Many people don't pay all that much attention to their e-mail software. After all, it takes a real geek to care about the fine points of one program or another, especially when...

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Many people don’t pay all that much attention to their e-mail software. After all, it takes a real geek to care about the fine points of one program or another, especially when they all do more or less the same thing.

Solving the e-mail software puzzle is just a series of division-by-two problems. First of all, people are either of Windows or the Mac. Once decided, they can either live with what comes with the computer, Outlook Express or Mail respectively, or invest in something more potent. The path of least resistance is Microsoft, with either Outlook or Entourage.

Both of them, in their latest versions, are top-flight programs with the ability to handle any mail task, with a swift configurable interface to boot. And because most people seem to end up with some form of Microsoft Office, the extra cost is negligible.

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Even if you don’t need the extra power (or choose to resist feeding Microsoft’s coffers) Outlook Express or Mail will do the trick. Send. Receive. Spell check. Screen spam. These free programs are adequate, if boring.

There are, in fact, other choices. Eudora has a large and loyal user base, but those people have acquired a certain taste. And there are other programs that folks swear by, because they fill a need.

But a new choice has emerged, and even those who kick its tires to shreds will have to admit it is first-rate.

Dubbed Thunderbird, the latest mail client from Mozilla has grown up in public with an open beta test. The basic stats: It’s free. It works with Windows and the Mac. It has all the expected features, along with some extras that make it better than the stuff you actually pay for.

Thunderbird is visually exciting and easy to learn. Outlook was the first program to provide a vertical message window, a boost that livened up the interface enough to make a usability difference. Thunderbird imitates, offering vertical and horizontal windows along with a compelling third choice. The “wide view” places the message window across the bottom with the ability to size the message and folder lists to taste.

I created a huge message window and minimized the other two; you may choose differently.

There is also a slick label option, where you can color-code messages in five categories. This isn’t unique, but other programs make it more difficult. Thunderbird’s spam filtering is also intelligent and easy to configure. It “guesses” whether a message is junk, with the ability to confirm or refute its assertion. Soon, it learns your taste and priorities.

Anyone who hasn’t upgraded his or her mail client for a while should take Thunderbird for a test flight. Because even people who don’t really care about software can get a boost from a cool, attractive new program.

To download Thunderbird — free, with no ads — go to www.mozilla.org.

If you have questions or suggestions for Charles Bermant, you can contact him by e-mail at cbermant@seattletimes.com. Type Inbox in the subject field. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists.