Firefox, Thunderbird tweaks and add ons worth looking at

As is true of most good software, both Firefox and Thunderbird work pretty well installed with default options. But like most complex tools, a bit of learning and tweaking pays off.

While options tabs define logical functional groupings (Main, Tabs, Content, Applications, Privacy, etc. for Firefox and General, Display, Composition, Privacy, etc. for Thunderbird), it's helpful to think of them regrouped by user concerns such as what's displayed, keyboard and mouse interactions, what goes on behind the scenes, etc.

So it's occasionally -- especially after installing new versions -- worth a tab-by-tab options tour. Settings and facilities evolve and even long-available choices can be suddenly discovered to improve the browsing or emailing experience. Exploring often reveals pleasant surprises, turning WIBNI (Wouldn't it be nice if...) wishes into realities through simple settings changes.

While some tabs and boxes are obscure, most are self-explanatory. The Mozilla siblings differ in Help information provided: Firefox options tabs provide context-sensitive details while more generic Thunderbird Help is accessed via the standard pull-down menu.

In either program's Help, search for "keyboard shortcuts" and print the resulting table. You'll have a mind-boggling list of ways to keep your hands on the keyboard, avoiding many mousing operations. For example, in Firefox, Ctrl-digit selects tabs 1 through 8 or the last tab and Ctrl-J opens the Downloads history, handy if you've misplaced a file. In Thunderbird, Ctrl-Enter sends the current message while Ctrl-Shift-Enter sends it later.

While in the Help neighborhood, look around for general resources. For Firefox, there's a Tweak Guide, Customizing Firefox, Speed Tips, and more. Thunderbird offers Mouse Shortcuts, Menu Reference, Editing Config. Files, and the usual "more".

With all browsers now offering tabbed browsing, it's easy to forget the tedium of having each Web page being viewed occupying a separate Window.

Two tab options speed browsing

But default Firefox tab processing may not be the most efficient. Two tab options speed my browsing and avoid windows sprawl: "Open new windows in a new tab instead", and "When I open a link in a new tab, switch to it immediately". The first opens links clicked in other applications, such as Thunderbird, in tabs rather than windows; the second specifies that links middle- or Ctrl-clicked display immediately rather than loading in a background tab.

While Ctrl-F summons Firefox's decent Find facility, enabling "Search for text when I start typing" on the Advanced/General options tab finds the text's first occurrence and then disappears -- handy for finding a nugget buried on a Web page. (On the standard search bar, a powerful time-saving option is "Highlight all", revealing all occurrences of search text.) Another helpful setting here is "Check my spelling as I type", providing on-the-fly red-error-underlining and Right-click correction choices. On the Advanced/Network tab, check the value specified for "Use up to nn MB of space for the cache". Firefox defaults it large, sometimes slowing browsing working too hard managing the cache.

Add-ons

After setting options and memorizing keyboard tricks, dive into the deep pool of add-ons. Finding and installing them is almost identical for Firefox and Thunderbird; only the last few steps differ. Click Tools/Add-ons; a small Add-ons window will open. In Firefox, click Get Add-ons, then Browse All Add-ons. In Thunderbird, click Get Extensions.

You'll see each application's main Web page for add-ons.

The pages' central area show featured applications while the left margin's menu lists categories of tools: for Firefox, these include Appearance, Bookmarks, Search Tools, Tabs, and Toolbars. Thunderbird's categories include Contacts, Message Reading, News Reading, and Privacy and Security. To explore an item, click its title to see a longer description, often including screen shots, user reviews, one-to-five star rating, and the number of downloads done.

Obviously, the more stars rated and the more downloads reported, the more valuable and trustworthy an add-on is. I won't install something not rated highly or which hasn't been downloaded a LOT. And I'm cautious with goodies too recently uploaded or not updated lately.

It's tempting to think of these sites as app stores but they're really more like free all-you-can-eat buffets. And just as AYCE meals can cause indigestion, so can overindulging in add-ons. Install them judiciously and one-at-a-time so you can evaluate changes and diagnose problems.

Fortunately, it's easy to configure, disable, or remove add-ons which don't please you (click Tools/Add-ons, then click the one you want to manage).

Abundant options and add-ons make it unlikely that any two power users' browser and email look and work the same way. But that's a good thing, allowing flexible customization to match our preferences. WIBNI we could do the same to our cars, electronic devices, and spouses.

I lean towards productivity enhancing tools, so my 20 Firefox add-ons include GooglePreview (displays thumbnails for search results pages), IE View (one-click display in IE for badly coded pages), PrintPreview (one click display), Tab Focus (switches tab focus with mouseover), and Hyperwords (makes every Web page word interactive). This last add-on is itself a configuration exercise; clicking Options reveals 10 tabs and many dozen options. My favorite function is "Send URL@" on the Toolbar tab, which adds a @ icon next to the Navigation toolbar. Clicking the icon opens an outgoing email with the current Web page's title as Subject and the URL in the note's body. This add-on and option are must-haves if you like sharing Web page pointers.

I have "only" 12 Thunderbird add-ons, including AttachmentExtractor (offers many attachment-handling options, including selectively deleting or saving), Show InOut (replaces Sender/Recipient display columns with Correspondent column and sent/received flag), View Headers Toggle Button (one-click display of full header information), and Xpunge (one-click empty all accounts Trash and compress all folders -- handy before running backup).

Be warned, however. Not all players sing along with the choir. For example, Norton 360 installs two security-related Firefox toolbars as add-ons. Not only are they -- as shipped -- incompatible with Firefox 3.5, they're not available from the standard updates Web site, so the usual "Check for updates" facility can't help. The Norton Web site provides a standalone update for one toolbar and a stale "Coming soon" promise about the other one. With well-documented Mozilla interfaces widely used by thousands of open-source programmers, there's no excuse for anyone -- even large, successful, commercial software companies -- not using standard facilities for distributing and updating their add-ons.

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