Improving Firefox usability

May 25, 2008 – 2:39 pm Tags:

Firefox is a good browser, but there are some small parts that have always bothered me when I use it.

  • Keyboard shortcuts – they don’t really work
  • Lack of mouse gestures out of the box
  • Weird tab behavior

These mostly come from the fact that I’m used to Opera, which does these things a little differently – and in my opinion, it does them better too. But hey, Firefox can be customized by adding plugins, so why don’t we do that and see if we can improve it!

Keyboard (and mouse) shortcuts

By default Firefox uses ctrl+pgup and ctrl+pgdn for changing tabs, which is something that kind of gets in the way – you need two hands to do those shortcuts, and the alternative with ctrl+tab is pretty challenging to do with a single hand. Opera changes tabs with a single keypress: 1 for previous tab, 2 for next tab.

For some reason I can’t understand, Firefox will not let me redefine the keys from any of its menus, so I start looking for a plugin which lets me do this. It seems there is a plugin called keyconfig which might let me do this, but I can’t download it – it requires a login (why?), and for some reason it will ignore my attempts to do so completely…

So we’ll have to skip this, since Mozilla does not want to let me do it even with a plugin, and continue to mouse shortcuts.

Opera has nice defaults on the mouse: hold right button and click left will go back to the previous page and holding left and clicking right will go forward. Getting this working on Firefox was actually easy, and while at it, I also got mouse gestures! By installing the FireGestures plugin, I can define a “rocker shortcut” as called in the configuration page for the plugin to get this behavior, and I also got mouse gestures with the same download. Nice!

Mouse gestures

Solved pretty much by installing the FireGestures plugin. Did need one or two changes to make the gestures work similar to how they do in Opera.

Weird tab behavior

One of the biggest things that bother me while using Firefox is how the tabs work in a bit weird fashion when opening and closing them. Say you have four tabs open and you’re currently in the third tab. You came to this tab from the first tab, so it’s reasonable to expect that you want to go back to that tab to continue whatever you were doing, right?

Well, Firefox does not agree. It goes to the next tab to the right of the open tab. Now, after some googling I found that Firefox actually has an option for returning to the opening tab and it’s enabled by default… but it looks like it does not work.

I tried to go to the about:config page and change the setting for it, browser.tabs.selectOwnerOnClose, but no matter what values I tried giving it, it just wouldn’t affect the behavior of the browser.

Other small things

  • Opera’s way of showing thumbnails of tabs when hovering over the name is quite useful, and you can get a very similar action in Firefox by installing the Tab Preview plugin
  • Keyboard browsing is sometimes quite useful in Opera, but looks like there is no plugin to get that in Firefox.
  • Opera’s sidebar is very useful in my opinion – and looks like there’s a very good plugin for getting a sidebar in Firefox, the All-in-One sidebar. One of the biggest things I like about this one is the fact that it removes the download manager popup whenever you download something and integrates it inside the sidebar
  • Speed Dial – while some don’t like this feature, I’m one of those who do, and luckily you can get a quite good alternative to it with the Fast Dial plugin

In addition to these, Firefox’s RSS feature is a bit weird… it seems it just bookmarks the feed. Don’t really get it, but apparently if you want RSS with Firefox you’re better off using Google Reader, which is actually a rather nice feed reader, and plugins for it.

It looks like there’s also a mail client plugin for Firefox which would also add simple mail capabilities, but this is something I did not try. Opera also has a really nice zoom feature, which is something Firefox 3 will make possible – but at least right now, using Firefox 3 means you won’t necessarily get all the plugins you’d need for the other features.

Conclusion

So Firefox is like a cheap japanese car – while it will take you reliably from site A to site B, it will not match the Opera limousine in comfort even if you install a spoiler and better suspension. :D

It does get better, though, but finding all the plugins did take some good time. Firefox also managed to crash once while at it, apparently because I resized the Windows taskbar. It’s also a bit weird that it would not let me log in and download the keyconfig plugin despite my tries… the keyboard shortcut configuration would have been a really nice thing to have.

The return to opening tab configuration option was another thing which baffled me. Sure, it’s just one config option, but it’s enabled by default and it still does not work!

I don’t plan to switch from Opera, but it’s good to know that there’s something at least almost as nice out there. Also, if there are any Firefox users reading this, I encourage you to give Opera a shot – who knows, maybe you’ll like it if you give it a chance. The plugins I’ve mentioned here are definitely worth a try as well.

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  1. 5 Responses to “Improving Firefox usability”

  2. Hmm, Ctrl+Tab and Ctrl+Shift+Tab work wonders for me with just my left hand (using the left Ctrl key, of course). I use my thumb for the Ctrl key and my index finger for Tab, and I left my thumb hold both the Ctrl key and the Shift key if I want to go to the tab on the left ;).
    I’m glad Firefox doesn’t come with mouse gestures by default, because it’s terribly confusing if you don’t know what they are but inadvertently use a gesture. I don’t like mouse gestures anyway because you’ll have to learn them and I prefer working with they keyboard which my hands are on most of the time.

    What I like best about Firefox (apart from the extension availability), though, is the system integration. I want to set *one* system theme that I like and have all applications use them, instead of using Opera’s (IMHO) ugly theme.

    By Vincent on May 25, 2008

  3. Yeah gestures indeed could be confusing if accidentally used – good thing Opera asks you if you want to use them or learn about them the first time you do one.

    The keyboard thing is kind of weird though. Seeing how many people use the keyboard a lot when browsing, there still does not seem to be a keyboard browsing plugin for Firefox that actually does a as good job as Opera does.

    I’m the type of guy who does not really care that much about how the app looks or integrates with the rest of the OS. As long as the UI is usable and good, it does not matter much to me if it’s similar to the rest. Of course, UIs that are very different from each other can end up being confusing and such.

    Oh btw, there are always skins for Opera to make it integrate/look better ;)

    By Jani Hartikainen on May 25, 2008

  4. I’m still not convinced, but at least I realize once again that it’s great to have choice :)

    By Vincent on May 25, 2008

  5. Firefox works wonder for me, especially when I consider life with IE (Internet Explorer) before I switched over to it, it seems like a huge blessing :)

    By Sonali Sengupta on Jul 3, 2008

  6. I used Keyconfig before to reproduce Opera “Z” back and “X” forward. It also took me some research till find Keyconfig to work on FF3, as the following:

    http://forums.mozillazine.org/viewtopic.php?t=72994

    By Xant on Sep 14, 2008

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