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The power user's guide to Firefox

Mozilla Firefox is rapidly catching on with Mac users, and for good reason: It’s free, fast, and flexible, and it does an outstanding job of displaying most Web pages. (This cross-platform browser is also increasingly popular among Windows users, largely because of its excellent pop-up-blocking features). And beneath Firefox’s simple interface are some surprisingly powerful features. The following tips will help you maximize this up-and-comer’s potential. (All these tips were tested in Firefox 1.0.6 but should also work in newer versions.)

Take advantage of tabs

Like most modern browsers, Firefox lets you open multiple Web pages as tabs within a single window. But it sports some handy tab-navigation tools you may not know about:

• To move to the next tab, press control-page down or control-tab. To move to the previous tab, press control-page up or control-shift-tab.

• To save the addresses of all open tabs at once (so you can easily return to the same set), choose Bookmarks: Bookmark This Page (or press Command-D). Select the Bookmark All Tabs In A Folder option, enter a name, and click on Add. Firefox will create a bookmark folder with the name you selected. To reopen that set of tabs, navigate to that folder in your Bookmarks menu and choose Open In Tabs.

• You can set up Firefox so it opens multiple Web sites (each in its own tab) when you click on the Home button. Just go to the sites you want it to open, choose Firefox: Preferences, click on the General icon, and click on Use Current Pages (under Home Page).

Fast Finds After a simple preference change, you can type any text into Firefox’s search bar to see matching text highlighted instantly.
(Click image to open full screenshot)

Find as you type

To find text within the current Web page, press Command-F (as in most Mac apps) or the / (slash) key. Instead of opening up a separate Find window, Firefox opens a search bar at the bottom of the window (see “Fast Finds”). As soon as it finds a match, it highlights the found text. To make searching even faster and easier, turn on Firefox’s Find As You Type feature. To do so, choose Firefox: Preferences, click on the Advanced icon, and select the Begin Finding When You Begin Typing option (it’s located in the Accessibility section). Now the search bar will appear and Firefox will start searching as soon as you type any character—no Command-F or / required.

Assign keywords to bookmarks

If you have a lot of bookmarks, finding the one you want can be tedious—especially if you’ve organized them into a bunch of nested folders. You can avoid this tedium by assigning keywords to bookmarks that you use often. That way, you can zip to that site with just a few keystrokes. For example, to assign a keyword to www.apple.com, choose Bookmarks: Manage Bookmarks, select the bookmark for that site, and click on the Properties button in the toolbar. (Or you can control-click [or right-click] on the bookmark and select Properties from the contextual menu.) Enter a short text string (such as

ap
) in the Keyword field and click on OK. The next time you want to visit Apple’s Web site, type
ap
in the Address field and press return.

Keys to the Search After you assign a keyword to a search box on nearly any Web site, you can type that keyword and your search term in Firefox’s Location bar to find what you’re looking for.

Assign keywords to searches

You can also use keywords to make searching easier. Go to a Web page that has a search box. Control-click (or right-click) on that box and choose Add A Keyword For This Search from the pop-up menu (see “Keys to the Search”). In the resulting dialog box, enter a name in the Name field and a short keyword in the Keyword field, and click on Add. Then, to search that site, type the keyword followed by your search term in Firefox’s Location bar (not the search box). For example, if I assigned it to my own Interesting Thing of the Day site, I could then type

it cheese
in the Location bar to search for cheese-related articles on that site. By the way, Firefox has a built-in smart keyword for looking up defini-tions at Dictionary.com: just go to the Location bar, enter
dict
followed by a space and the word you want to look up, and press return.

Change your theme

While extensions change Firefox’s capabilities, themes change its look-and-feel—its icons, fonts, colors, button shapes, and other interface elements (but not the Web pages themselves). To add a theme, choose Tools: Themes and click on the Get More Themes link at the bottom of the window. You install themes the same way you add extensions. To activate a theme, click on the third icon from the left at the bottom of the Themes win-dow (its name and appearance change, depending on the theme you’re using), and then restart Firefox.

Master the keyboard

If you like to keep your fingers on the keyboard, you’ll like Firefox’s extensive keyboard shortcuts—many of which do not appear in its menus. ( Click here for an extensive list.) My favorites:

• Turn caret browsing on/off: press F7. This feature puts an insertion point on screen, letting you select Web text using the keyboard.

• Select the next or previous search engine: press control-up arrow or control-down arrow when the insertion point is in the search box.

About about:config

If you type

about:config
into the Firefox Location bar and press return, you’ll see a list of hundreds of options that you can modify right from the browser window (see “About This Browser”)—and most of them can’t be adjusted in Firefox’s Preferences menu. They range from the way your mouse works to obscure network settings. ( Click here for a full list of these options.)

The about:config window displays the name, status, type (Boolean, integer, or string), and value for each option. To change a Boolean (true or false) value, double-click on it; for other options, double-click on the row and then enter a new setting. You can control-click (or right-click) on a value to reset it; from the resulting contextual menu, you can also add, copy, or modify values.

For example, you can use the about:config page to activate a feature called pipelining, which sends multiple HTTP requests at once. With fast Internet connections, this can dramatically speed up page loading, as different page elements can load at the same time. To turn on pipelining, double-click on network.http.pipelining to set its value to true; do the same for network.http.proxy.pipelining. Next, double-click on network.http.pipelining.maxrequests and enter the number of simultaneous requests you’d like to send (try entering

8
as a starting point).

About This Browser To see hundreds of hidden Firefox preferences that you can modify, enter about:config in the Location bar.
(Click image to open full screenshot)

You can also add new options if they aren’t already on the list. For example, to block Flash-based sites from opening pop-up windows, control-click (or right-click) anywhere on the page and choose New: Integer from the contextual menu. Enter

privacy.popups.disable _from_plugins
as the preference name. For the value, enter
2
.

Here’s another option you can add: By default, Firefox waits 250 milliseconds before beginning to display a page (allowing more of the page to load into memory first). You may be able to speed up page rendering by removing this delay. Control-click (or right-click) anywhere on the about:config page and choose New: Integer from the contextual menu. Enter

nglayout.initialpaint.delay
as the preference name and
0
as its value. The amount of improvement (if any) will depend on the speed of your machine and Internet connection; try it out and see if it helps.

But heed two warnings before you dive in: First, some of the about:config settings have no effect in OS X. Second, the about:config window gives you a lot of power, with which you can cause a lot of damage (including utterly disabling Firefox). So be careful. Before you do anything else, back up the Firefox folder in / your user folder / Library/Application Support.

Changes you make will take effect when you restart Firefox. To undo a change you made, control-click (or right-click) on the setting and choose Reset from the contextual menu. Firefox will return the setting to its default value; if it was a setting you added, it will be given a blank value and will disappear when you quit Firefox.

Extending Firefox

Firefox fans love the browser’s extensions—third-party apps that let you add all sorts of useful features, such as an RSS reader and CSS editing, to the browser. Firefox also works with other add-ons—including themes and alternative search engines—that make it a power surfer’s dream browser. There are hundreds of free add-ons (and more appear every day); some of my favorites follow.

To add an extension, choose Tools: Extensions and click on the Get More Extensions link at the bottom of the window. On the page that appears, find the extension you want, and then click on the Install Now link. Verify that the site hosting the download is one you trust (such as ftp.mozilla.org), and click on the Install Now button. Most extensions take effect only after you restart Firefox. Adding a new theme is pretty much the same; just choose Tools: Themes instead, and go from there. Some of the add-ons described here follow other installation procedures; those exceptions have been noted.

Some extensions aren’t compatible with Tiger. And because third parties develop these extensions, conflicts can occur. If you change your mind or encounter a nonfunctioning extension, you can (in most cases) remove it by clicking on the Uninstall button (the leftmost button at the bottom of the Extensions window) and restarting Firefox. A few particularly stubborn add-ons may not disappear unless you create a new profile. (That’s an all-purpose troubleshooting step that can solve many Firefox problems. Click here for details.)

In Good Form After you modify Firefox with Firefoxy, elements in Web forms look more Mac-like (bottom).

Brushed Theme I prefer Safari’s brushed-metal toolbars, tabs, and buttons to Firefox’s more generic-looking controls. The Brushed theme, from e|vo, doesn’t exactly match the look-and-feel of Safari, but it comes close—and it makes Firefox feel significantly more Mac-like.

Firefox G5-Optimized Builds It isn’t exactly an add-on, but a G5-optimized build should be at the top of your must-get list if your Mac has a G5 processor. Neil Lee provides free builds, optimized for G5 Macs, of each Firefox release; they provide noticeably faster all-around operation.

Firefoxy Mac users trying out Firefox frequently complain that the controls in Web-page forms (radio buttons, check boxes, and so on) don’t have the same look-and-feel that they have in Safari. But you can spiff up those controls with Firefoxy. Drag and drop Firefox.app onto Firefoxy, and Firefoxy will replace some of the stock graphics with new, more elegant ones (see “In Good Form”). To undo the change, just drag and drop the app onto Firefoxy again.

ScrapBook If you do a lot of online research, ScrapBook will quickly become your favorite extension. It lets you save all or part of a Web page—including graphics, movies, audio, and other linked pages—to an archive that you can search from Firefox’s sidebar. You can annotate saved pages, highlight them, and remove elements from them; sort, backup, and export your saved documents; and much more.

Nobody Beats the Wizz The Wizz RSS News Reader extension puts a full-featured RSS browser in Firefox’s sidebar.

FoxyTunes If you want to control iTunes from within Firefox, try FoxyTunes. It adds a series of tiny iTunes control buttons to the status bar at the bottom of the Firefox window; they let you play, pause, go to the next or previous track, adjust the volume, display the current song name, and more.

SessionSaver As its name implies, the remarkable SessionSaver extension saves the state of your browser—every tab and window, every half-filled Web form, every scroll-bar position ( everything )—when you quit the browser, and then it returns the browser to that state upon relaunch. Even if Firefox crashed or if you force-quit it, SessionSaver will put everything back the way it was.

StumbleUpon After you sign up for a StumbleUpon account, this simple but incredibly addictive extension adds a StumbleUpon toolbar to Firefox. Click on the toolbar’s Stumble button to go to a random Web site devoted to any of the hundreds of topics that match your interests. It also lets you give sites “thumbs-up” or “thumbs-down” ratings; these ratings determine which sites appear when other Web surfers with similar interests use StumbleUpon.

Tab X and miniT If you want Firefox to look and act more like Safari, add the Tab X extension. It does just one tiny thing: it puts an individual close button on each tab, replacing the single (and counterintuitive) close button at the right end of the tab bar. (Too bad it doesn’t put the close button on the left side of the tab, where it belongs.) For even more flexibility, you should also add miniT, which lets you rearrange the order of your tabs simply by dragging them to a new location.

Wizz RSS News Reader and Sage Firefox has minimal RSS capabilities. You can click on an icon at the bottom of an RSS-enabled site’s window to add a bookmark item that displays recent headlines. But you can’t mark an article as read or unread, see previews of posts, download Podcasts, or do many of the other things full-fledged RSS browsers let you do. But several extensions can bulk up Firefox’s RSS tools. I prefer Wizz RSS News Reader (see “Nobody Beats the Wizz”), which includes Podcast support, along with other bells and whistles. However, its interface is a bit awkward. For a simpler, more elegant approach (but without Podcast support), try Sage.

[ Joe Kissell is the author of many e-books about Mac OS X. His secret identity is Curator of Interesting Things for InterestingThingOfTheDay.com.]

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