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How can I force Thunderbird to automatically check mail when I log in? I am using Ubuntu 11.10, 64-bit.

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Do you mean you want to auto-start TB when you log in?

  1. Open the Unity dash, and launch "Startup Applications".
  2. Click "Add", on the right.
  3. Enter name "Thunderbird".
  4. Enter command "thunderbird".
  5. Click "Add" to close the dialogue box.

Unfortunately, I don't know of any way to get it to start in the background, and just update the mail notifier - that would be nice.

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That kind of configuration is per account and not 'system' wide.

In each account settings (Edit -> Account Settings...), you have "Server Settings" where you can configure how Thunderbird deals with new messages.

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Have a look to my answer in this question:

How to keep Thunderbird and Pidgin running on background?

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