January 28, 2011, 12:00 PM —
This is the fifth installment of our series of reviews of Firefox extensions. We've broken the vast array of extensions available for the open source browser into a number of categories, and picked the best extensions in each category based on a weighted formula that takes into account ratings, number of reviews, and total number of downloads as of December 29, 2010. In this installment, we'll consider the extensions that Mozilla puts in its Feeds, News, and Blogging add-ons with the Alerts & Updates categories.
The Web is all about information. Nowhere else can we get a more complete picture of what's going on in the world than through our browsers. But finding that information can be a daunting task, so we look to extensions "push" the news we need to see to us, letting us review and research at our leisure.
AniWeather. Weather is something with which we Midwesterners are a bit obsessed. Between tornadoes and blizzards, knowing what's coming helps us get through the day without, you know, perishing. So weather add-ons like AniWeather are certainly welcome. AniWeather lives down in the status bar, and gets its weather reports from the Weather Channel, which usually knows what its talking about. AniWeather's big hook is the animated weather icons it displays, and I like that you can configure the tool to add a lot of additional data access points to the bar, such as radar, alerts, and a national overview. Given the source and the plethora of options, this one sneaks up to the top of the weather extensions I've tried.
CoolPreviews. CoolPreviews falls into a weird spot in the extension pantheon. It's not quite a browser improvement, but it doesn't quite fit into the Feed category in which it's found. What it does do, and why I think it's more a of a News and Information extension than it lets on, is let you mouse over a link and click the CoolPreviews icon to view the linked page in a little preview window. This may not sound all that useful, until you keep in mind the preview window is a fast little mini-browser that lets you look at what you need with more speed and less resources than a new tab would. More usefully, a sidebar field holds thumbnail images of the preview windows even if you closed them, so you you can return to the page at any time. It may not be your cup of tea, but CoolPreviews could be worth a look.
FastestFox. FastestFox (formerly SmarterFox, go figure) is a strange little add-on. It doesn't necessarily make Firefox faster, just lets you do more things at once. For instance, if you select some text, you will be able to instantly search for the text on one of a number of search engines. If you visit Wikipedia, a Related Articles sidebar will appear. Terms entered in the URL bar will immediately tap into Google and present more options to select. and That sort of thing. This extension is probably very useful, if you need any of these or the other features FastestFox has to offer. Honestly, it feels kind of cobbled together, like a Linux distro from the early 2000s.
Feedly. Magazine interfaces for existing feeds are quite the sensation on iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad. Firefox users can get in that action with the Feedly extension, which lets you plug into your Google Reader, Twitter, Delicious, and YouTube feeds and display the content of those feeds as a magazine-like page in real time. It's not the prettiest interface, compared to something like the Flipbook app on the iPad, but it's better organized than the regular home pages for each of these pages. Connecting to all of these services is a little clunky--there's no straight-in Twitter API, for example, you need to subscribe to the RSS feeds of the Twitter accounts separately. But with a little work, you can get a nicely automated home page set up without much difficulty.
Flagfox. While Mom never let me become a vexillologist, I do dig the flags. Even more, I like knowing where things come from and where people are. Flagfox is a neat little add-on that lets people like me have a little fun while surfing. Cosmetically, it displays a little flag for the country of origin for the web server you're visiting. Remember that little scare about bit.ly running everything through Libya? Turns out the actual servers are in Denver, CO. I learned that by clicking on the little US flag in the URL bar when visiting the bit.ly site. Bit.ly is also connected to Flagfox as its URL shortening tool. You can also connect to whois and Google Translate via Flagfox, so this is a great tool for visiting international news sites.
ForecastFox Weather. ForecastFox Weather is a fairly simplified version of AniWeather that doesn't use animated icons and is a bit easier to set up. My big problem with ForecastFox is that it uses AccuWeather as its source, which I personally do not like. If you are satisfied with AccuWeather, then by all means, get this extension.
Pearltrees. I almost gave up on this one. I wanted to like it, I really did. But the interface required watching videos and learning a new navigation paradigm. Here's the thing about new navigation paradigms: they need to be eased into. This one reached out, smacked me on the face, and shouted "old man!" before the first screen finished rendering. Basically, the idea of this extension is to plug your favorite sites and pages -- "pearls" -- into a "pearltree," an organizational metaphor that you can use to organize and share with other people using Pearltree. Think of it like reddit. With pearls. If such things interest you, go forth and check it out, because it's a darn pretty app. Just come back and tell me how it works.
Speed Dial. This is, for all intents and purposes, a graphical bookmark organizer. But it has some nifty little tricks that put it squarely in the feed category, such as direct access to weather and news sites so you can pull up that information quickly. I thought the interface was a bit simpler than it needed to be for a desktop PC, but I could really see this being useful on a netbook, where minimal keystrokes and mouse movements are the rule of the day.
Web of Trust. Um. Hold on a minute. On the surface, this seems like a good idea: a crowd-sourced security feature that lets you know whether the site you are visiting is safe. Except for one thing: it completely doesn't work. I zipped over to The Pirate Bay, a site where I have seen spoofed ads and click jacks, only to discover the site was rated as Excellent. It doesn't seem that spoofed ads are within WOT's purview, but I'm pretty sure it should be. Not to mention that in several jurisdictions, downloading the material from that particular site has been deemed illegal. You can add your own ratings but, oh, look... you have to register your personal information. I think I'll pass.
Webmail Notifier. Got a web mail account somewhere? Not just Google, mind you, but Yahoo!, Hotmail, AOL, Daum, Naver, and a whole host of other services. This is a great app for you, particularly if you use one of the less common services covered by this extension. It even taps into Facebook and Twitter messaging when you add user scripts. This one is straightforward: it checks your accounts and lets you know how many unread messages are out there waiting for you. Simple, true, but with the large variety of accounts available, this is a great extension to have.
The best of the best
Having reviewed the top 10 extensions of each of the extension categories, the next question to ask is: which are the best extensions from each category? Based on each review and how each add-on filled the most requirements of the group, here are the picks for best all-round extensions by group.
Organizing Firefox: All-in-One Sidebar. Sure, Tab Mix Plus is a reviewer favorite, but for the extension that does the most to organize Firefox, the All-in-One Sidebar is the hands-down winner.
Communication: Yoono. Yoono doesn't link to every social media service, but it provides the most all-around features and stands up as a professional-level social media client.
Commerce: InvisibleHand. Since there was already a comparison of sorts in this category's review, there's no surprise in the selection of InvisibleHand. Though it didn't have all of the features as some of the apps in this section, it met the one most important criteria: accuracy.
Multimedia: FlashGot. This was a diverse category, with games and entertainment content thrown together. The most broadly useful extension is going to be FlashGot, since it provides the most features and flexibility to manage multimedia content.
News and Information: Feedly. For delivering the broadest news in the most unique fashion, Feedly has to take the top spot in this category.
As the list of Firefox extensions continues to grow, this list of the best Firefox extensions is bound to change over time, and you may have your own extensions that you think should be on this list. Send them in, and we'll keep our eye out for the new best of the best.