Deuglifying Firefox

Flickr’s new interface didn’t work with Opera, and this was the prod I needed to take another look at Firefox. In the past I’d always found it to be slow, clunky and ugly. Its saving grace was the excellent rendering engine, plus possibly extensions. Apparently new versions have brought improvements, but I’d never played with them much.

I fired up 1.5.0.3, and it immediately seemed faster. Double-clicking to create a new tab worked without flashing the screen and pausing for half a second, for example. I don’t find it so snappy as Opera, but it’s fast enough not to be annoying. So that was a good start. However, it was still ugly as hell. Toolbars took up way too much of the screen; the tabs were far wider than was necessary; the browny background peeked through at every opportunity…It needed fixing.

A day later, and I’m pretty much happy with it:

Firefox Screenshot

Many of my alterations were to add features found in Opera, purely because I’m used to them and too lazy to re-learn anything. I thought I’d go through the steps I took in case anybody else is thinking of switching over.

Fixing the toolbars: The topmost ‘File’, ‘Edit’ etc. menu bar can’t be turned off, but there’s a way around it. I dragged the contents of the navigation toolbar into said menu bar, then disabled the navigation toolbar. I ditched a few of the icons – how often do I actually click ‘forward’ and ‘back’ anyway? – and set the ‘small icons’ option, which saved a fair bit of space. The clever Compact Menu extension then replaced ‘File’, ‘Edit’ etc. with a single drop down button, which I placed next to the address bar. It was a little crowded by this point, so I removed the search box and installed Google’s Firefox toolbar, which is useful enough to be worth the extra space.

Tabs: For a tabbed browser, I thought the built-in tab support was lacking. The tabs themselves are huge, and the first time I closed the browser and re-opened it to find all my tabs gone was something of a surprise! Also, it seemed to open new windows at the drop of a hat. Happily, the Tab Mix Plus extension fixed most of that. The ‘single window mode’ does its best to keep everything in tabs. There’s a built-in Session Saver, so you can re-open Firefox and be in exactly the same state as before. Also, it has the option to shrink the sizes of tabs to the width of the website title, but with a maximum width – this saves vast amounts of space, and you can see many more tabs on one screen than was possible before. The default ‘unread tab’ font was red italic, but happily that was changeable too. It’s endlessly configurable, and I’m still tweaking the options.

Theme: I tried a couple of the most popular themes, but they didn’t do much for me. Eventually I found an Opera theme which worked very well. I prefer the curved tabs, and the light blue background beats muddy brown any day 🙂 I do have a slight problem with this theme, which I’ll detailbelow.

Features:

  • Quicksearches – In Opera you can configure address bar shortcuts, so that typing ‘g monkeys’ will search google for monkeys, ‘az pullman’ will search amazon etc. This doesn’t sound like a big deal, but I’ve got used to hitting CTRL-T for a new tab, then quickly entering whatever search I was after. It’s faster than navigating to the google search bar, and offers a wider range of searches. I had some trouble finding out whether this was possible as I didn’t know what to search for, but it turns out that Firefox also has this built-in. Right-click on any search box and select ‘add a keyword for this search’, enter the equivalent of ‘g’, and you’re done.
  • Mouse gestures – The All-in-One Gestures extension handled this perfectly. Showing the mouse ‘trails’ on screen is very helpful.
  • Paste and go – A surprisingly useful little feature of Opera is being able to press ctrl-shift-v to open whatever URL is in the clipboard. It only saves one keypress, but I missed it within a couple of minutes. The paste and go extension solved that.
  • Bookmarklets – I used to have FeedLounge and del.icio.us bookmarklets sitting in a toolbar, but Firefox doesn’t seem to allow URL shortcuts on anything other than the annoying bookmarks toolbar. I couldn’t solve this problem, but there are other methods. The del.icio.us firefox extension added a ‘tag this’ button to the address bar, and it’s superior to the bookmarklet in a few ways. The LiveLines extension alters the behaviour of the address bar’s RSS logo so you can specifiy an RSS reader instead of Firefox’s built-in system. Now, clicking the logo adds the feed to my FeedLounge account. I like that.
  • Sidebar – I never used Opera’s sidebar all that much, but it did come in handy occasionally. FF’s built in sidebar was kinda lackluster, but the All-in-One Sidebar is far better, letting you manage bookmarks, themes, extensions, history and downloads from the same place.

Issues:

I have various extensions that place icons on the status bar. The Opera theme doesn’t seem to separate them and they’re all bunched together. Most other themes use a separator of some kind. Presumably I can edit the theme to do this, but I had a quick look and became terribly confused. Does anybody have any experience of this?

Opera has pre-defined text fields, so that when you started typing your address, for example, it would display a dropdown box letting you enter it automatically. I found InFormEnter, but that adds a large icon next to every field. Is there any equivalent for FF?

I used to have a sidebar with favicon links to my favourite sites. FF’s sidebar is too large for this, and you can’t set it to display the icons only. It’s not a big deal, but did some in handy occasionally.

Firefox suffers from the same problem as Opera in that if you submit a form and there’s a problem with the next page, when you hit back the forms are empty, or in the same state as when the page was loaded. I had a database connection problem and lost a post because of this.

Conclusion:

Although it took a fair amount of work, there doesn’t seem to be that I use in Opera that Firefox can’t emulate. Being able to use Google Calendar, Flickr etc. outweighs any disadvantages, so I’ll stick with it for the time being.