How To: Optimize Firefox

TheMurph

In the march toward a better browsing experience, you’ve ditched Internet Explorer and joined the legions of Firefox faithful. We have too, but chances are, our browsers look and function much differently from the one on your desktop. Sure, it’s possible to simply install Firefox and be done with it, but you’d be missing out on the browser’s core appeal, the thing that sets it apart from the competition. We are, of course, talking about Firefox’s outstanding degree of customizability.

Nearly every facet of Mozilla’s Firefox can be tweaked, making this the tabula rasa of browsers. Release your inner Van Gogh and spice things up with themes or become a modern-day Michelangelo and sculpt a browsing masterpiece with the seemingly endless array of extensions at your disposal. If that still feels like paint by numbers, you can get your hands dirty in Firefox’s hidden configuration menu. And when you’re finished tinkering, back up your profile to quickly transfer your settings from PC to PC!

Add a Theme

You don’t need to be proficient at programming to alter Firefox’s appearance; you just need an Internet connection. From the Tools menu, select Add-ons, choose Themes, and then click the Get Themes link. It takes some digging, but we found some themes we really like, including Aluminum Alloy and Doodle Plastik. After you have installed one, restart Firefox, and then go back to Add-ons to activate the new theme. Many themes are works in progress, so periodically check for updates.

Not all themes look as advertised, so experiment with different ones until you find a suitable candidate. We like Aluminum Alloy.

Speed up Firefox

We’re always tweaking our hardware in an attempt to eek out the best performance, and the Fasterfox add-on extends this philosophy to our browser by putting us in control of various networking settings. Via the Custom tabs, for example, you can change the initial paint delay, which tells Firefox how quickly to begin rendering web pages, or enable enhanced prefetching, which forces links to download in the background (albeit at an increased load to the server). To avoid mucking things up, though, stick to the presets. We saw a decrease from 3.77 to 2.77 seconds on our main page’s load time just by switching to the Turbo Charged option!

Customize with Extensions

With version 2.0, Firefox storms out of the gate sporting a healthy assortment of tricks, like improved tabbed browsing and anti-phishing protection, but it’s the multitude of extensions that really make this browser shine. Extensions add all kinds of functionality, from blocking online ads to serving up a daily dose of Dilbert cartoons, and everything in between.

To browse the 2,000-plus extensions available, select Add-ons from the Tools menu and click Get Extensions, or head over to http://tinyurl.com/phdun . Extensions are sorted by category, making it easier to find the functionality you’re looking for, or you can browse the most popular offerings to see what others have found useful. Below, we list several of our favorites, but don’t install the whole kit and caboodle and bloat your browser, just grab the ones you think you’ll use:

Mouse Gestures


Make an easy task even easier! Navigate web pages with the click of a button and a simple mouse movement.

Performancing

Blog your every thought with this hotkey-accessible editor. You can even drag and drop content from the web.

Tab Catalog


Is your browser overrun with tabs? Tab Catalog presents a thumbnail of each one with the tap of a button.

Gmail Manager

Keep track of incoming messages for multiple Gmail accounts without logging in and out of each one.

Fotofox

Don’t neglect your online photo album any longer. Round up your pics, drag and tag ’em, and Fotofox does the rest!

Digg This!

Can you Digg it? We can, and we can do it with a single click.

TinyURL Creator

Make mincemeat out of long URLs with TinyURL Creator and automatically copy the new link right to your clipboard.

Tab Mix Plus


Supercharge your tabbed browsing with a wealth of additional options.

Image Zoom

Zoom in on any image, just like they do in spy movies!

SportsFox

Feed your sports jones with scores from all four major pro sports, as well as college football and basketball, or follow just your favorite team.

FoxyTunes


Forget alt-tabbing and instead control just about any media player right in your browser. Perform lyrics searches too.

Add Bookmark Here 2

An easier way to file bookmarks, just highlight the appropriate folder in your Favorites and click Add Bookmark Here.

DownloadHelper

No download link? No problem! DownloadHelper can snag videos from sites like YouTube and Metacafe, as well as more *ahem* adult hangouts.

Smiley Xtra

Most forums offer just a basic assortment of smilies, but with Smiley Xtra, you’ll be prepared for any posting situation.

FoxLingo

Is the latest tech rumor posted in another language? Translate it and get the inside scoop with the aid of FoxLingo.

CacheViewer

Browse Firefox’s memory and disk cache or search for a specific item. CacheViewer even displays a thumbnail image of every entry.

Mouseless Browsing

With practice, this virtual cure for suriphobia will have you cruising the web without ever leaving the keyboard!

Party with Profiles

Firefox stores all your customized settings in a profile folder small enough to fit on a USB key, so you can transfer your preferences to another PC. To get started, first enable viewing of hidden files and folders. Open My Computer, highlight Tools from the menu bar, and select Folder Options. Click View and check the “Show hidden files and folders” radio button. Next navigate to C:\Documents and Settings\[USER NAME]\Application Data\Mozilla\Firefox\Profiles and copy the contents of the default folder.

Profiles also come in handy if you share a PC with other family members. Profiles allow each of you to have a personalized browsing experience without cramping each other’s style. Or you can create a custom profile for the kids that has extra security features enabled and avoid having your own setup filled with links to Nickelodeon.com and the Ultimate SpongeBob fan site. To create a new profile, first close Firefox. Click the Start menu and select Run, type firefox.exe –ProfileManager and hit Enter. In the Profile Manager, click Create Profile and follow the prompts. Be sure to give your new profile a descriptive name, such as Test Box or Kids and uncheck the box that says “Don’t ask at startup.”

What's All This About about:config?

Installing an assortment of extensions and themes is all well and good, but this is Maximum PC and that means digging down to the nitty-gritty. A wealth of advanced configuration options are hidden beneath the surface of Firefox, and we know just where to find them. Now would be a good time to back up your default profile or create a new one as a test bed before proceeding.

In Firefox’s URL bar, type about:config and hit Enter. This brings up a set of preference keys that should look familiar to anyone who’s ever poked around a system registry. Don’t be overwhelmed by the number of options, we’re just going to zero in on a handful of enhancements. Let’s start by removing the close button on inactive tabs. Locate and double-click browser.tabs.closeButtons and change the value to 0. Next, being power users, we’re going to change the width of our tabs, so we can see more of them before scrolling kicks in. Find browser.tabs.tabMinWidth and change the value to 75 or less. Finally, we want to train our download manager to clean up after itself without us having to nag. Select browser.download.manager.retention and change the value to 0.

We’ve only scratched the surface here, but don’t worry, we won’t leave you hanging. For an explanation of what each entry does, head over to www.tinyurl.com/8swbh and start experimenting!


We love that Firefox 2.0 brings tabbed scrolling to the table, but the default width leaves us scrolling prematurely. By decreasing the size of each tab, we can fit more of them into our browser window.

Kiss Online Ads Goodbye

We don’t mind a well-placed ad here and there, but who wants to have their peripheral vision bombarded with a flashing banner or Cialis advertisement when trying to read a website? AdBlock Plus nukes these annoyances before they have a chance to load.

Head over to Firefox’s add-ons page and install the AdBlock Plus extension. Restart the browser, then click and subscribe to EasyList in the installation window. This configures AdBlock with filters for many common ads, though you can still manually add specific entries by clicking Tools and selecting AdBlock Plus. Next, supplement AdBlock with the Filterset.G Updater extension. As new ad servers are discovered, Filterset.G updates itself and integrates the new entries into AdBlock, and it contains a whitelist of entries to help eliminate false positives.


The one-two punch of AdBlock Plus and the Filterset.G Updater knocks out most online ads all on their own, but should the tag team miss an online nuisance, just add a customized filter.

Modernize Your Bookmarks

We’re living in a blogger’s paradise, where social web browsing has proven to be more than a passing fad. It’s for this reason that del.icio.us delights us with its online bookmark-organization scheme and its link-sharing among a network of users.

First head over to http://del.icio.us/ and register an account. Once you’ve created a username, you’ll be prompted to install the del.icio.us extension. Notice the two buttons added to Firefox right next to the URL bar. When you’re ready to bookmark a website, click the Tag button and enter a description, notes about the site, and relevant search tags. For example, popular tags for MaximumPC.com include “magazine,” “reviews,” “technology,” “computer,” “hardware,” and so on. When you want to view links in only a particular category, click the tag and all other links will be filtered out.

To share your bookmarks with other users or access them from another computer, use your account’s URL. This will appear as http://del.icio.us/[USERNAME]/. And don’t worry about that Mac|Life bookmark, just check the “do not share” box when saving a favorite link you wish to keep private.

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