15 Undocumented Firefox Tips

Though Microsoft's Internet Explorer remains the most popular browser, there's a reason why many techies--and many visitors to PCWorld.com--use Mozilla's Firefox browser: control. Firefox simply offers more ways to customize the browsing experience, letting you get more work done in less time. Here are our favorite productivity tweaks for Firefox 2.0. (Note: Click on any thumbnail image to see a full screen shot.)

Keep Tabs on Your Tabs

One of Firefox's most appreciated features is the browser's ability to display multiple pages that you view by clicking their tabs. But you don't have to click through menus to open a new tab; instead, just press Ctrl-T to view a blank page on a new tab, with the cursor in the address bar.

To have a link open in a new tab, either right-click the link and select Open Link in New Tab (see screen at left), or highlight it and click the mouse wheel.

Also, you can have links that would normally launch a new browser window open instead in a new tab: Select Tools, Options, click the Tabs icon, choose a new tab (as shown in the screen at right), and then click OK.

To move between tabs with the keyboard, press Ctrl-Tab to open the tab to the right, or Ctrl-Shift-Tab to go left. Or reorder your tabs by dragging them with your mouse. You can also download Firefox's FLST 0.8.6 extension, which lets you toggle between two tabs by pressing Ctrl-+.

To close all but one of your open tabs, right-click the one you want to keep open and select Close Other Tabs. If you accidentally close the wrong tab, press Ctrl-Shift-T to bring it back.

Save Time With Keyboard Shortcuts

A surefire way to improve your browsing speed is by leaving your mouse alone and controlling Firefox from the keyboard. Here are some useful (but not always obvious) keyboard shortcuts.

To enter a URL or search criterion into the address bar, press either Ctrl-L or Alt-D. If you just entered a domain name into the address bar, don't bother adding '.com'; instead, press Ctrl-Enter to insert that suffix and go to the page. For '.org', use Ctrl-Shift-Enter; for '.net', Shift-Enter.

To enter search criteria into the Search Bar, press Ctrl-K. Next, press Ctrl and the down arrow, or Ctrl and the up arrow, to cycle through the available search services. To search for text on the current page, press Ctrl-F to open the Find toolbar, or just / (the slash key) to access the Quick Find toolbar. What's the difference? The former provides a couple of basic search options; the latter, naught but a text box for entering your search term. To find the next instance of the text you just found, press F3.

Two eyesight-saving shorcuts: To toggle full-screen view on and off, press F11. And to increase or decrease the Web page's font size, press Ctrl-= or Ctrl-- (the Ctrl key together with the equal or minus sign), respectively.

Bring Order to Your Bookmarks

If you create a lot of bookmarks but don't keep them organized, your bookmarked sites will be almost as difficult to find as unbookmarked pages.

Bookmarks are a lot easier to manage if you place them in folders that branch off the main Bookmarks menu. For instance, I place encyclopedias and other reference sites in a folder called Reference. And I keep dictionaries and thesauri in a folder of the Reference menu I named Language.

To organize your bookmarks, select Bookmarks, Organize Bookmarks to open the Bookmarks Manager. Here you can create new folders, drag bookmarks to new locations, and make other changes.

Find Your New Bookmarks a Good Home

Once your bookmarks are in order, you'll want to keep them organized by placing new bookmarks into appropriate folders.

Whenever you want to bookmark the current page, select Bookmarks, Bookmark This Page, or press Ctrl-D. In the resulting Add Bookmarks dialog box, click the 'Create in' menu's down arrow to see a list of folders into which you've recently placed new bookmarks.

But if you don't see the desired folder there, click the down arrow to the far right of the 'Create in' option. This expands the Add Bookmark dialog box, allowing you to select any folder, or to create a new one.

When you're done, click OK.

Prune Dead Bookmarks

Even if they're well organized, your bookmarks won't save you much time if you have to scroll through ones you're no longer using to find the shortcuts you need.

If a Bookmarks submenu has too many entries, right-click it and select Open All in Tabs. As the name implies, this opens each bookmark listed in the folder in a new tab. If a tab reads '404 Not Found,' the page is history. Click the tab, note the URL in the address bar, and delete the corresponding shortcut from the menu.

If you can't match the URL with a bookmark, you can usually guess the one with the bad link by noticing which others are next to it (the tabs open in the order the bookmarks are listed). Or right-click the bookmark, select Properties, and compare the URL in the bookmark with the one on the tab.

Better Default Google Search

One of Firefox's coolest features (though it's hardly undocumented) is its ability to search from the address bar. When you enter a search term in the address bar, the browser redirects to Google and searches that term automatically.

But these results are of Google's "I'm Feeling Lucky" persuasion: You're sent to the most popular page that matches your criteria. Only if there's no clear winner will the search engine list everything it finds.

If you'd rather not trust to Google's luck, change this setting by editing Firefox's configuration file. This is one important file, so back up it first--see "Back Up Firefox's 'Registry'" below for details.

With your backup in place, type about:config in Firefox's address bar and press Enter. In the resulting page's Filter field, enter keyword (you won't have to press Enter this time).

Double-click the keyword.URL entry (as illustrated in the first of the two screens here, the one at left); then enter, as a single line with no letter spaces, the entire string shown below:

http://www.google.com/search?

btnG=Google+Search&q=

Click OK. Now when you enter a search term in the address bar, you'll get a full page of Google search results, just as you would if you'd entered the keyword on Google's home page.

If you decide later that you should've trusted Google (a familiar refrain in Silicon Valley), you can reverse your fortunes by repeating the steps, but this time enter this string (again, as a single unbroken line):

http://www.google.com/search?ie=UTF-8&oe=

UTF-8&sourceid=navclient&gfns=1&q=

Back Up Firefox's 'Registry'

Firefox's about:config screen is like Windows' Registry--it contains important information, but is obtuse and dangerous to fiddle with. So play it safe by backing up the configuration file before you make any changes. To do so, close Firefox, select Start, Run (just Start in Vista), type %appdata%\mozilla\firefox\profiles, and press Enter. The resulting Windows Explorer window will contain a folder with a very strange name, like '4hw0enat.default' (as illustrated in the full screen of the thumbnail at left). Open that folder, and then copy the file prefs.js to a safe location.

Better yet, make sure that the Profiles folder is included in your regular, daily backup routine. Should you mess something up in about:config, simply close Firefox and copy the backup of prefs.js back to its original location.

Add to the Search Bar

You can add, remove, and organize the services listed on the Search Bar in the Firefox window's upper-right corner.

To do so, click the area to the left of the search box and select Manage Search Engines from the drop-down menu that appears. In the Manage Search Engine List dialog box, click Get more search engines to view a list of available search services.

To add one, simply select it and click Add. If you want Firefox to use that service as its default search engine, check Start using it right away, and then click Add.

Since you can search through Google via the address bar, you might want to remove Google from this list. To do so, select its entry and click Remove.

Customize Your Keyword Searches

You don't really need the search bar if you set up some keyword searches. These special bookmarks let you use any search engine directly from the address bar.

First, go to a site with search capabilities, such as www.pcworld.com, right-click the site's search field, and select Add a Keyword for this Search, as in the screen at left.

In the Add Bookmark dialog box, name the shortcut and give it a short, easy-to-remember keyword, such as pcw. Choose an out-of-the-way folder in the 'Create in' dropdown menu, and click OK.

To test the shortcut, press Ctrl-L to place the cursor in the address bar, type pcw lincoln spector, and press Enter. You should see a list of PCWorld.com's best articles. Well, maybe you'll do better if you type pcw steve bass.

Search a Page in a Jiffy

Finding the right page is often only half the battle: You may also need to locate a specific word or phrase on the page. Firefox has a trick that makes searching a page easy. Select Tools, Options. Click the Advanced icon and then the General tab. Check Search for text when I start typing, and click OK.

Now you don't have to press Ctrl-F or / (slash) to find that word. Just start typing, and up pops the Quick Find bar.

Purge Your Private Data

Firefox records where you've been browsing to help you retrace your steps, as well as to reopen the pages you've visited previously more quickly. But this feature may compromise your privacy by letting other people using your PC see what you've been up to.

The browser's default security settings may not strike the balance of convenience and privacy that's best for you. To customize those settings, select Tools, Options, and click the Privacy icon. The dialog box is divided into three sections: History, Cookies, and Private Data.

History: You might want to shorten the number of days Firefox saves your surfing history--the default is nine days. If you don't want to save your browsing history at all, uncheck Remember visited pages for the last [X] days (see the full screen of the thumbnail). You can also choose not to record the text you enter in Web forms or search boxes, and the programs you download.

Cookies: I've covered this before. See "Block Spying Cookies, but Keep the Helpful Ones."

Private Data: To clean things out regularly, check Always clear my private data when I close Firefox. Then click the Settings button to fine-tune the options.

What should you leave checked and unchecked in the Clear Private Data dialog box? Checking the 'Browsing History' and 'Cookies' sections will override any changes you made in the other sections of this dialog box, so leave them unchecked. Checking 'Cache' may slow Firefox down a bit, but probably not enough for you to notice if you have a fast Internet connection. Deleting 'Saved Passwords' is entirely pointless. You should check every other option. After you click OK to close the Clear Private Data dialog box, uncheck Ask me before clearing private data to avoid this annoying pop-up dialog box.

Revise Your History

Firefox offers a way to delete selected pages from both your browsing history and your address bar history while retaining everything else.

To delete an entry in the address bar's dropdown menu of recently-visited pages, point to the item with your mouse, but instead of clicking it, press Delete.

To edit your browsing history, press Ctrl-H to open the History sidebar. Right-click the page you want to remove and select Delete. If you want to delete a bunch of pages, all adjacent to each other (as they will be if they're from the same site), right-click the first one and select Delete. When it disappears, the one below will be highlighted, continue to press Delete on the keyboard until they're all gone.

Safely Store Passwords

It's good security practice to use a different password for each site you visit, though it can be difficult to remember them all. Unfortunately, Firefox's password manager is not really safe unless you use its Master Password option.

To set this up, select Tools, Options and click the Security icon. Check Remember passwords for sites and Use a master password. In the Change Master Password dialog box, enter a password that you can remember but that no one else can guess. Check out this Windows Tips column for advice on selecting a safe, but memorable, password.

Once you've set your master password, managing your Web passwords is easy: Whenever you enter a password on a page, a dialog box will ask if you want Firefox to remember it. The next time you return to that page, the browser will automatically fill in the password--with one important exception. If this is the first time you've gone to such a page since you last launched Firefox, you'll have to enter your master password first.

Optimize for Broadband

Believe it or not, Firefox is optimized for dial-up connections by default. You need to change some settings to get the browser's best performance over DSL, cable, or other broadband links.

Before you change anything, back up Firefox's configuration file; return to the page "Better Default Google Search" and scroll down to "Back Up Firefox's 'Registry' " for details.

Next, open Firefox and press Ctrl-L to place the cursor in the address bar. Type about:config and press Enter. Then enter network.http in the filter field. Now make the following changes:

In the field of 'Preference Name' choices (clicking on the thumbnail at right will show the full screen), double-click network.http.pipelining to set it to 'true'.

Next, double-click network.http.pipelining.maxrequests to bring up the 'Enter integer value' dialog box. Enter a higher number than the default 4; 15 works for me (illustrated in the screen below). Press Enter.

Double-click network.http.proxy.pipelining to set it to 'true'. (Again, click on the first thumbnail of this page to see the full screen.)

Right-click anywhere on the page and select New, Integer (see the screen at left; click on it for the full image).

Now, enter the following text string: nglayout.initialpaint.delay

(as illustrated on the accompanying screen) and press Enter. Set its value to 0 (zero), and press Enter again.

Move Your Bookmarks and Settings to a New PC

Amazingly enough, Firefox doesn't include an obvious, intuitive way to migrate the program's settings to a new PC. (I guess it's my job to tell you how to do it.)

On the old PC, close Firefox, select Start, Run (Start in Vista), type %appdata%\mozilla, and press Enter. The resulting Windows Explorer window will contain a folder named Firefox. Using a network or external drive, copy that folder to the new PC.

On the new PC, install, open, and then close Firefox. If reopening it doesn't bring up the import wizard, close Firefox and open it again. When the wizard (which is useless in this situation) comes up, just press Cancel, and close Firefox.

Next, select Start, Run (Start in Vista), type %appdata%\mozilla, and press Enter. Rename the Firefox folder something like frominstall, and then copy the Firefox folder from the old PC to this location. Finally, open Firefox and relish your old, familiar settings.

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