How to use Firefox with flair (A guide for non-techies)
This guide is for my sister Martha, my favorite non-techie, and it explains how to use Firefox with flair. It doesn’t assume you’re a dummy, just that you’re motivated but not quite a computer junky. The steps will be clear and easy to follow, and the focus is on things everyone can benefit from.
Before we begin, be sure to have the latest Firefox. As of 28/Feb/2006, the current version is 18.104.22.168 and what follows will assume you have that version or a higher one. You get Firefox from GetFirefox.com.
With that you’re ready. Here is my guide (for non-techies) to using Firefox with flair:
+ Cherish your Pixels Easy
I’m quite obsessed with my screen real state—ridiculously so, perhaps—and I think everyone should be. Windows are your eyes to the world inside the computer and every wasted pixel is a speck blocking your sight.
One of the first things I do when on a new computer is rearrange the toolbars. Here’s my arrangement:
To rearrange your toolbars this way go to the menu View → Toolbars → Customize. On the Customize Toolbar window that appears, make sure is checked and is selected. Without closing the window, rearrange the toolbar elements by dragging and dropping them to the desired location: to the right of the menus. To delete a toolbar element, drop it inside the Customize Toolbar window. Sure things to delete in normal arrangements are the useless to the right of your address bar and the (a better way to search will be shown shortly). When you’re done, close the Customize Toolbar window and go to View → Toolbars to make sure all toolbars are unchecked.
+ Degrade with Elegance Too Easy
Occasionally, you’ll stumble upon a webpage that doesn’t work with Firefox. Making the quick switch to Internet Explorer smooth is the purpose of the tiny IE View Lite extension. After installing it, just right-click on a page and select View This Page in IE to do just that.
+ Learn your Tabs Too Easy
Tabs are a great aid to navigation and you should get familiar with them. To open a link in a new tab with the mouse, just middle-click on it (or, if you don’t have a middle-button, hold Ctrl while you left-click on it). The new tab will open quietly in the background, making it a delight to do recoinnaissance on heavily-linked pages (search results, news websites, thumbnail galleries, and such).
Use CtrlShift(any number 1-9)) will take you to the corresponding tab counting from left to right.
You close the tab you’re on with CtrlT will create a new blank tab and leave you conveniently placed in its address bar. Double-clicking empty space in the tab bar will also create a new tab.
+ Navigate with Style within a Webpage Easy
For moving inside a webpage the Find-As-You-Type feature is most convenient. You activate it with Ctrl+F or just with /. After searching, and with the focus still on the find bar,
There’s actually a difference between the two ways of calling the find bar. Calling it with /, if the current occurrence is a link you can enter it by pressing Enter. Calling the find bar with CtrlEnter2 to the previous one). The first mode is useful for navigating without the mouse, the second one for searching text quickly.
Find-as-you-type is in fact so convenient that it is better for it to be the default behavior when typing outside of a text area or a text field. You configure this by going to Tools → Options. In the Options window that pops up, select the advanced icon, , and simply make sure is checked (and, in case you’re wondering, it will begin finding in / mode).
Occassionally useful navigational shortcuts are Space, to scroll down a screenful, and Shift+Space2, to scroll up a screenful. Page Down and Page Up, respectively, are synonyms. Also, Home takes you to the beginning of the webpage and End to its end.
Finally, there’s an interesting shortcut for long drop-down menus that will make you a little bit happier every time you use it. Select the following drop-down menu and type, failry quickly, MX. Mexico should be selected. Ain’t life grand?
+ Make it Easy and Fast to Look Things Up Easy
When browsing the web, the thing you are likely to do more often besides scratching is look up factual information about what you’re reading—you always want to know the meaning of that word, that acronym, that slang, that jargon; always puzzle on that contronym, always need that synonym, the correct spelling, the correct pronunciation; you’ll need that person’s biography, an explanation of what that thing is, some background on that, some fact checking on that other. That’s what you get from roaming through a place made of words.
If this isn’t your case right now, your systems have too much friction—discouraging, instead of aiding you in this important labor. To smooth the look-up workflow I recommend the Super Drag and Go extension. The idea is to select some text and then, by simply dragging and dropping it (almost) anywhere on the webpage, look up that text in the search engine of your choice—in a new tab, in the background. Slick, huh? (Remember that to select a single word you just need to double click it.) There’s something strangely satisfying in dragging something only to throw it nonchalantly to the wind. Really.
So what search engine does it use? The one you selected in that you erased before. No problem, just restore it quickly, pick a search engine, and promptly delete it once again. I recommend Answers.com for this kind of reference searching. You’ll be surprised but in no time you’ll use it 2 or 3 times as much as you use Google. It’s just so convenient to have all the information you’ll likely need in a single webpage.
After installing the extension, configure it to do the searching in the background. Go to Tools → Extensions, and in the Extensions window that will appear, scroll to Super Drag and Go, and double click it. In the Settings window that pops up, just make sure that is unchecked and hit . Opening your look-ups in the background is crucial to maintaining flow: your results will take some time to load even in the fastest connection and it’s pointless to disrupt your reading to see a white screen. It also allows you to postpone checking until it’s more convenient: when you finish your paragraph or the article you’re reading, or when 3 or more look-ups are pending.
As side-benefits, you can now drag-and-drop:
- an image, to save it in a flash to a folder you pre-specify.
- a link, to open it in a new tab. If you don’t have a middle button (say, you’re in a laptop), this comes in handy.
- a tab, to quickly duplicate it.
- a web address that appears as plain text (say, nyt.com). The extension is smart enough to open it in a new tab instead of searching for it.
+ Make Firefox Persistent Too Easy
Like any program, Firefox crashes once in a while, but with the SessionSaver extension you can make Firefox more reliable than your operating system itself. It will still crash, to be sure, but what used to be a bothersome bout of amnesia will now be nothing more than a silly swoon.
The extension does an amazingly thorough job in restoring Firefox exactly as you left it (and not only in case of a crash, but every time you close it): your tabs (and windows) all keep their respective history, arrangement, and zoom level—even the text you were writing is saved (don’t ever lose an email again before you send it). And you can also call back individual tabs you erased by mistake, just go to Tools → Snap Back Tab and select the tab you want to restore.
All this allows for some interesting patterns to emerge in your browsing behavior; for instance, you can simply close your browser at night, and the next morning restart it right where you left off. It’s an impressive extension and yet, it will happily work out of the box. You can, of course, configure it, but after installing it you won’t have to do a thing to have it working nice and quietly.
+ Use Gestures of some Kind Medium
If you truly want to use Firefox with flair, you can’t do without mouse gestures of some kind. Gestures are just certain movements of the mouse that trigger an specific action. Though they take some work up-front to learn them, once you do, switching tabs (or going back, or closing a tab, or reloading, or…) will become as natural and mindless as arching an eyebrow. There are three gesture extensions for Firefox: Mouse Gestures, All-in-one Gestures, and EasyGestures. I’ve got good things to say about all of them, but my favorite is Mouse Gestures.
Gestures aren’t hard at all, but, as I said, you have to spend some time learning them and adapting them to your browsing patterns. Rest assured, the work will pay off handsomely later. If you do decide on the Mouse Gestures extension I recommend you start by reading its intro and the table of basic gestures.
Both Mouse Gestures and All-in-One-Gestures include another mouse trigger that’s even faster than a gesture, rocker navigation. If you want to go back, for instance, just press the right button while you click the left button (and viceversa to go forward). You don’t get more elegant than this.
There are over 60 functions to chose in Mouse Gestures, some of them quite amazing, like Open All Links Gestured Over in a New Tab or Horizontal Stack of Current and New Link. Laptop users shouldn’t miss the default Up gesture: it opens the link crossed by the gesture in a new tab—yet another convenient way of opening a link in a new tab in the absence of a middle-button. Since I do have a middle-button, it’s not very useful to me and I’ve in fact replaced the default function of the 4 most important gestures (Left, Right, Up, Down): I use Left to switch to the left tab, Right to switch to the right one, Up to close a tab, and Down to call Reveal. Going back and forward are handled by rocker navigation, which does the job even faster than a gesture. Anyway, gestures should suit you, so go ahead and experiment.
Update June 26, 2006: My favorite and default gestures program has now become All-in-one Gestures. I formerly preferred Mouse Gestures because it allowed you to trigger JS scripts with a gesture, but that turned out not to be so useful. And there were two things that ended up dragging me back to All-in-one Gestures: being able to undo a tab closing with a gesture (Down, Right, Up, of course), and the gestures for deleting HTML elements (Up, Down, to delete, Down, Up, to undelete) — Flashy and distracting ads are becoming the sad norm.
+ Learn to Love your Address Bar Too Easy
The address bar () is a basic part of your browser and you should master it. As proof of its importance, there are three (3!) different keyboard shortcuts that take you there: CtrlD, and F6. Find the one that feels more comfortable to you and make it second nature.
It’s also handy to know that:
- When in the address bar, Home takes you leftmost, and End takes you rightmost.
- If you type elzr in your address bar and then press Ctrl+Enter, you’ll be taken to http://www.elzr.com/.
- If you’re on the address bar and press Alt+Enter, your address will open in a new tab.
+ Install Yubnub in your Address Bar Easy
Remember I told you to delete ? YubNub is the reason you should. To install it, enter about:config in your address bar. A list of somewhat obscure Firefox settings will appear. Scroll towards the one named keyword.URL, double click it, and type http://yubnub.org/parser/parse?command= when asked to enter a value.
That’s it! If you now type g sleep in your address bar, you’ll do a Google search on sleep; a impervious will search for the meaning of impervious in Answers.com, and flint branch will search Flickr for the most interesting images of a branch. There are thousands of such commands and anyone can contribute a new one. That’s why I believe YubNub is a superior way to search—you get a perplexingly vast, creative array of search commands for free, and using them is as simple (and fast) as prepending some letters to your query.
Here are more examples of what you can now do with your address bar. Enter:
- help g to display the help page for the g command.
- ls flickr to list all the commands related to Flickr.
- fspell martha to spell martha with Flickr letters.
- gimflint rose to search for images of a rose in both Google and Flickr.
- mash monica-bellucci gim flint yim to search for images of Monica Bellucci in Google, Yahoo, and Flickr.
- gca Howdy! -w firstname.lastname@example.org -s Hey! to compose a message in GMail to me with “Hey!” as the subject and “Howdy!” as the body.
- imdb Amelie to search the IMDB for Amelie.
- gmails Martha to search your GMail email for the word Martha.
- flintshow gradient to search Flickr for images of a gradient and display the results as a slideshow.
- gmus Madonna to search for Madonna’s discography trough Google Music.
- simpsons -number 10 to get 10 random quotes from The Simpsons.
- iy van gogh to search for images of Van Gogh in Imagery.
- autotr http://ehftb.blogspot.com/ to translate (via Google) that Spanish blog to English.
- blub http://ehftb.blogspot.com/ to subscribe to that blog through Bloglines.
- rae malva to define the Spanish word malva in the Spanish dictionary of the Real Academia de la Lengua Española.
- ebay ipod to search eBay auctions for iPods.
- gloc -what Thai food -where NYC to look for Thai food in New York City via Google Local.
- tr en es uniqueness to translate (via Google) “uniqueness” from English to Spanish.
- wp figures of speech to go to the Wikipedia article for Figures of speech.
- bark, well, yeah, to get your computer to start barking.
+ Keyword Your Way to your Favorite Websites Easy
Despite getting thousands of commands for free in the previous section, it’s handy to know how to configure your own with Firefox: you can choose exactly the word that’s easier and more convenient for you (the keywords you configure in Firefox will overwrite those from YubNub), and you can link to stuff too personal to link from YubNub. Typing a word to go to your favorite websites sure beats having to grab the mouse to rummage through your bookmark folders.
There are two kinds of Firefox keywords: Bookmark keywords (keymarks) and Search keywords. To create the first, start by bookmarking a website. Now track the bookmark, right-click on it, and select Properties. In the the Properties window that pops up, just enter your keyword in , hit and you’re done: by typing this keyword in the address bar you’ll now be taken to the website you just bookmarked.
Search keywords are just as easy to create. First, visit the page that has the search field that you want to assign a keyword to. Right click on the search field, choose Add a Keyword for this Search… and simply fill in the window that pops up:
You can now use your search keyword from your address bar, just like a YubNub command, and the website you selected will be searched.
Again, don’t forget to use the address bar keyboard shortcuts when using your keywords!
+ Navigate through Tabs with Panache Easy
I doubt you’ll find a more satisfyingly stylish extension than Reveal. When you call it, with either F2 or Alt+~, it displays thumbnails of your current tabs, which you can select through the keyboard or with a mouse click. It’s all very Exposé-ish and impressive—a written explanation can’t do it justice.
But besides it’s fantastic panache, it is actually very useful, especially because once you call it you can just start typing the title (or address) of the tab you’re looking for, and the thumbnails will narrow down to your query as you type. Again, you have to experience it. And to really make this second-nature I recommend you call it through a mouse gesture. If you installed the Mouse Gestures extension, just click here to set a gesture for it. You’ll soon wonder what you did without it.
March 7, 2006 – Update:
On March 3, 2006, Reveal won the Best New Extension Overall award within Mozilla’s Extend Firefox Contest. All the more reason to try it.
+ Treasure Your Memories Easy
Anyone who has been on the web for some time has lost great websites at one time or another. It’s a somewhat perplexing thing to realize at first, but websites can and do disappear suddenly. Bookmarks are no help in this regard, they only remember the location of the website, not the website itself. Saving it to your computer is a better solution, but not a great one; it is just marginally useful to have webpages buried away deep in a folder somewhere in your hard drive.
Enter ScrapBook. My biggest praise for this japanese Firefox extension is that it has finally made it useful and worthwile to store webpages. Your archives are easily accessible through a sidebar you call with Alt+K, and, as a nice extra, you can easily modify the webpages you store: highlight a phrase, add comments, or delete commercials. It’s a great tool for saving big pages you’ll be consulting over and over, for doing research on a topic, or simply for saving those webpages you can’t stand to lose.
To save a webpage simply drag-and-drop it’s tab into the Scrapbook sidebar. You can also right-click the page, select , and choose a Scrapbook folder to save it into. It’s a surprisingly stable, mature extension with loads of features, but that’s all you need to know to use it most of the time. If you ever need to delve into its depths, there’s a great PDF tutorial here.
+ Tweak Websites Advanced
Platypus is to the web, what Tivo was to TV: a revolution in your interaction with the medium. It’s one of the most innovative Firefox extensions today: it allows you to visually edit any website and save your changes. Want Google to show your name instead of their peppy logo? My sister did. Wished Answers.com didn’t have commercials and that the definitions were cleaner and wider? Who doesn’t? Like your GMail ecru and sienna? To each his own.
In all honesty, you still need some degree of technical sophistication to use Platypus for all but the simplest tweaks. Yet, as it matures it’ll surely become easier to use, and on the other hand, most kids already learn some HTML in school, which takes you a long way in Platypus.
But in the meanwhile, to see for yourself the power of Platypus you don’t even have to install it. Platypus is built on top of another fab extesion called GreaseMonkey. Go ahead and download it. After installing it (and restarting Firefox), go to this GreaseMonkey script I built with Platypus and click the install button that appears on top:
Now everytime you search in Answers.com the website will “morph” after it finishes loading! Commercials will be gone and definitions will be cleaner and wider. Go ahead and try it! (If you later want to disable the script just click the in the lower right corner of your browser.)
That’s it. Hope you liked the guide and please let me know if something wasn’t clear enough or there’s something I missed.
1.^ Chosing a browser is not a straightforward decision. It seems to me that:
If you want (or need) maximum compatibility with the de-facto web, just basic features, and are willing to put up with some insecurity, Internet Explorer is a good choice—but you’ll have to install Windows XP Service Pack 2 for the security to be tolerable (not great, just better), and the Avant plugin for features so basic as tabs.
If you want your browser to work out of the box with plenty of features, want it to be the fastest, and the most secure, Opera is a good choice.
If you’re a complete novice to the web who wants the cleanest, simplest browser, or if, quite oppositely, you’re a webhead who loves (or needs) to tweak her browser and wants innovative features (and is willing to install them as extensions), you are a web developer or a geek, or you believe in the importance of an open source browser, Firefox is the way to go.
I’ve used them all (happily) at one moon or another. Currently, I use Firefox and love it.