January 24, 2011, 12:00 PM —
It's been nearly a year since the last major release of Firefox -- version 3.6 -- and development of the Firefox 4 seems to have slowed down a bit, with the planned release of late 2010 getting set back to February 2011.
Much of this development has been wrapped up in adding HTML 5 features to the open source browser, so the delay, while not greeted with much enthusiasm amongst Firefox users, hasn't created a lot of fussing, either.
Nor has it slowed down the development of the vast array of extensions available for Firefox, as developers find new and creative ways to view and interact with the web every day. Extensions are one of Firefox's most powerful feature sets, since their ease-of-use and extensibility enables users to build exactly the kind of browser they need. With more than 5,000 add-ons available, there's a lot of customization options to chose from, and some of them have to be better than others.
So, which ones do you simply need to have? That will be the focus of this series, which will review the best Firefox extensions in several categories, then round up the most popular Firefox extensions of all as of the end of 2010. The categories are built around Mozilla's own classifications, but grouped together in ways we think makes more sense.
- Organizing Firefox: The most diverse group of extensions for this review. Anything that helps you tweak Firefox to directly manage your online experience falls into this group, which includes the Appearance, Bookmarks, Download Management, Privacy & Security, and Tabs categories.
- Communication: A combination of the Social & Communication and Language Support add-ons, this category is made up of any extensions that aim to get a message across to other Web users.
- Shopping: Like the name says, this category encompasses the relatively small group of Shopping add-ons for Firefox.
- Multimedia: Photos, Music, & Videos make up the lion's share of these extensions, but Games & Entertainment are a big part of the Multimedia category, too.
- News and Information: Grouping the Feeds, News, and Blogging add-ons with the Alerts & Updates extensions makes sense, since this category is all about getting the information you need when you need it.
We'll examine the Organizing extensions in this first article of the series, and then tackle each of the following categories in turn over the course of this week; the bolded text in the list above will link to each article as it becomes available. The extensions were selected based on a weighted formula that takes into account ratings, number of reviews, and total number of downloads as of December 29, 2010. On Friday, we'll also present our top pick in each category.
If Firefox is the window to the Web, then think of this class of extensions as the panes, glass, and locks for that window. Nearly anything you can think of to enhance your Firefox experience can be found here, from tab management to locking your system down from hostile intruders. When new users want to add their first extensions to Firefox, it's a sure bet they'll be getting them from this group. Here are the 10 most popular Organizing extensions.
AdBlock Plus. This extension was one of the earliest created for Firefox users, created in response to the proliferation of advertisements on the Internet. I had not used this extension prior to this review, but I have used a similar tool called FlashBlock to filter out Flash-based ad content. AdBlock Plus goes a lot farther, letting users block ad content from specific ad servers, as well as Flash and Java content; wonder of wonders, it even includes CSS-based element hiding. This kind of granularity is extremely useful on paper, but novice users could be a bit flummoxed with the more advanced options. Out of the box, however, the default settings will do the, er, advertised job quite handily.
All-in-One Sidebar. This is the first time I've used this extension, and I have to say, it was pretty darn useful. Essentially, it takes most of the dialog box interfaces in Firefox and displays them in a collapsible sidebar on the left side of the browser. Tools, downloads, history, and bookmarks are easily managed from this sidebar. There's even a multi-panel option that lets you view a web page inside the sidebar, which hearkens back to the old multipaned browsers that were out before tabs became so popular. Definitely useful.
BarTab. The idea behind this extension is to put a temporary hold on Firefox 3.6's automatic loading of the last set of opened tabs whenever the browser is restarted. This will enable the browser to load up much faster, especially if you are reentering a browser session with ten or more tabs. The tabs are loaded in the background only, so there's no memory hit on application start. When you click on the tab, then it will get loaded. You can even preset pages to load on any session, which is a nice feature.
BetterPrivacy. BetterPrivacy is especially configured to alert you about Flash-based cookies, which tend to hang on to your system even after a browser session is closed. It will track such cookies, as well as any other long-term stored information that might be clinging to your system, and then (if properly configured) kill that data off when you close your browser session. Operating the extension is a seamless operation, and definitely worth downloading.
Cooliris. If you haven't seen Cooliris yet, then you need to get out more. This is a stunning extension that displays the search results of the Google Image, YouTube, or Flickr services--to name a few--as an infinite 3D wall. Right away, it speeds up image searching (no more clicking to the next page of images). You can also view music and video content from searches, you can view images and multimedia content from your local computer, too. Yes, this is an eye candy extension, but its utilitarian advantages make this anything but fluff.
DownThemAll!. Billed as "the first and only download manager/accelerator built inside Firefox," this extension purports to download files up to 400% faster than "normal" download speeds. I didn't benchmark this, but when I simultaneously pulled the ISOs for Ubuntu 10.10 and openSUSE 11.3 down with DownThemAll!, I saw absolutely no speed increase. But it's not a complete waste, because the real strength of this add-on comes from its other capability: downloading a lot of files at once. You don't have to specify where each file has to be saved individually: once the initial download settings are configured, subsequent downloads can follow the same filepath configuration when you select the DtA! One-Click option on download.
Easy DragToGo. If you like using mouse gestures to get things done, this extension is a very good fit. I have never been one for the mouse gestures, but after playing around with this add-on, I may change my mind. I usually like to open links in new tabs, and have grown accustomed to the old Ctrl-click method to accomplish this. With Easy DragToGo installed, you click the link and drag it a smidge up the screen to open the page in a foreground tab, or down in a background tab. And that's just the default settings; you can modify these easily. I like selecting a spot of text and then flicking the mouse up to view search results for that passage in whatever search engine I have set in my Search bar. Sweet.
NoScript. This is the most useful extension on this list for security, bar none. The ability to control and block scripts from running on your browser is a powerful deterrent to getting your system infected. But let's be clear: this extension will take the most work to set up, as the default settings pretty much block anything until you start setting up what's allowable. Make no mistake, though, it's worth the effort. Script-based attacks are still very prevalent on the Internet, and NoScript a a great way to put the kibosh on them.
Tab Mix Plus. Plain and simple, this is the one add-on I will not live without. How strongly do I feel about it? I will hold off upgrading Firefox to a new version until this extension is compatible with the new version.
So what does it do? Plainly put, Tab Mix Plus enables you to manage the appearance and actions of your Firefox tabs. As a tab manager, there is simply no other extension that compares. With granular control of how tabs are opened and displayed, you will spend some time getting this add-on fine-tuned to your specifications, but it is well worth it. For anyone who needs to use multiple tabs throughout the day, this is the add-on to have.
Xmarks Sync. I am glad this one is still around to review, because it's number two on my list of must-have extensions. The basic function is simple: all of your bookmarks, passwords and even open tabs can be synchronized across multiple machines, and multiple browsers. Yes, even Chrome and IE, if you need to use those apps. For a subscription fee, you can even get bookmark synchronization on the Android and iOS platforms, which is very useful. If you use multiple machines, definitely download and install this extension.
As you can see, there's some great organizational tools available for Firefox. In the next installment, we'll examine the extensions in the News and Information group, and find out all the ways you can be informed instantly.
Up next: Reach out and touch someone
Once you've gotten your online life organized, it's time to get in touch with other people. Tomorrow's installment in this series will look at extensions designed to help you communicate.