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Thumbing Through Firefox Tabs

by Troy Mott, coauthor of Windows XP in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition
05/03/2005

I started using Firefox when version 1.0 launched, and it quickly became my favorite browser. There are several reasons for this, but tabbed browsing is at the top of the list. Other browsers provide tabbed browsing, of course, and soon even Internet Explorer will have the feature. However, you can take advantage of tabbed browsing in Firefox today and even add extensions, or small add-ons, that provide a custom tabbed browsing experience.

This article shows the power of tabbed browsing in Firefox that can be had by taking advantage of the functionality that comes loaded in the browser, as well as through the use of four of my favorite tabbed browsing extensions. I will also walk through two examples, a news search and a search that led me to the Hitchhiker Adventure Game, to illustrate the advantages of tabbed browsing.

Tabbed Browsing in Firefox

Let's start with a quick introduction to tabbed browsing for those users who don't already use this feature. Basically, tabbed browsing lets you open new web pages as tabs inside your browser window rather than opening a bunch of individual windows. Thus you can view many favorite sites in one window and even view multiple search results at the same time. While you continue reading one page, you can have multiple links open in tabs in the background.

This ability to load multiple pages inside one window is a slick feature for many users. Although this article will covers extensions, the tabbed browsing capabilities that come loaded with Firefox are very powerful. In fact, extensions bring to the surface many options that are buried inside the program. One important option that is easily accessible is "Bookmark all tabs in a folder," available when you add a bookmark in Firefox. With this option checked (see Figure 1), you can automatically save all of the tabs that are open in the browser window you are viewing.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Save open tabs as a bookmarked group

Later, you can open up all of these pages by selecting the saved bookmark and using the "Open in tabs" option, or you can just open an individual page from within the list of saved tabs.

Firefox Extensions

Now that I've touched on the basics of tabbed browsing, let's take a look at the add-on extensions that can further enhance the tabbed browsing experience. To quickly access extensions in Firefox, click on Tools -> Extensions in the browser. That is where all installed extensions are listed. To search for new extensions, click on the "Get More Extensions" link in the Extensions dialog. This opens the Mozilla.org extensions page, which offers hundreds of various extensions. To install extensions from the Mozilla page, find the one you want (user comments and ratings can be helpful); make sure it is compatible with the version of Firefox you are running; and select the Install Now link. For more information about installing extensions in Firefox, check out Firefox Hacks by O'Reilly Media.

Extensions, and in this case tabbed browsing extensions, let you try out all sorts of features that can save you time and are just cool to use. Here are the four extensions that I use to take advantage of tabbed browsing (see Figure 2):

Figure 2
Figure 2. Four of the most useful add-ons

I won't go into too much detail about these extensions, because the Mozilla.org extension page has plenty of information, and in most cases the extensions' authors also have sites with further details. If you've browsed the Mozilla.org page (and, of course, some of the other sites offering extensions out there), you may have noticed there are a lot of extensions, each with many features to choose from. In this section I will highlight the main features of my four favorite extensions, focusing on those most applicable to the two searching scenarios I describe later in this article.

Tabbrowser Preferences

The great thing about this extension is that you can control all of its various options through the Tabbed Browsing interface (see Figure 3), which is an enhanced version of the interface that comes with Firefox. Several of my favorite options are:

Figure 3
Figure 3. Tabbrowser's preferences interface is similar to Firefox's

miniT (drag+indicator)

This extension doesn't come with options and requires no configuring. Once it's installed, however, you can drag and drop tabs with the help of an indicator anywhere in the browser window. This can be helpful when cleaning up or sorting through many tabs.

SessionSaver

If you have kids who are old enough to access your computer, or you encounter an unfortunate moment when your machine crashes, SessionSaver pays off in spades. This extension will restore your browser window exactly as you left it. You can set it to restore after a crash, or after every startup (see Figure 4). I tend to use "Restore every startup" when I'm doing a lot of searches, but otherwise I leave it off because I don't always want my last group of tabs loading every time I fire up the browser.

Figure 4
Figure 4. Restore your tabbed browser window after a crash or upon startup

All-in-One Gestures

This is my favorite extension, because it gives you so many options and ways to configure the many "gestures" that are available. All-in-One Gestures lets you execute common commands for tabs with your mouse. In essence, you can hold down your right mouse button and "draw" gestures, or movements, in any tab window that carry out whatever commands you've assigned to the gestures. Notice in Figure 5 how I've assigned a left and right gesture to the Previous and Next tab function, which lets me quickly move through multiple tabs in the window without having to move to the top of each tab.

Figure 5
Figure 5. Assign various mouse movements or "gestures" to any tabbed browsing functions you like

You can quickly select a function, hit the "Edit gesture" button, and draw the gesture you want to assign to the function. This way you don't have to worry about all of the abbreviations assigned to gestures. Also, if the gesture is already assigned to another function, you will be given the option to swap the gesture or draw another one. It's worth spending a little time here and assigning whatever gestures you are comfortable with (and can easily remember) to your favorite tabbed browsing functions. Or, if you prefer a more GUI-like approach to gestures, try out the easyGestures extension. (See the Resources section at the end of this article.)

Getting My News Fix

Now let's look at a tabbed browsing example to see some of the features described in this article spring to life.

I love to read news online, and now and then I like to look at news covering foreign countries to get an interesting look at events. I usually start at BBSNews and use the Open Links in Tabs gesture by drawing a line through a handful of countries as shown in Figure 6.

Figure 6
Figure 6. Open Links in Tabs is a particularly useful gesture for browsing online news

I then take a quick look at each country page and open an article or two I find interesting. Eventually I end up with a good mix of articles in tabs, and I navigate through them using the Previous or Next tab gestures as shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7
Figure 7. It's easy to navigate through a tabbed series of articles using the Previous Tab and Next Tab gestures

A couple of other gestures that come in handy are Close Current Tab and Undo Close Tab. Undo Close Tab works really well in instances where you close a tab by mistake.

The Hitchhiker Adventure Game

I was taking a break from writing this article the other night, and I found myself reading the movie section from The New York Times' web site. One thing led to another, and after a series of tabs I found the Hitchhiker Adventure Game. The route I took to get there illustrates the power of tabbed browsing; let me detail the scenario:

  1. As mentioned, I was looking at the movie section of the Times' site and I noticed the "Episode VII: Revenge of the Writers" article. I opened that in a new tab window.

  2. I looked back to the movie section and noticed that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy was No. 1 at the box office; I opened that review in another tab.

  3. I then moved to the Star Wars tab and read about the Martian Chronicles and Blade Runner references.

  4. I then opened two new blank tabs and Googled both movies.

  5. After thinking about whether to check Netflix for those movies, I searched the Times and found the 1981 Hitchhiker's movie.

  6. That reminded me of how I played the Hitchhiker game on my Apple IIc for hundreds of hours back in high school, so I did a search for the game. I found it on the BBC.com site, where it can actually be played. Knowing that I have to try that out (hopefully after I finish this article), I moved that tab to the front of the list (see Figure 8) and saved all of the tabs as a bookmark.

Figure 8
Figure 8. You can sort tabs by priority for later viewing

Without tabbed browsing and finding and playing the Hitchhiker Adventure Game, I probably would have met my article deadline--but then again, without the tabs, I would have needed a different topic to cover.

Summary

If you are using Firefox but aren't taking advantage of its tabbed browsing capabilities, I hope this article has at least persuaded you to take a look at tabbed browsing and the many extensions available for Firefox. The options for customizing the extensions to your preferred way of working are nearly endless. The examples in this article are designed to give you a glimpse into what is possible. I know that tabbed browsing and the various Firefox extensions have greatly changed the way I use the browser and interact with online information.

Resources

Download Firefox (1.0.3 was used in this article; all four extensions are 1.0.3 compatible)

Tabbrowser Preferences

All-in-One Gestures

miniT (drag+indicator)

SessionSaver

easyGestures

Firefox Hacks

Troy Mott is the president of Backstop Media, providing services for customized technical content delivery. He is a coauthor of O'Reilly's "Windows XP in a Nutshell, 2nd Edition."

Firefox Hacks

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Firefox Hacks
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