Downloaded Firefox? Good. Now Put It to Work for You.
By Trevor Bauknight
So you’ve read the glowing press and you’re sick of the gaping security holes Internet Explorer opens into your personal computer and the personal data it manipulates. You’ve gone to Mozilla.org and you’ve downloaded the latest and greatest in Web browser technology. What next?
You could be content to use it just like you use any other browser. It’ll happily import all your Internet Explorer preferences, bookmarks, etc. and let you interact with them the way you always have. You can set Firefox as your default browser and it will pop up when you clïck a link in your e-mail.
You can do everything you can do with Internet Explorer except run ActiveX controls (this is a feature, not a bug!), so you’ll still need to use IE if you want to run Windows Update manually (though if you have Windows XP, we suggest turning on Automatic Updates and not fooling with manual updates anymore.)
Check Your Prefs
The first time you run Firefox, you will be given the option to import your current settings and bookmarks from Internet Explorer. This makes it easy to give Firefox a try without investing a lot of time tweaking it to your liking; and, let’s face it, if you try it, you’re probably going to keep using it. You’ll also be asked at some point if you want to make Firefox your default web browser. We think that’s a great idea.
Under the Tools menu, select Options… to open the Firefox preferences manager. We’ll briefly walk through a few of them you may not have thought about. The manager organizes the preferences into five categories: General, Privacy, Web Features, Downloads and Advanced.
The General tab is highlighted automatically, but there isn’t much new here. You might find the automatic proxy configuration option under Connections useful.
The Privacy tab contains lots of options dealing with how your browser stores information from your sessions and how it presents it to websites to which you return. Each option gives you the ability to clear all stored information quickly and conveniently. Firefox will offer to save your passwords internally and type in a master password each time it’s necessary to access some web content. This feature works flawlessly and is even able to handle multiple logins for single pages. You also have fine-grained control over cookies, those relatively harmless bits of information websites leave behind in your browser to help them recognize you next time you come around.
Under the Web Features tab, there are all kinds of features that make old-time Web purists like me almost giddy. You may already have downloaded some sort of pop-up blocker for IE, but Firefox has this built in, and it’s easy to gain control over which sites are allowed and which aren’t allowed to spawn new windows all over your screen. You can choose to allow websites to load images or not, or to load them from their server and not allow off-site images that may carry tracking bugs to load.
The Advanced tab is where most of the fun is with Firefox. Here, you can adjust all kinds of default browser behaviors. The best feature of Firefox is tabbed browsing. This enables you to open multiple websites each in its own individual tab in a single browser window. These preferences allow the user to control when new tabs are created and when they come into focus.
We recommend unchecking the box that hides the tab bar when there is only one site open because of the visual reminder that you can add tabs instead of opening new windows. You can also right-click in the tab bar to create new tabs quickly and right-click existing tabs to bring up a contextual menu of options for dealing with them.
There is also a handy Software Update section that allows you to have Firefox automatically chëck for updates to both itself and to any extensions you have installed. The Advanced tab is also where heavy-duty secure certifïcate manipulation is handled.
Make Firefox Yours
Our next favorite thing to do with Firefox is to customize the main browser toolbar and select which toolbars are visible. Under View > Toolbars > Customize… you can drag and drop the browser’s control icons as you like. You can also control the appearance of the Status bar at the bottom of the browser and the main Navigation and Bookmarks toolbars at the top. Don’t forget that the main Navigation toolbar includes its very own search box that you can associate with any search engine you prefer and that takes you straight to your results.
We wholeheartedly recommend turning on the Status bar because it’s often handy to see where a link will take you before you clïck it, and that’s one of the things you’ll see in the Status Bar. The Sidebar is a special toolbar where you can see your bookmarks and History arranged hierarchically. Each bookmark’s properties includes a selection you can use to specify that the bookmark opens in the Sidebar instead of in the main browser window. This feature is great for bookmarking pages that are long lists of links that you’d like to open in the main window. In addition, the Sidebar comes with its own Search box tied to its current contents.
The most powerful feature of Firefox is undoubtedly its ability to be extended by third-party developers using XUL, the extensible framework developed by the Mozilla team as an answer to Microsoft’s ActiveX. There are already dozens of excellent extensions designed for all kinds of purposes. You can see all the available extensions by selecting Extensions from the Tools menu and then choosing Get More Extensions at the bottom of the Extensions Manager. Below are some of our favorites:
Chatzilla – At Cafe ID (www.cafeid.com), we use Internet Relay Chat to communicate in real-time with our far-flung developer staff. There are lots of IRC clients out there, but none are quite as straightforward for use in a serious environment as Chatzilla. It allows you to open a multi-tabbed window containing all your IRC activity and supports most IRC commands. Best of all, it’s free while many Windows IRC clients are shareware or commercial applications.
SearchStatus – this one does an excellent job of replacing both the missing functionality of the Google Toolbar and the Alexa Toolbar used heavily in website marketing to monitor traffïc and inbound links.
Adblock – lets you filter out website content by source address, simply by pointing and clicking.
Checky – opens up an interface between Firefox and numerous website validation and analysis tools, this is an essential tool for web developers.
Sage – a lightweight RSS and ATOM feed aggregator, used for viewing your collection of incoming RSS and ATOM feeds into a single, easy-to-use view.
Abe Vigoda Status – checks on and displays the status of Abe Vigoda in the Status bar.
More To Come
We can’t recommend Firefox heartily enough. It’s an excellent browser with a perfect collection of features that doesn’t succumb to the bloat that was starting to drag down Netscape while at the same time allowing you to browse a bit more freely without worrying about running into a site that will allow the site owner to take control of your computer for her own nefarious ends. The Firefox developers aren’t resting on their successes. They want to help you take back the Web, and they’re going to stay ahead of the browser technology game. Go ahead and give it a shot if you haven’t already. We don’t think you’ll look back.
About The Author
Trevor Bauknight is a web designer and writer with over 15 years of experience on the Internet. He specializes in the creation and maintenance of business and personal identity online and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Stop by CafeID.com for a frëe tryout of the revolutionary SiteBuildingSystem and check-out our Flash-based website and IMAP e-mail hostïng solutions, complete with live support.