Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Best Way to Keep Outlook Express Address Book Automatically Synchronized with Google Contacts

UPDATE: MAY 30, 2015

Seems like the latest update to Thunderbird 31.7.0 a week or so ago, may have broken the Google Contacts plugin.  It keeps popping up asking for password and no longer updates the contact list.  Several people have commented about it on this on the plugin author's site, but so far there has been no response.

I just tried a different plugin that seems to work well. If you already have Google Contacts installed, first go to Thunderbird Add-ons Manager, click on Extensions and disable Google Contacts and restart.  Then go back and from "Get Add-ons" search for gContactSync  and install that instead...


Jan 22, 2011

My wife and I recently purchased new Android phones. We both love the ability to view our Gmail, Contacts, and Calendar on our phones and automatically keep them all synchronized with our Google accounts. Since we’ve been using Outlook Express for years (and more recently Microsoft Mail) from our home PC's, my wife asked how she could keep her local Windows Address Book automatically synchronized with our phones and Google Contacts. Hmm, I knew there was a manual way to do this, but it’s tedious and the separate contact lists would quickly get out of sync again.

So I began a quest to see what tools or products were available to accomplish this. To my surprise, after several days of research I was not able to find a reasonable solution to this seemingly simple problem. I also found that I was far from the only person looking for a solution to this, and it amazed me that there wasn't an obvious answer. I did find some esoteric open source program that required setting up an LDAP server on my PC, but this was hardly the simple solution I was looking for. There were also several products that can do this with Microsoft Outlook, but I didn't want to install that slow, fat, and expensive program suite on my PC.

Then I found it! Thunderbird, a free email client from the Mozilla Foundation is practically an exact replacement for Outlook Express or Microsoft Mail. It looks the same and acts the same. It's so similar that my wife could easily learn to use it in minutes. The trick to keeping your contacts in sync is a free plugin that's available for it called Google Contacts. It uses your Google Contact list and keeps it synchronized in Thunderbird. So ironically, I found that the best solution to keeping Outlook Express in sync with Google Contacts is to get rid of Outlook Express!

I find Thunderbird to be a superior product than both Outlook Express and Microsoft Mail. It is faster, supports both POP or IMAP protocols, and it even resolved an issue I was having with Microsoft Mail constantly giving me errors when accessing multiple IMAP accounts. Installing Thunderbird and setting it up takes only minutes. I will show you how to do it and give you some tips along the way.

1. First decide if you want to access your email via POP or IMAP. POP downloads all your emails and keeps a local copy of them on your PC's hard drive. IMAP is more dynamic view of your emails with folders (Labels) as they appear on your Gmail account. I prefer IMAP because it can be configured to be faster than POP, it can save space on your hard drive, and creating new email folders automatically creates corresponding Gmail Label folders on your Gmail account and keeps these in sync as well (and creating Labels when logged into Gmail automatically displays these folders in Thunderbird - a really nice feature).

2. If you decide on IMAP, first make sure your Gmail account has this feature turned on. Browse to and log into your account. Click on Settings in the upper right and click the Forwarding and POP/IMAP heading. Make sure that "Enable IMAP" is selected and click Save Changes.

3. Get Thunderbird here: It downloads and installs quickly and easily (if at any point it asks if you want to import settings from Outlook or some other email program, I recommend saying no). The first time you launch it, Thunderbird will ask for your name, email address, and password, enter it and click Continue. (If for some reason you don’t see this, click Tools->Account Settings, and under Account Actions select Add Mail Account…)

4. The Mail Account Setup dialog will now display. If you’ve entered your Gmail account info correctly, Thunderbird will test the connection and automatically use the best settings to access your account. Select whether you want Thunderbird to use IMAP (recommended) or POP. Click Create Account and you are done. I highly recommend tweaking some of the default settings to your preferences. I will post some tips for making Thunderbird work even better and faster with Gmail soon.

5. To make Thunderbird sync up with your Gmail Contacts, select Tools->Add-ons. In the Add-ons dialog, type Google Contacts in the search field and hit enter. The Google Contacts extension should appear, select it and click Add to Thunderbird…  You will get a standard warning about only installing plugins from authors you trust. Click on the Install Now button. After the extension downloads and installs, click the Restart Thunderbird button to complete the install.

6. When Thunderbird restarts, click the Address Book button in the toolbar. In the address book, you will see three address books listed in the left column. Two of these, Personal Address Book and Collected Addresses are default Thunderbird address lists which you will probably not be using (at this time they cannot be deleted but I’ve sent a request to Mozilla about this. Not a big deal though). The third address list name will start with “Google-“ and contain your email address. If you right-click on it and select Properties, you can change the name to whatever you like.

7. Click on your address list and your Google Contacts will display in the Address Book. If you are writing a new email, you can just start to type an email address in the To: field, and any matching Contacts will appear. You can also launch the Address Book when writing an email from the Tools->Address Book menu. To add a convenient toolbar button to make the Address Book easily available when writing an email, click the Write button to compose a new email, right-click the Tool Bar and select Customize…, then drag the Address Book icon to the Tool Bar and click done.

Now, whenever you add or change a contact in your Google contact list in Thunderbird, the change will automatically be reflected in your Gmail account contacts (and your Android phone when it syncs up with your Google account).  Likewise when you update a contact in Gmail (or your Android phone), the change will be reflected in Thunderbird in your Google address list (this can take a little time, but can be tweaked in the Add-on settings, but that’s for another post ;-) 

I just added a new post showing how similar Thunderbird looks and behaves just like Outlook Express at: Some screenshot comparisons of Thunderbird vs Outlook Express

Here's some good Thunderbird Add-ons that I use and have found very useful: Simple but Useful Thunderbird Add-ons


  1. thanks
    jorge somers
    from sao paulo - brazil

  2. I had to restart Thunderbird twice, but it worked very well, thank you.

  3. Thanks for posting, it works perfectly following your instructions :) Next goal is to try sync my ipad and iphone contacts with gmail via Windows Contacts / thunderbird. I'll let you know if it will work.

    Jakob - Copenhagen

  4. Thunderbird sucks. Frequent updates and frequent crashes plus stability issues. AOL and Gmail accounts have password issues.

    I am seeing the same trend for Mozilla Firefox and chrome. No wonder why Apple won't even allow these browsers on their mobile devices.

    Microsoft Outlook 2010 is the best E-mail client. I use it in my company and it has features that cannot be matched by others.

    I switched to Windows Live Mail 2011 for home computer and it works well so far. But hadn't been able to setup a sync to google contacts. Microsoft and Google should work together for a solution.

  5. Hmm, I've been using Thunderbird for a year now on three different PCs without issue. Personally, I've been getting away from Microsoft products (i.e. choosing to use Open Office instead of MS Office). I got my mom a new PC with Windows 7 on it, but since she's not very PC literate I had to install XP on it because that's what she's used to, and the PC ran 3x faster! I'm about ready to get rid of Windows entirely and switch to Ubuntu!

  6. I too have not encountered any problems using Thunderbird on Vista and XP since I started using it 6 months ago. As a matter of fact, it was Windows Mail on Vista that kept crashing on me before I switched.

    I don't like Outlook - I've always found it to be a resource hog, and I can't stand the new ribbon interface on the entire Office 2011 suite that we use at work.

    For me, Thunderbird is the perfect solution to the Google Contacts / Android Sync problem I was trying to solve. I agree it may not be a good solution for corporate email, but for my personal email accounts I find it to be a great light weight alternative to Outlook, with great 3rd party support to extend it's functionality, and the price is right ;-)

  7. Just installed following instructions and it seems everything worked out fine. I haven't run it through its paces yet, but it is looking good.
    Thank you very much for the tip and the clear instructions.
    Paulo Mendonça

  8. Some other awesome features include a cover-flow (explained above), and birthday reminders. Although both of these aren’t the app’s main functions, they can still be useful .
    online file storage

  9. TIP: If you're tired of your Add-ons getting disabled every time there's a new Thunderbird update, try "Add-on Compatibility Reporter". See:

  10. tks from Sao Paulo, Brazil... Emanuel Campos.

  11. Excellent article concise and very easy fix to solution.