold down the "Ctrl" key and press "+" to increase the text size, "-" to decrease the text size, or "0" to reset it to normal.
  • HTML simplification: "View -> Message Body As -> Original HTML / Simple HTML / Plain Text". The "Simple HTML" choice seems to display messages without any HTML formatting except bold and italics.
  • Signature color: text below the signature separator ("-- ") is normally displayed in gray rather than black. Advanced users can set a different display color as described here.

Message composition

These font/character settings apply to messages that you compose and send.

Setting your standard preferences

  • HTML or plain-text compose: which do you want to normally use when composing messages? If you normally want to compose in HTML, go to "Tools -> Account Settings -> [account name] Composition & Addressing" and check the box for "Compose messages in HTML format". This is an account-specific setting and thus must be set individually for each of your accounts.
  • HTML font preferences, for when you do compose messages in HTML mode: these settings are accessed via "Tools -> Options -> Composition -> General -> HTML Options".
    • Font: "Variable width" is default. Using "Variable width" actually doesn't do anything to the text in the message body; it just leaves the font style unspecified. Using "Fixed width" means that your message text will specifically be marked as fixed width (using [ <tt> tags]).
    • Size: "Medium" is default, and using this actually just leaves the font size unspecified. This is the recommended setting, since recipients will then see your message text displayed according to the default font-size settings in their mail clients. Keep in mind that people do not all have their monitor resolutions set the same as yours, so that if you choose a larger or smaller font size because it looks "right" on your monitor, you can't be sure how it will look on the recipient's monitor.
    • Color: if you must.
  • Outgoing character encoding: as noted above, although this is really a setting for outgoing mail, it is listed among the message display settings in "Tools -> Options" -> Display -> Fonts". Use the "Outgoing Mail" pulldown menu to specify your default encoding for messages you compose.
  • HTML send options (via "Tools -> Options -> Composition -> General -> Send Options..."): use the "Text Format" pulldown menu to tell Thunderbird how to handle your outgoing HTML-formatted messages. Keep in mind that even though you may normally compose in HTML mode, it doesn't mean you have to normally send your messages with HTML formatting.

Per-message settings

Things you can change when composing a message, to override your standard font preferences:

  • HTML/plain-text compose: hold down the "Shift" key and click on the "Write" button to compose a message in the mode that's not your default.
  • Fonts in HTML compose: in the Compose window, you can choose any font from the Formatting toolbar. As noted above, if you choose "Proportional" as the font for all or part of the message text, this will simply leave the font unspecified.
  • Character encoding can also be specified on a per-message basis, inside the Compose window via "Options -> Character Encoding".

Thunderbird user-interface

This refers to the menus, folder pane, message-list pane, and other parts of the Thunderbird user-interface. Advanced users can control the fonts used in the Thunderbird interface by editing the userChrome.css file. For instance, this article explains how the change fonts used in menus and window panes. You'll find other examples among the visual customizations articles.

Bug reports

If you've come across a font-related bug in Thunderbird, please ask about it in the MozillaZine forums or search Bugzilla to see if it's already been reported.

  • Thunderbird UI uses two sets of terms for font width [1]
  • If you use a variable width font such as Verdana for your standard fixed width font, there may be wrapping problems when composing in plain text [2].
  • On Japanese WinXP, Thunderbird 1.5, switching between "Serif" and "Sans-serif" for "Proportional" font seems to be work only in the Compose window, not in the preview pane [3].

See also

External links

Wikipedia articles: