Hands On: 12 Quick Hacks for Firefox 3

Firefox 3 has been out for two weeks now, so get with the program: It's time to hack it. The newest version of Mozilla's browser has plenty of new features, including the site identification button, the Bookmarks Library and what has become known as the "Awesome Bar" -- and I'll show you how to hack them all.

You can also force the browser to use Gmail for mailto: links, discover a hidden "Easter egg" and more. So fire up your browser and get ready to teach it some new tricks.

A note before we begin: One of the best ways to hack Firefox 3 is via about:config, which lets you change a wide variety of Firefox settings and preferences. Many of the hacks in this story make use of this nifty and practical utility.

To use about:config, you'll always repeat a few basic steps:

1. In the address bar, type about:config and press Enter.

2. A message will appear reading "This might void your warranty!" Ignore that nonsensical warning and click "I'll be careful, I promise!"

3. In the filter box, type the name of the setting you want to adjust. You'll see that entry appear in the area below. (If the name of the setting is very long, typing the first part of it will generate a list; you can then pick the setting you want.)

4. Make changes to the setting as instructed.

1. Klaatu Barada Nikto!

You may not know it, but Firefox has a mascot -- a robot that you can find in a hidden Easter egg in Firefox 3. In the address bar, type about:robots and you'll see the cheerful metal guy. The robot-related quotes displayed are from books and movies in which robots play a significant role, such as Blade Runner and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy .

If you look at the title for the page, you'll find what at first glance may seem to be gibberish: Gort! Klaatu barada nikto! In fact, that's the phrase used by Helen Benson in the science fiction classic The Day the Earth Stood Still , ordering the robot Gort not to destroy the Earth.

2. Tell Firefox 3 to Have Yahoo Mail Handle mailto: Links

Until Firefox 3, if you used a Web-based e-mail account such as Yahoo Mail or Gmail, you were left out in the cold when you clicked a mailto: link. Mailto: links automatically begin an e-mail message to a specific sender, using your default e-mail handler. But with previous versions of Firefox, those links worked only with client-based e-mail software, and not with any Web-based e-mail programs.

With Firefox 3, that changes. The browser includes built-in integration with Yahoo Mail -- if you know where to look. And although it doesn't have the same integration with Gmail, there's a way to hack it to make it do so.

1. Select Tools -- Options and click the Applications icon at the top of the page.

2. Click mailto, and select Use Yahoo! Mail.

3. Click OK.

From now on, when you click a mailto: link, you'll be sent to your Yahoo! Mail account and a new e-mail will be created, to be sent to where the mailto: link directed it. (If you're not already logged into Yahoo Mail, you'll have to type in your username and password first.)

3. Tell Firefox 3 to Have Gmail Handle mailto: Links

Gmail, surprisingly, doesn't show up in the Firefox list of mailto: handlers. But you can add it. Just follow these steps:

1. In the address bar, type about:config and press Enter. Ignore the warranty warning.

2. In the filter box, type gecko.handlerservice.

3. From the entries that appear, double-click gecko.handlerServiceAllowRegisterFromDifferentHost. This will change its value from false to true.

4. In the address bar, copy this code, exactly as you see it, then press Enter:

javascript:window.navigator.registerProtocolHandler("mailto",
"https://mail.google.com/mail/?extsrc=mailto&url=%s","GMail")

5. Below the address bar, you'll get a message asking if you want to add Gmail as the application for mailto: links. Click the Add Application button.

6. Next time you click a mailto: link, a screen will appear that lets you choose an appropriate application. Select Gmail, check the box next to "Remember my choice for mailto: links," then click OK.

From now on, Gmail will handle the links. As with Yahoo Mail, if you're not currently logged in, you'll first have to type in your e-mail and password, and then Gmail will create the e-mail.

4. Use the Site Identification Button to Download All Graphics and Media

One of Firefox 3's niftiest new features is the site identification button, the button just to the left of the Address Bar that displays an icon representing the site that you're currently visiting. The button is far more than mere decoration -- it can tell you a great deal of information about the site you're visiting and lets you do some nice tricks as well.

If you click the button, then click More Information from the dialog box that appears; you'll come to a Page Info screen with multiple buttons on the top. Once you get there, there are plenty of tricks you can try. Here are two of them:

Before Firefox 3, one of the most popular extensions was DownloadThemAll, which, among other things, let you download all of a Web page's graphics and media simultaneously. With Firefox 3, you can throw that extension away, because a similar capability is built right into the browser.

Just click the Media button on the Page Info screen for a list of the page's various elements. You can scroll to any graphic to see a preview, then click Save As to save it. Download multiple files by holding down the Ctrl key and selecting them, and then clicking Save As. To download them all, press Ctrl-A, which will highlight all the files, and click Save As.

If for some reason you want to block images from a site from being displayed in Firefox, check the Block Images box, and the site won't display images.

5. Get Web Page Details

If you're in the Web business, there's plenty of information you may want to know about a given Web page. What metatags are your competitors using, for example? How "heavy" are the pages you create -- in other words, how large are they in kilobytes?

The General tab of the Page Info screen tells you that and more. Click the General tab, and you'll see page size, the date the page was modified, metatags and more.

6. Shrink the Back Button

Firefox 3's Back button looks like an arrow on steroids. If that bothers you, you can shrink it down to normal size. Right-click an empty spot on the toolbar, select Customize, and check the box next to Use Small Icons. Click Done. The Back button will now be smaller -- and the same size as the forward button. Keep in mind, though, that all the other icons on the toolbar will be smaller as well.

7. Find All Your Passwords

If you're like most people, you have plenty of passwords associated with Web sites. And most likely, you've forgotten most or all of them. Firefox remembers your passwords, so you'll be logged into your sites automatically. But what if you need to log into the sites on another PC? Or what if you'd like to keep a record of your passwords, in case they get wiped out?

Firefox 3 gives you an easy way to find all your passwords and user names associated with Web sites:

1. Select Tools -- Options and click the Security icon.

2. In the Passwords section, click Saved Passwords. A screen appears with a list of Web sites and usernames associated with each site.

3. Click Show Passwords. A warning screen will appear, asking if you want to show your passwords. Click Yes. You'll now see all your passwords, along with site URLs and usernames. Write them down or take a screen capture to print out, and put them in a safe place.

8. Change the Maximum Number of Awesome Bar Results

The address bar in Firefox has gotten such a makeover and has been given so many new capabilities that many people now refer to it as the Awesome Bar. (Mozilla refers to it as the Smart Location Bar.) No matter what you call it, though, it's eminently hackable.

First, a little background about the Awesome Bar's new features. In earlier versions of Firefox, when you typed text into the address bar, it showed you a drop-down list of URLs you'd recently visited and narrowed down the list as you typed in more text. So, for example, if you typed the letter "c" by itself, you'd get a long list of sites you'd recently visited that start with "c," and then as you typed additional letters, the list would shorten. You could scroll to any URL on the list and press Enter to visit there.

The Awesome Bar adds some oomph to that. First off, it not only lists recently visited sites as you type, but it grabs URLs from your bookmarks as well. And it doesn't just look for URLs that match the first letter -- it also looks at page titles and tags. What's more, it uses an algorithm to figure out what are the most likely sites you want to visit and puts those first on the list. And it shows you not just a list of URLs, but much more for each URL, including the site's favicon, its full title and whether you've bookmarked the page.

By default, the Awesome Bar returns a list with a maximum of 12 entries. You can change that maximum to another number:

1. Type about:config into the address bar and click "I'll be careful, I promise!" when you get the security warning.

2. Type (or paste) this text into the filter box: browser.urlbar.maxRichResults. You can also just type browser.urlbar and pick out browser.urlbar.maxRichResults from the resulting list.

3. Double-click the browser.urlbar.maxRichResults entry. In the "Enter integer value" pop-up, type the maximum number of results you want to appear and click OK. From now on, that will be the maximum number.

Note that even after you do this, you will only see the default six results as you type. To see more, scroll through the list.

 9. Ban Bookmarks from the Awesome Bar

If for some reason you don't want bookmarks to appear in the Awesome Bar, there's an easy way to ban them. Download the Hide Unvisited 3 add-on, and only recently visited pages will appear. Keep in mind that if you've recently visited a page that you've bookmarked, that page will appear in the Awesome Bar. It will only keep off bookmarks that you haven't recently visited.

If you'd prefer to do the same thing by yourself rather than relying on an add-on, here's what to do:

1. Type about:config into the address bar.

2. Type this text into the filter box: browser.urlbar.matchOnlyTyped (or type . browser.urlbar and choose from the list).

3. Double-click the browser.urlbar.matchOnlyTyped entry so that the value changes from false to true.

4. Clear your history list.

From now on, only sites you've visited recently will show up; bookmarks won't.

10. Kill the Awesome Bar ... Sort Of

If you're a retro kind of person, you can kill the Awesome Bar, and make it look and work somewhat like the old reliable address bar in earlier versions of Firefox. The oldbar add-on will make the Awesome Bar look like the Firefox 2 location bar. But the changes are only skin deep -- even when you use this add-on, the Awesome Bar will still use its algorithms to determine what sites it shows. It just won't show all the details.

11. Force Old Extensions to Work in Firefox 3

When you install Firefox 3, it checks to see if your old extensions have been updated for the new version of the browser. If it finds they haven't, it disables them.

If you like living on the edge, you can change a couple of settings to force Firefox to use your old extensions. Be forewarned, though, that doing this can cause compatibility problems and other woes.

Go to the following settings in about:config, and change both to false by double-clicking them:

extensions.checkCompatibility

extensions.checkUpdateSecurity

If you don't want to muck around with about:config but still want to force old extensions to work in Firefox 3, download and use the Nightly Tester Tools extension. For instructions on how to use it, check out my blog entry about some of my favorite Firefox 3 add-ons.

12. Hack Firefox's New Zoom Feature

Firefox 3 adds some very nice capabilities to Zoom, which now magnifies images as well as text. But if it doesn't do everything you want it to, or you don't like some of the features, they can be hacked. Here's how to do it with about:config.

You can zoom in and out of pages with Firefox using the Ctrl + and Ctrl - combinations, or by selecting View -- Zoom. When you zoom pages in a Web domain (such as computerworld.com), the next time you visit any page in that domain, Firefox 3 will remember your zoom level and display it at that level.

You may, however, prefer that Firefox always display a page at a normal zoom, no matter how you displayed it the last time you visited. If so, you can change the following setting from true to false by double-clicking it in about:config: browser.zoom.siteSpecific.

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