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Monday, July 14, 2008

All the Firefox extensions you need

I love my tail! by play4smee from flickr (CC-NC)

Here's the third edition of my insanely popular (who am I kidding, people only come here for angry rants and Ruby tricks) series on all the Firefox plugins you need to turn it into a useful browser.

The Firefox world has changed a lot since the first (May 2006) and second (May 2007) editions of this list - and now with Firefox 3 released an update is very much in order.

The Web the way it's supposed to be

Internet out of the box is crap. It's full of ads and sites which require registration, bookmarks disappear when you switch computers, and Google Images links to tiny thumbnails instead of images it's supposed to. All these annoyances can be cured by aggressive Firefox plugin therapy.

First install Adblock Plus. Filterset.G Updater isn't recommended any more, so you can skip this step. Adblock Plus blocks vast majority of ads of all kinds (flash, banner, text, css pseudo-popups etc.) without disrupting too many websites (in fact crappy ads are much more likely to disrupt a website than Adblock Plus). The reason it works so well is that on almost all websites ads are provided by a third party external request (image, iframe, script etc.), so it's very easy to tell the difference between website content and ad content. Technology used by Adblock Plus wouldn't really work against other kinds of unwanted content like malware, spam, porn etc., because there's no first party-third party separation in their case. It also won't that well work against ads on search results pages, but these tend to be less obnoxious. The only website of any use that I found not working with Adblock Plus was TubeJP. If you need to fix TubeJP or any other website, try adding "" exception to your Adblock Plus's list (@@ means exception) and reloading the page. It should work. Or you could completely disable Adblock Plus from Adblock Plus Preferences, and reenable it when you're done.

Once you've done that let's move to the next problem - websites which require registration. I'm getting an impression that they are fewer in number these days, but in case you find one it's good to have BugMeNot extension installed. Just right click on the form, select "Login with BugMeNot", and the annoyance hopefully goes away. Or not if they're good at deleting shared accounts, as YouTube seems to be. If it doesn't work you can always register with a disposable email address and crappy random data. They usually only check that the email address is routable and you selected that you're older than 18, so happily tell them you're Albert van der Putin, a 95 year old gold farmer from Thailand, living at 1337 Eric Cartman Street, New Buenos Aires, post code 12345 or whatever. It's in their best interest to let you do that, as this kind of crap is easy to filter. If they actually try to verify that what you're filling in makes sense then just google some realistically looking address and phone number and use them to make their lives more difficult when they try to analyze their user data.

Now let's make your bookmarks work. You probably already have a account. If not, create one before you go on reading this post. Then you could test your new account by bookmarking this blog for instance. Firefox extension disables browser-side bookmarks and replaces them with server-side bookmarks that you can access from everywhere and share with others. To bookmark something press Control-D, and most of the form will be prefilled for you - URL, page title, and even suggestions for keywords based on how others tagged that page. It's just an insanely fast way of creating bookmarks. For accessing bookmarks you can use methods provided by the plugin but personally I always type in URL bar instead. Much faster if you know what you're looking for.

The next plugin requires some work to get it right, but as you'll spend significant portion of your online time with Google services you might want to use it anyway. It's CustomizeGoogle and it's used to (surprise) customize various Google services. There's a nice two-minute screencast showing some of the basic options, and there's a lot more of them.

Some of the things you might want to enable are:
  • Disable ads on services where they don't make much sense. You can leave them on Google Search but disable on Google Images etc., any way you wish.
  • Switch sensitive services like Google Mail to SSL.
  • Make Google Images results point directly to images instead of the thumbnail+frames page.
  • Make search results AJAX-stream. Especially important for Google Images.
  • Add links to other search engines on search results page. I mostly use it to search Wikipedia.
  • Hide Google Mail spam counters and invite box, which are simply annoying.
  • Filter your search results.
  • Enable Google Suggest.
  • and much more.

Google won the search engine wars, the web mail wars, the image search wars, the map search wars, and for that matter almost any wars it got into, so we're spending a lot of time with Google things that it'd really be a horrible waste not to customize them a bit.

Making Firefox a better browser

The Web just became a better place, so let's apply a few fixes to the browser. First let's get rid of the downloads window, which is an ugly remnant of the pre-tabs days. Opera uses a downloads tab which is a far better solution than a window, but we can do even better than that with a Download Statusbar. If Firefox developers won't incorporate something like that in Firefox 4 that's a definite proof they're really a sleeper cell of al-Redmont and they should be ie6boarded until they start to cooperate.

Crash recovery (aka session management) was greatly improved in Firefox 3, but it's still better to use Session Manager which saves sessions also on exit, so you won't have to killall -9 firefox as a crude "Save Session" button.

Just these two extensions plus the ones I mentioned in the previous section are probably sufficient for most users. To add some finishing touches you may want to install ColorfulTabs for color-coded tab labels (switch to URL-based colors and fading 7 for best results), Fission for Safari-style progress bar integrated with URL bar, Tabs Open Relative for new tabs that open next to the current tab instead of the end of the tab list, and ReloadEvery for web site autoreload functionality like in Opera.

User Agent Switcher lets you pretend you're using some browser other than Firefox. Fortunately web sites requiring Internet Explorer are pretty much thing of the past. The only one I've had problems with in the last year was one supporting Firefox 2 but not Firefox 3 beta, what was really stupid, but they've fixed it already.

Unfortunately at the time of writing this post TinyURL creator for Firefox. didn't support Firefox 3. That's a shame as it was a very useful plugin.

Web development

If you do any web development at all, and as you're reading this blog there's a high chance you do, you absolutely positively need to install Firebug. It's more important for web development than Ruby on Rails, TextMate, jQuery, and Selenium taken together. Of course that's no reason not to use Ruby on Rails, TextMate, jQuery and Selenium together with Firebug. Here are some screencasts to get you started.

In addition to Firebug there are a few small plugins you might want to install, like Web Developer which provides a right click menu with some extras not included in Firebug, like manipulating cookies, disabling Javascript and so on. Nothing really big, but having all these small nitfy functions in one place is useful.

If you're using Windows you may want to use IE Tab. This of course doesn't give you Firebug for IE, and unless it lets you run multiple versions of IE simultaneously (does it, I have no way of testing that?) it's not even that useful for compatibily testing.

XPath Checker helps you write XPath expressions for page elements and therefore prepare some test cases for view layer unit testing somewhat more easily.

Web 2.0 Integration

CustomizeGoogle,, and BugMeNot are technically about website integration but I don't really think of them this way - they're just too fundamental to the way the Web works.

If you use Twitter like I do you will probably want to install Twitterfor extension, which is very simple and gets Twitter integration done right.

If you have too much time to waste you will want to install StumbleUpon plugin. Just vote up or down a few pages and you'll start getting your own personalized reading list. By selecting the right categories you can even use it for personalized lolcats or porn or lolcat porn.

If you have a Gmail account, Gmail Notifier is very useful for getting notifications.

Total Conversion

Some mods are standalone applications living inside Firefox, for things like IRC, BitTorrent, FTP and so on. They're usually not as good as the best standalone applications, but are fully crossplatform, so if you're switching your systems often you may want to take a look at them anyway. The only one I've used extensively is ChatZilla which seems to be the best cross-platform IRC client out there.

Non on the list

I've heard that Greasemonkey is absolutely awesome, but I never quite got to trying it out.

NoScript seems to be quite popular, but it didn't get on the list, as I really don't see a point of using it for web browsing (what next, NoCSS, NoHTTP1.1 ?), and for compatibility testing Web Developer extension already provides this functionality. By the way it doesn't provide you as much privacy as you think, plain CSS can leak your browsing habits quickly enough.

One plugin that you should definitely disable are "Ubuntu Firefox Modifications". It's automatically enabled by default on Ubuntu and the only thing it seems to do is breaking right click functionality on many websites.

Final words

That's the list of Firefox plugins I'm using. Of course your needs are different, so your list won't be exactly the same. I hope you've found some suggestions in this blog post and I'd love to hear back from you on how you're using your Firefox.

As Firefox is changing quite rapidly I'll probably post an updated list in a year or so, perhaps incorporating some of your suggestions.


Anonymous said...

I can't remember where they are, but I like FoxyTunes (a music control in the status bar), BBCode, Webmail Notifier and Tiny Menu.

BBCode is especially helpful.

Anonymous said...

firefox does have a Show my windows and tabs from last time under Preferences->main, if thats what u meant by saving session.

Anonymous said...

What about Vimperator? - totally owns half of these plugins. And it has "It's all text" built in! :-)

taw said...

I very much do NOT want Vimperator. ;-)

Daniel Furrer said...

Nice post. I just scanned through it quickly and there are a few nice extensions you're mentioning.

Most of all I like the colorful tabs and it's especially awesome if you turn the "Generate Colors by URL" option on.

Anonymous said...

Personally, I like TabMixPlus
and also use Right Encoding for convenience (it just needs a correction to
version requirement to work in 3.0.*)