Improving Firefox usability


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.


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.