Firefox… that’s like a browser or something?

In the spirit of trying something new, I’ve decided to see what all the hubbub is with this new fangled browser.  Yes, I’m probably the last person on earth that hasn’t installed Firefox (at least out of all my friends).  I usually hesistate installing something new on my machine unless there’s a clear benefit of better productivity.  Here’s why:

- Every program that’s installed on the OS adds to the “cruft.”  This is every little piece of data that’s added to the system that contributes to overall system slowdown.  Paranoid?  Yes.  I keep my systems pretty vanilla…  Usually not even setting a wallpaper, or changing the system colors.

- I typically don’t replace something that’s already built-in to the OS unless there’s a clear reason to do so.  I replace Explorer with Total Commander because Explorer is impossible to navigate with a keyboard (however, I knew someone who did, and it was impressive to see him work).  I replace the default image viewer with Vueprint because I like hitting space bar to view the next image in a directory.  I replace MSN Messenger with Trillian because I only want to use one IM client for all of my contacts.  You get the idea.

- I want a consistent OS experience.   I work on several machines both at home and work.  I want the same browsing experience on each machine.  This would require me to install Firefox on each machine I come in contact with.  Raymond describes the problem here.  Requiring third party components every time you get on a new machine isn’t good.  Not that you’re likely to hear “First install Firefox, then go to this site.”  However, I had that exact experience not too long ago on a beta site I was looking at.

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Of course the big feature touted by Firefox everyone immediately mentions is  “TABS!  You just gotta have tabs!”   Unfortunately, as a die-hard keyboarder, tabs just doesn’t work.  Coding Horror explains this much better than I could (The Problem With Tabbed Interfaces).  It essentially boils down to this:  When task switching, I keep the Alt-Tab stack order in my head (order of most recently used).  This way, I know that the last app I used is one Alt-Tab away, and the 2nd to last app is two Alt-Tabs.  When using browser tabs, I now have to maintain multiple stacks in my head.  Most recently used apps, plus most recently use tabs in each opened browser window.  If I’m in Outlook, and I want to switch to my blog, which is buried 3 tabs in, on the 2nd browser window, how do I remember that?  I just have to hunt around for it with the mouse.  Boo. 

So, I can live without tabs. 

Other than that, the other Firefox features don’t really give enough reason to switch.  Faster browsing?  Maybe…  More secure?  Well, it might keep my WoW password more safe, that would be nice.  It’s not a Microsoft app!  Sorry, but I don’t wear a tin foil hat.

Actually, the main reason I decided to try Firefox was rather simple.  I’m a big fan of Homestar Runner.  However, when your screen resolution is 2560×1600, those little flash windows makes it very hard to see.  So I was googling around, and lo and behold, I found a plugin that makes the Homestar Runner cartoons as large as the browser!  However, the plugin is for… Firefox.

So, off I went to install it.  (the plugin worked great btw!)

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Here are my thoughts so far, after about a week using it off and on.

My first criteria I judged it on was screen real estate.  How much space do all of those buttons take up.  I’m a real stickler for wasted screen real estate.  Yes my combined resolution is about 4100×1600, but I still obsess over wasted toolbar space.

browser-review-firefox.jpg

Firefox doesn’t dissappoint.  Let’s look at some screen shots.  Here you’ll see my current IE6 browser setup next to my Firefox setup.  Actually, the Firefox bar is a tad smaller than IE6.  Bonus!

While we’re at it, let’s compare both IE7 and Firefox 3 beta as well:

browser-review-firefox-ie7.jpg

IE7 is hideous!  There is no way to get that toolbar any smaller.  Why can’t you embed the address bar into one of the other bars?  The wasted space is mind boggling, especially when maximizing the window on my 30″ monitor.  Sigh.   On the other hand, Firefox 3 is able to squeeze an even smaller footprint.  Yay!   I can’t for the life of me figure out what the designers of IE7 were thinking.

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I was afraid that Firefox would throw convention out the window and introduce all new keyboard shortcuts for browsing.  So far, I am happy that all the shortcuts I have been using work just like IE.  Ctrl-D, Alt-Left, Alt-Right, Ctrl-F.  Incremental Ctrl-F is nice.

In terms of rendering speed, I noticed that Firefox doesn’t exactly render any faster, but it feels different.  I think Firefox does a better job of multithreading the rendering so that the text displays first, and the images come in afterward, bit by bit as they download (just like the good old days).  Lately, in IE, most pages seem to pause for a second while the entire page downloads and then displays all at once (cnn.com, for example).  The incremental display is a better user experience.

Also, plugins were a breeze to deal with.  Download and copy it to the right folder, Firefox finds it right away and asks you to install it.  Neat.  Go to a site that requires flash, click the window and the flash plugin page displays and lets you install it.   It just seems more complex with IE.

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So, now that the good stuff is out of the way… let’s start nit-picking.  After all, I don’t really want to switch, so I’m trying to find everything wrong with it as I possibly can.  (Actually, I noticed these things right away, and boy do they bug):

- Toolbar buttons.  I think every menu option should have a icon for it.  This isn’t the case with Firefox.  Firefox is missing a Print Preview button and a Font Size button.  These two options I use frequently in IE.  Fortunately, I guess other people do as well, because there are two plugins that offer this capability.  On the one hand, it’s nice that Firefox is extensible, and people are willing to extend it.  On the other hand, I feel this is functionality that should have been added out-of-the-box.

- Scroll speed.  Take the same page in IE and Firefox.  Scroll down the same amount with either the mouse scroll wheel or the arrow keys.  The Firefox page scrolls about half as much as IE.  I much prefer a faster scroll speed.  However, I would prefer them to be consistent.  Why the difference?

- In IE, click the URL in the adrress bar.  Then click and drag in the middle of the URL to select half of the URL.  Notice how you can select part of the text?   Try the same thing in Firefox.  For some reason, it thinks you want to drag the icon somewhere.  In order to select that text, you have to move the pointer out of the address bar, then back in.  Then it will let you select text.  Why build in different behavior from the default Windows text box?  This is the danger of Non-native UI

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Well, that’s my Firefox story.  I’m almost convinced.  Actually, if IE7 becomes mandatory (as it is on Vista), then I think the decision has already been made.  When it comes to wasted screen real estate, that usually trumps every other reason.

4 Responses to “Firefox… that’s like a browser or something?”

  1. Don says:

    Hey, Ed,

    Really cool analysis, I really enjoyed it. Personally, I think the only reason people object to IE that is hard to ignore, is purely due to the development side of things. Microsoft’s apparent disdain for standards makes it hard to simply make a layout appear consistently between Firefox / Safari in one camp and IE in the other - they make it a tremendous pain in the ass, for no good reason.

    For this reason, the development process for many web developers I know is like so: “Yay, the site works! Arg…now I have to make it work in IE too. Yay absinthe!” Eventually, though, the developer smoothes out the problems, and it ceases to be an issue for the user.

  2. Paul says:

    WOW. I never thought you’d try Firefox out. If you want some other good plugins, try AdBlock Plus and FlashBlock. I would also suggest Mouse Gestures, but we all know you don’t need those.

  3. Kevin C says:

    Get with you old timer. Firefox rules. :) Mouse gestures are really nice and so is the session saving features. IE didnt have that when I switched and its been really great.

    Sincerely,
    long lost friend

  4. Ian B says:

    Hey Ed, a couple of comments,

    Alt-Tab:

    You can continue to navigate without a mouse with Firefox. Once you alt-tab to a Firefox browser, just ctrl-tab to jump tabs. Besides saving valuable taskbar real estate, one of the reasons why I prefer tabs is that I can organize related pages into one browser instance. It’s normal for me to have multiple Firefox instances open, with multiple tabs. One Firefox instance might have web development stuff going (web site tab, web page source tab, javascript debug session tab), while another might be a visit to Slashdot with extra tabs related to the linked-to articles. If for no other reason, if the boss comes into the office, it’s nice to be able to kill off one of those browser instances easily. :)
    Toolbar buttons:

    It’s open source. Open up the code and modify! You ARE a developer right??? :p It’s not like you’ve got 4 kids or anything. Seriously though, I wonder how much work would be involved in writing an extension for this. Oh wait, someone already did:
    https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/1778

    URL Address bar:

    I’m not certain I understand your problem here. If I click and drag in the middle of a url it highlights the text. It’s only when I click and drag THAT, that it creates the shortcut object that is placeable elsewhere. That click and drag option is something that I actually use quite often. When I find a page that I know I’m going to visit often, I drag and drop the url down to the bookmarks toolbar for quick access. I can also click and drag it to an email or anything else and have the url “type out” for me. Click and drag a url in IE into something like an email in Outlook and you get a retarded attachment that most novice users are afraid to open. (Rightly so, since they can’t actually see the friggin url!) Btw, if you click and select text and then decide you screwed up and need to select something different, just single click anywhere in the url field and try again (’esc’ key works too).

    As Paul said, two of my most favorite browser plugins is AdBlock Plus, and Flashblock. There is one more that I use and that is “filter set g”. This is an addin to AdBlock Plus and does a great job of blocking more ads (even Google’s adsense).

    There are a number of other plugins that I use for work: “htmlvalidator” which runs validators on the page source and tells you what’s screwed up, “web developer” which exposes everything about a page and allows one to change things on the fly, and the komodo javascript debugger that lets me step through javascript on a live page through the komodo ide.

    Btw, in response to your comment about IE vs Firefox and having to load the app and plugins on each computer, try to load IE on a Mac OSx or in a xwindows session. It really depends on what computers you’re tied to. At least in learning and using Firefox, you’re less tied to Microsoft’s One Ring. This is all really a non-issue anyway, there are “portable” versions of Firefox (and many other apps) here:
    http://portableapps.com/apps/internet/firefox_portable

    All you need is a USB key with enough storage space and you can keep the program, your extensions, saved passwords, and your bookmarks with you at all times.

    Take care.

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