Getting the Most Out of Firefox

Internet Explorer users switching to Firefox 1.0 won't necessarily be entering browser nirvana. Our Executive Tech columnist tells you what glitches are in Firefox and how to fix them.
After a long period of development and beta testing, the final "gold" version of Firefox 1.0 was released on Nov. 9 — and the computer press has largely hailed this new competitor to Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser with praise suitable for the Second Coming of Christ.

I hate to interrupt all this lovey-dovey, huggy-wuggy stuff, but Firefox isn't a perfect superset of IE's features. I'm a great advocate of Windows users switching from IE to Firefox, as I made clear in this space on July 20, when the insurgent browser was still in beta testing. But erstwhile IE users will run into a few, um, issues when they switch to the new kid on the block. I want to tell you today what those glitches are — and, more importantly, how to fix them so Firefox works for you.

First, The Good News

Before we get into my list of workarounds, I want to give you a quick taste of what people like about Firefox. Almost every commentator has remarked on Firefox's ability to open Web pages in "tabs" within the same window, so you can easily switch between each tab and close them all with one click. But many other good features aren't as widely known:

Pick Your Own Search Engine. If you add the optional search toolbar to the interface (by clicking View, Toolbars, Customize in Firefox), you get instant access to searches of Google.com, Dictionary.com, and several other great search engines. What most people don't know, however, is that they can easily download from Mozdev.org additional search engines that work within the same toolbar widget. This includes everything from the excellent Web index Teoma.com to IMDB.com, the Internet movie database. When last I checked, there were more than 1,280 search plugins you could add to Firefox, conveniently broken into categories for you to select from.

Add Any Search Engine To The Address Bar. The search toolbar is nice, but power users of Firefox prefer to define their search engines of choice as "smart keywords." This means you can type something like imdb ocean's eleven in Firefox's address bar and get results from IMDB.com on the George Clooney caper movie. To make this work, right-click in any Web site's search box, click "Add a Keyword for this Search," give the resource a name such as Internet Movie Database and a keyword such as IMDB, and finally save it in your bookmarks.

News Feeds As "Live Bookmarks." Real-time, updated feeds from thousands of sites, known as RSS (Really Simple Syndication), can be accessed through a built-in Firefox feature, which would require a third-party application in IE. When you're browsing a site that offers one or more RSS feeds, a small orange icon that looks like radio waves appears in the lower-right corner of Firefox's window. Click that, then select whichever feed you wish. Firefox calls these "Live Bookmarks." You can eyeball them all quickly by turning on the browser's Bookmarks sidebar (click View, Sidebar, Bookmarks). You can find RSS feeds using one of the directories listed at Search Engine Watch.

Protection Against Web Nastiness. Much has been written about Firefox's protection against pop-up windows and "drive-by downloads," dangerous features that IE just added defenses against in Service Pack 2 for Windows XP last August. What's less known is that Firefox also protects users against other scourges of the Internet, such as Web sites that show bogus info in the status bar and maximize themselves to consume your entire screen without your consent. (In Firefox, you can customize this on a site-by-site basis by clicking Tools, Options, Web Features, Advanced.)

Now For The Bad News — And The Workarounds

With all of Firefox's good features, it's disappointing that it's not perfect. There are several areas in which you really should take matters into your own hands, and many of these tweaks would be hard for harried IT admins to discover:

No Support For ActiveX Or Other Microsoft-Proprietary Technologies. ActiveX and other kinds of "active Web content" that have been promoted by Microsoft are major reasons that Internet Explorer has severe security holes — at least 18 of which currently remain unpatched, according to security consulting firm Secunia. Firefox wisely doesn't allow such content to affect a PC. But this also restricts your use of some Web sites that rely on these technologies, including Windows Update. You can always run Windows Update properly from Windows' Start Menu, but before you run into other ActiveX-only sites, try installing IE View. This is a Firefox extension that allows you to right-click any page you're viewing in a Firefox window and open it instead in an IE window.

Missing Corporate Deployment Tools. While Firefox should be fairly simple to introduce to an enterprise's end users because of its similarity to IE, it lacks sophisticated deployment tools, such as Microsoft's IEAK (Internet Explorer Administration Kit). IT admins can finesse this using their own skills, but it's ground that the Redmond software giant has trod for years.

Saved Passwords Aren't Encrypted By Default. Like IE and many other browsers, Firefox allows users to save the passwords that are required to log them into into various Web sites. This, of course, is a security risk if anyone else uses the same computer — but users like not having to type in their passwords every time, so it's likely that this feature will remain popular. Unfortunately, if this feature is on, Firefox doesn't automatically encrypt the saved-password file. You can do this by clicking Tools, Options, Privacy, Set Master Password, but most users would never find that setting. Once this is done, you'll have to type the master password before Firefox will auto-log you into password-protected sites. But this protects the PC against other users and is a lot easier than having to remember the passwords to dozens of sites.

Display Size Preference Isn't Saved. Firefox displays the size of text on Web sites following Internet standards, and it's easy to use the View, Text Size menu to make the text of any site as large or as small as you wish. Inexplicably, however, Firefox doesn't save your preferred text size. To make your preference stick, you'll need to install another downloadable extension, TextZoom. (At this writing, TextZoom works only with beta versions of Firefox, but a version that will work with Firefox 1.0 Gold is expected shortly.)

No Automatic Adjustment of Print Size. In IE, increasing the size of a Web page on the screen also increases the size of the page's text when you print it out — great for those with failing vision. Firefox, however, prints every page at the same magnification, no matter how large you make the type on your screen. To adjust the text size on the printout, you'll need to use the File, Page Setup dialog box. Or you can click File, Print Preview, and use the Scale widget to adjust the printed text size in real time until you're happy.

Roll Your Own Calibration. Speaking of Print Preview, Firefox's preview function seems to get confused if Windows users configure their screens to anything other than Small Fonts. With all the high-resolution monitors companies are buying these days, many people have set their Display Properties to Large Fonts (120 dots per inch) or even higher levels of magnification. To correct for this, click Tools, Options, General, and then click the Fonts & Colors button (I kid you not). In the Display Resolution box, select Other, then tweak the little ruler that appears until you've set Firefox to 120 dpi or whatever.

No "Save As Single File." IE gained the ability some time ago to save Web pages in a standardized file format, known as an MHT file (MIME HTML), rather than as a collection of code and images in separate files. To do the same thing with Firefox, you'll need to install MAF (Mozilla Archive Format). This extension saves Web pages in the open-source .MAFF format, but can also read and write .MHT files, which IE users can open.

Keyboard Shortcuts. Many of Firefox's features are available using keybord shortcuts, but these shortcuts are often different that the ones used by Internet Explorer (when IE even offers the same feature). Fortunately, there's a handy chart that shows all the shortcuts for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux users.

If you need workarounds other than the ones I've described above, look in the Firefox extension list, which includes scores of add-ons.

Conclusion

Despite the small quirks involved with adjusting to Firefox, I wouldn't do without it now. Just the peace of mind I get — knowing that my co-workers and I can't catch a virus from some devious Web site that's exploiting an obscure, unpatched vulnerability in IE — is more than worth any minor hassles.

I think you'll like the peace of mind, too. Try Firefox and roll it out to your Windows users, if you haven't already.

I'd like to thank Josh Freedman for his help in researching the password-encryption portion of this article. Freedman will receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of his choice for being the first to send me a tip that I printed.






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