I thought this was the open web?
Don’t try copying text in images. You must click through thumbnails to see larger images. Listen to this annoying auto-play media ad. Oh, you’re in Canada? You can’t watch that. Shut up and take the cookie. No downloading videos!
As vaunted as the so-called Open Web is, it sure is full of arbitrary limitations—some set in stone by webpages and some by browsers themselves. Well guess what? I don’t need your rules, man.
Fear not, fellow free spirits: These 16 browser extensions can help you bend the web to your will. And even better, most of them are actually downright useful. What more can you ask for?
Disconnect or Ghostery
On each and every webpage you visit, it’s more than just that website peering at your activity. Ad networks, social networks, analytic services, cookies, “invisible pixels”—they’re all tracking your moves, to the tune of dozens of watchers per webpage in the worst cases.
Disconnect and Ghostery put a stop to that, identifying exactly who is tracking you and granting granular controls to allow it or nip it in the bud. Disconnect offers some additional bells and whistles such as the ability to speed up browsing times or force secure connections with popular websites, while Ghostery can block scripts and interactive objects from untrusted sources. Both extensions perform the core spy-squashing activity equally well, however. Pick one!
This nifty Chrome extension was the genesis of this entire article. Project Naptha uses big-time optical character recognition technology developed by Google, Microsoft Research, and others to intelligently recognize text in images. It then lets you select the in-image text and copy it, translate it, or even modify or erase it, with the help of “inpainting” tech similar to the brains behind Photoshop’s “Content-aware fill” feature.
The extension is relatively new and still isn’t quite perfect, as I detailed in a hands-on with Project Naptha. Even still, it already feels like magic—and it’s about dang time someone created an extension like this.
Readability is a popular “Read it later” service, similar to Pocket, but that’s not the reason the extension is so delightful. Clicking on its button and selecting “Read Now” will reload the page you’re visiting, transmogrifying it into an imminently reader-friendly format that focuses on the words and strips out all the ads, toolbars, and other stuff that normally clutters up articles. Essentially, it works a lot like the Reading View in Internet Explorer’s Windows 8 apps. You can also send articles to your Kindle for later reading.
Readability works especially well for long reads, though it doesn’t really play nice with slideshows. You don’t even need to create an account to make use of this basic function.
Hate Facebook’s new design? Do something about it! Stylish lets you choose different themes for the websites you use, basically letting you customize the look and feel of websites, and there is a database of thousands of themes to choose from. Yes, Stylish’s powerful CSS-based capabilities can completely overhaul the look of a site.
And if you don’t like the themes available, you can whip up Stylish themes of your own and share them via the UserStyles.org website. Put your code where your mouth is!
Now, let’s dive into some Google-supplied extensions. First up is Personal Blocklist, which lets you ban specific domains from your Google Search result. Once you’ve installed the extension, a “Block <website name>” option appears underneath URLs in Google search results, or you can press the extension’s toolbar button while you’re visiting a site to ban that site from your future searches. Adios, web junk.
Be aware that if you block a site, that information is transmitted to Google, which no doubt affects the site’s search rankings if enough people feel the same way as you.
Google Translate or Google Translator
The World Wide Web knows no vocabulary boundaries. While Chrome automatically offers to translate text on webpages that are written in a language other than your default, the official Google Translate extension for Chrome and the unofficial Google Translator extension for Firefox can translate the text of any website to any language you desire on-demand. Google Translator can helpfully translate just select portions of text, as well.
HoverFree or Thumbnail Zoom Plus
Clicking through thumbnails to see their full-sized treasure is an exercise in wasted motion. Sure, thumbnails are a great way to compress a lot of images into a tiny page, but I only have so many clicks in these fingers before carpal tunnel sets in, Internet.
Fortunately, there’s HoverFree for Chrome and Thumbnail Zoom Plus for Firefox. Despite the different names and developers, each does the same basic thing: Pausing your mouse over a thumbnail causes a full-size version of the same image to pop up. Once you’ve used it for a bit, you’ll wonder why this isn’t a default capability across the web.
AdBlock Plus blocks ads. The extension’s great from a pure-consumer point of view—no ads make the web a wonderful place to visit. But those ads also keep websites (like PCWorld!) in business. So if you block ads all the time, it actually hurts your favorite websites.
If you want look at a web publisher’s point of view of ad-blocking extensions, check out Penny Arcade’s brutally honest write-up. Adblock Plus is a tremendous tool, so it’s worth including here—but, ahem, please consider whitelisting ads on the sites you frequent most often.
Terms of Service, Didn't Read
The Terms of Service for the sites you frequent and programs you use are important to understand before you agree to them—just ask the masses of unwitting folks who agreed to turn their PCs into resource-hogging Bitcoin miners while installing a browser toolbar. But geez, TOS agreements are long. And boring.
Fortunately, there’s Terms of Service, Didn’t Read (which plays off the tl;dr meme). When you come across a new TOS, the TOS;DR extension shows a rating for how user-friendly those terms are, complete with bullet-point summaries of the most important clauses. And if a website has particularly dreadful terms, the extension will even warn you on your first visit. While TOS;DR is limited to websites in the extension’s database, there are plenty in there.
Hola Better Internet/Hola Unblocker
Whether you’re trying to watch a live stream of the Olympic games or tune in to a premium subscription music service while traveling, regional content locking—the practice of limiting certain content to certain countries only—can put a big crimp in your day.
Hola’s extension—which goes by either Better Internet or Unblocker, depending on the app store you’re browsing—makes viewing any web-based video stream in the world an absolute snap. If a website’s holding you back, just click Hola’s button and select a country that the website supports. Bam! Hola disguises your country of origin and lets the sweet, sweet streaming commence—no muss, no fuss, no cost (unless you’d like to sign up for Hola Premium).
If the past year’s tales of rampant hack attacks and NSA spooks have taught us anything, it’s that web security is no joke. The terrific HTTPS Everywhere add-on—developed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation—forces your browser to automatically visit the secure, encrypted version of a website if the website has one available. There’s no setup, no hassle, and no reason not to use this plugin. Well, maybe one reason: HTTPS Everywhere doesn't play nice with PCWorld. We've contacted the EFF to hopefully fix the issue, though.
Video DownloadHelper or FVD Downloader
Most websites don’t let you download the videos they hold, which can be a big problem if you plan on traveling or live somewhere with slow or spotty Internet connectivity. (Here’s looking at you, airplanes.)
Firefox’s Video DownloadHelper and Chrome’s FVD Downloader let you stash that media on your hard drive for later watching—though FVD Downloader doesn’t support saving YouTube videos. Google, you see, owns both YouTube and Chrome and refuses to allow extensions with YouTube download functionality into its Web Store. Video Downloader also lets you convert videos to other formats, which is a nice touch.
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