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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Firefox Tweak Guide

This section covers some basic yet important tips and tricks you can try to make using Firefox more convenient. Beginner users should definitely not skip this section, but even Advanced users who may already be aware of the majority of these might find some tips they haven't yet seen.


Streamlined Firefox Layout


To provide maximum viewable space in the Firefox browser window, many people use a streamlined Firefox layout which I will detail here. The difference between the default and the streamlined view is shown below:


Click to enlarge

As you can see, the streamlined view retains all the main functionality of Firefox, but reconfigures the layout to be as minimal as possible. Follow these steps to implement it:


1. Open Firefox, go to the View menu, select Toolbars and untick the 'Bookmarks Toolbar' item.

2. If you have a Sidebar showing, under the View menu select Sidebar and unselect any items.

3. Under the View menu select Toolbars and then select Customize. Alternatively you can right-click on an empty spot on a toolbar and select Customize.

4. In the 'Customize Toolbar' box which appears, select Icons in the Show box (not 'Icons and Text', or Text). If you're running a lower screen resolution also tick the 'Use Small Icons' box.

5. Now remove every icon or element in the Firefox toolbar at the top of the browser which you don’t need. For example, drag and drop the Search box into the 'Customize Toolbar' box to remove it from the Firefox toolbar. Do the same for any other icons/elements which you feel are unnecessary, such as the large white space filler at the top right of the Navigation toolbar. You can always re-add these elements at any time if you change your mind later on.

6. Now drag and drop each icon in the bottom Firefox toolbar up to the top toolbar, just to the right of the 'Help' menu item. This includes the large white Address box. The aim is to have everything on a single toolbar.

7. Insert any additional icons, separators or blank spaces you need from the selection shown in the 'Customize Toolbar' box into the relevant spots on the top Firefox toolbar. When finished, click the Done button.

8. Finally, go to the View menu, and under Toolbars unselect the 'Navigation Toolbar' as it should now be completely empty anyway.


You should now have a single Firefox toolbar at the top of your browser, complete with all the menu commands, relevant icons and the address box. This gives you more vertical viewable space (and a substantial amount of horizontal space if you had a sidebar showing). If you need more, go to the View menu and untick the 'Status Bar' item as it is not vital, and provides a further bit of vertical viewable space.


Obviously this layout may not suit everyone, and can be modified to suit your taste. However once you get used to it, it is extremely efficient and provides maximum viewable space in Firefox. Note that you can further customize the layout by looking under the Advanced Tweaking section.



Tabbed Browsing


The most famous feature of Firefox is Tabbed Browsing. This is a feature which allows users to open up a link as a new tab within their current Firefox window, rather than opening up an entirely new Firefox window. The benefits of this are faster loadup times for pages opened as tabs, less overall system memory usage, less buttons for open instances of Firefox on the Windows Taskbar, the ability to load pages in the background while reading the current page, and the convenience of being able to switch back and forth between pages just by clicking their tab. For more details of this feature read this brief Tabbed Browsing Overview.


Opening, Closing and Switching Tabs: Whether you use tabbed browsing or not is up to you, however it is generally recommended that you do, and there are some basic things you can do to make better use of this feature:


  • To open any link as a new tab you simply need to click your center mouse button while pointing to a link. If you don't have a center mouse button, hold down the CTRL key then left-click on a link to get the same result.
  • If you want to force a link to open as a new tab in the foreground, you need to hold down the SHIFT key and use the relevant methods above.
  • If you want to close a tab quickly, simply click the center mouse button on the tab, or press CTRL + W or CTRL + F4 while viewing the tab. Or you can just click on the red 'X' on the tab itself.
  • To switch quickly between open tabs, press CTRL + Tab Key to go to the next open tab, or SHIFT + CTRL + TAB Key to go to the previous open tab.
  • If you want to go to a specific open tab, press CTRL and a number key corresponding to that tabs position from the left. For example, pressing CTRL + 2 will jump to the second open tab.
  • You can rearrange the order of open tabs by dragging and dropping them.

  • In fact, if you click your middle mouse button on a range of things in Firefox, they will typically open up in a new tab (substitute CTRL for middle-click). For example, click the middle button on the back or forward arrows at the top of Firefox, and the previous or next pages you've visited will open in a new tab. Middle-click on an item in your history or your Bookmarks and it will open in a new tab. Middle-click on the Homepage toolbar icon and your home page will open in a new tab.


    Note that as of Firefox 2.0, once a certain number of tabs are opened, the tabs start to shrink in width and at a certain point no more tabs will be shown on screen. Instead a small dropdown button at the far right of the tab bar can be clicked to show a listing of all open tabs. For more ways of customizing tabs and tabbed browsing see the browser.tabs.-related preferences in the Advanced Tweaking section.



    Faster Searching


    There are several ways you can speed up searching web pages and searching on the Internet using Firefox:


    Search for text when I start typing: I recommend that you have the 'Search for text when I start typing' setting ticked (See the Settings section above). That way you can initiate a word search on the currently viewed web page simply by starting to type the search string on your keyboard without having to first bring up the search box. The first instance of that word will automatically be highlighted in green on the page. To find more instances of the word(s), keep pressing the F3 key. Note that the last search string you entered is kept in memory, and simply pressing F3 on any other page initiates the same search again. Pressing ESC closes the search box, but it also closes automatically if you click anywhere else in the Firefox window. For more ways of customising this function, see the accessibility.typeaheadfind.-related preferences in the Advanced Tweaking section.


    Keyboard Shortcuts: Another way to quickly open the search box is to use the keyboard shortcuts F3 or CTRL+F. You can quickly close the search box by pressing the ESC key at any time.


    Selection Web Search: Highlight a portion of a web page by holding down the cursor over the start of your selection, then left-click and drag the cursor to the end of your selection and release the mouse button. Now right-click on this highlighted selection, and in the context menu select the 'Search Google for...' item. Firefox will automatically launch a web search using your the default search plugin Google and provide the results in a new tab/window.


    Web Search Box: You can use the dedicated Web Search box in your Firefox toolbar to speed up searching for information on the Internet. If it isn’t already there, to add it in go to View>Toolbars>Customize and in the 'Customize Toolbars' box find the white Search box, and drag and drop it into a suitable position on your Firefox toolbar, then click Done. Next, click on the small icon in the left side of the search box, and select the search engine you wish to use for web searches - Google is the default and recommended engine, although you can use a more specific site such as Answers.com or Ebay.com for example. Now enter the phrase(s) you wish to search for in this Search box and press Enter - the results will be displayed in the main Firefox browser window.


    Note that as of Firefox 2.0, the search box also has search completion on by default. This means that as soon as you start typing a search phrase into the box, suggested variations will appear in a drop box below it. You can then select any of these variations if you wish to search for that phrase, or continue to finish what you were typing. If you don't like this feature, right-click in the search box and unselect 'Show Suggestions'.


    You can download additional plugins for the Web Search box by clicking on the Search icon next to the Search box, selecting 'Manage Search Engines' and then clicking the Get more search engines link at the bottom. Alternatively, you can go here to find other engines. You can also create your own custom search. Since all the search engine coding is saved in your \Program Files\Mozilla Firefox\searchplugins\ directory as .xml files, you can create your own .xml file which will allow you to use the Search box to launch a search on any site you wish. Full instructions are here.


    Address Bar/Keyword Searches: One of the fastest ways to search is by using keywords within the Firefox address bar. By default if you enter a word in the Firefox address bar it will attempt to find the closest matching web page for that word (using Google's 'I'm Feeling Lucky' search by default) and open up the site. If you want to add the Web Search functionality (covered above) directly to the Address bar, simply right-click in any search box on a web page and select 'Add a keyword for this search'. Note you can jump to the address bar quickly at any time by pressing CTRL+L. This moves the cursor to the address bar and highlights all existing text in there.


    Further ways to customize searching behavior are in the Advanced Tweaking section of the guide.



    Always Viewing the Latest Content


    Force Reload: By default Firefox does not automatically re-download the entire contents of a web page every single time you visit the page. It will first try to detect if the page content has changed significantly from any stored versions of the same page it holds in your browser cache. This is fine since most websites don't change their content every minute or even every hour. However often webmasters may change small parts of the site, update only a tiny portion of a page, or even one or two important words in the text body, and Firefox will not show the updated page for a day or two. For example I regularly update my guides on TweakGuides.com and users write to me saying they still only see the old version. To remedy this, there is a simple way you can make sure Firefox loads up the latest version of a web page at any time: simply press CTRL+F5, or hold down the SHIFT key and left-click on the Reload icon. This forces Firefox to reload every part of the currently viewed page from the Net and not your cache, ensuring every part of the content you're viewing is the latest available. Use this method at any time if you believe you are viewing an old version of a page.


    See the Advanced Tweaking section for more details of how to change this Firefox behavior permanently for every web page viewed.



    Spell Checker


    One of the prominent new features in Firefox 2.0 is the integration of a spell checker. This might seem confusing at first, however the aim of the spell checker isn't to check the spelling on web pages you're viewing, it's to check the spelling of any text boxes in which you can enter text. For example, if you're posting on a Forum, or entering text into an online form or search box, by enabling the spell checker ('Check my spelling as I type' option found under Tools>Options>Advanced>General>) any spelling mistakes you make will be underlined in red. Right-clicking on these underlined items will show you suggested alternative spellings which you can click on to use instead, or if the word is correct, you can ignore the spell check, or select 'Add to Dictionary' and it will be stored and not flagged as being misspelled in the future.


    Some text entry boxes however do not have spell checking enabled by default. To enable spell checking in any text entry box on a web page temporarily, right-click in the box and select 'Spell check this field'. To enable spell checking in all text boxes permanently, see the Layout.spellcheckDefault preference in the Advanced Tweaking section. Furthermore, ideally you should have downloaded the correct language version of Firefox for your region (see page 3), as this affects the specific dictionary that Firefox uses by default. For example if you downloaded the English US version of Firefox and you live in Australia, it will falsely pick up some Australian spellings as incorrect. Furthermore dictionaries for certain regions are not automaticaly built into Firefox. To add new dictionaries to your existing version of Firefox, right-click in a spell-checked field and select Languages>Add Dictionaries. You can then install a new dictionary, and select which to use under the Languages menu item in the spell checker.


    The spell checker generally does not affect performance, however note that on pages which have editable text boxes containing a very large amount of text, this can cause a slowdown as Firefox checks for errors. To reduce this problem see the extensions.spellcheck.inline.max-misspellings preference in the Advanced Tweaking section. In general though there should be no real reason to ever disable the spell checker.



    Bookmarking


    Your bookmarks are web pages whose URL addresses you have stored so that you can return to these pages quickly and easily just by clicking on their bookmarks. This is identical to the Favorites feature in Internet Explorer. However there are some neat things you can do in Firefox to make your bookmarks far more useful.


    Sorting Bookmarks: To quickly sort your bookmarks at any time, go to the Bookmarks menu of Firefox, right-click anywhere on your list of bookmarks and select 'Sort By Name' - they will be alphabetically sorted by the name of the bookmark, with folders first, and standalone bookmarks below them. You may have to do the same thing again for the contents of each folder.


    Keywords: To start with, if you want to rapidly access your bookmarks, go to the Bookmarks menu, right-click on the bookmark and select Properties. In the Properties box which opens, you can assign a shortcut to this bookmark in the Keyword box. For example, if you have TweakGuides.com bookmarked, enter "t" (without quotes) in the Keyword box, and click OK to close the box. Now the next time you want to quickly load up TweakGuides.com, go to the address bar and simply type the letter "t" (without quotes) and press Enter - the TweakGuides.com front page will load up straight away. You can assign custom keywords - whether a single letter or an entire word - to each of your favorite bookmarks and use them in the address bar in a similar way. If you assign a Keyword to a search engine search result, you can use it to speed up searches as well - see the Faster Searching tips above for details.


    Bookmarking Multiple Tabs: If you want to quickly bookmark several open tabbed pages, open all the tabs you want to bookmark, then go to the Bookmarks menu in Firefox and select 'Bookmark all tabs', and give the new folder a name. The next time you want to open all the sites listed in the folder, go to that bookmarked folder, right-click on it and select 'Open all tabs'.


    Live Bookmarks: If you visit websites which have RSS feeds, such as news and blog sites, you can bookmark them as 'live' bookmarks. To do this, just click on the orange RSS icon in the bottom right of your Firefox window (note: you must have the Status Bar visible to see this icon). From there, you can select the type of RSS subscription, and the bookmark will be added with a sub-folder which has all the latest articles from that site as a live feed. For more details go here. By default Firefox 2.0 has one such bookmark under the 'Latest Headlines' folder.


    Bookmark Add-ons: If you want to do more with Bookmarks, go to your Bookmark menu and select the Get Bookmark Add-ons item.


    There are further tips to improve bookmarks in the Advanced Tweaking section.



    Clear Private Data


    This feature of Firefox is covered in the Firefox Settings section of this guide, however basically it allows you to quickly remove a range of personal data from the browser in one go. Again, for more details of how to configure it, see the Firefox Settings section on the previous pages. Aside from accessing it from within the Firefox Options, you can also access it on your Firefox menu, under Tools>'Clear Private Data', or by clicking CTRL+SHIFT+DEL together. If you use this function often, untick the 'Ask me before clearing private data' box. Now whenever you use the menu option or press the keyboard shortcut for this function, it will occur instantly without asking you to confirm any options. If you want to automatically clear relevant private data each time you close Firefox, that too is possible if the 'Always clear my private data when I close Firefox' option is ticked in the Firefox Options screen.



    Keyboard and Mouse Shortcuts


    Aside from those mentioned here, there are a range of keyboard and mouse shortcuts you can use to speed up browsing and to access special features in Firefox. Whether you use them is up to you, however I often find that there a handful of shortcuts which are very useful in any program. Take the time to give a few of these a try and you may find they make using Firefox even quicker. To see a complete list of various keyboard and mouse shortcuts you can use in Mozilla, see this Keyboard Shortcuts List and Mouse Shortcuts List.



    That covers the basic but generally more handy tips and tweaks in Firefox. This is just the tip of the iceberg however, as there are a large number of ways in which Firefox can be customized and tweaked, and these are covered in the next two sections.

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