April 12, 2005

Essential Firefox extensions you should download today - part 1

Author: Chris Lynch

The Mozilla Foundation's Firefox browser is without a doubt an open source software success story. One of its strengths is the active development community that works to expand and improve the browser's functionality through the development of Firefox extensions -- small applications that add functionality to Firefox. Here are a few of my favorite extensions, all tested with Firefox 1.0.1 on Windows XP and Mandrakelinux.

Bookmarks Synchroniser

Anyone who uses one computer in a work/office environment and another at home knows what a headache maintaining bookmarks between multiple computers can be, especially if those computers do not share a common operating system. All too often, the vital hyperlink that you saved a few days ago will be on your other machine, leaving you high, dry, and back at the search engine prompt. Bookmarks Synchroniser allows you to store your bookmarks in an XBEL file online, automatically download them to your machine when you start Firefox, and save changes back to the online file at the end of your session from either an FTP or WebDAV server.

XBEL
XBEL (XML Bookmark Exchange Language), developed by the Python XML Special Interest Group, is an XML format for storing and exchanging bookmarks between applications. Browsers such as Galeon use XBEL for bookmark storage. LinkaGoGo offers online conversion of bookmarks from major browsers (including IE, Mozilla, Netscape, Firefox, and Opera) to XBEL. Bookmarks Synchroniser itself comes with a tool to export your existing Firefox bookmarks into an XBEL file to get you started.

You can set Bookmarks Synchroniser to upload and download bookmarks manually or automatically at startup and shutdown time. The software also provides the option to merge downloaded changes into your existing bookmarks, rather than the default behaviour of overwriting your local bookmarks with those downloaded from the server.

Before you can use this extension, you will need some Web space to host your file, preferably with FTP or WebDAV access so that you can upload as well as download the file. For seamless operation, you need to ensure that all of your installations of Firefox have the same configuration for the synchroniser. Remove one machine's ability to automatically upload, for example, and you could start losing bookmarks that you create on that machine when the bookmarks file is overwritten with the latest online changes.

Finally, be aware that deleting and recreating all of your bookmarks can confuse both Firefox and some Firefox extensions. For example, if you want to include your browser toolbar bookmarks in your XBEL file, you can, but you may find that your toolbar disappears on occasion after the XBEL download. A restart of Firefox usually fixes this issue.

FoxyTunes

Web browsing enhancements don't need to be about Web browsing directly, as FoxyTunes proves. The FoxyTunes extension allows you to control your software media player of choice directly from Firefox, so you never have to leave your browser to skip a music track. FoxyTunes supports Winamp, iTunes, foobar2000, Windows Media Player, Musicmatch, Quintessential, J. River, jetAudio, XMPlay, MediaMonkey, Media Player Classic, Sonique, wxMusik, RealPlayer, XMMS, Noatun, Juk, amaroK, Music Player Daemon, Rhythmbox, and many other players.

Once installed, FoxyTunes appears as a set of "play, stop, fast forward" buttons within the status bar of Firefox, along with scrollable text listing the current track and artist. I was amazed at how often I hit "skip" in FoxyTunes whilst reading a Web page.

Sage RSS reader

Firefox has native support for RSS feeds as part of its Live Bookmark functionality. However, for greater control over your RSS feeds and flexibility in how you read them, I recommend Sage.

Sage appears as a sidebar extension to Firefox, and will pick up RSS 2.0, 1.0, and 0.9x and Atom feeds directly from your Firefox bookmarks. You have to point Sage at the folder containing the bookmarks. Any subfolders of your target folder will also be available, as will the feeds contained within them.

Sage can automatically refresh your feeds, or can be made to refresh manually. Clicking on a feed lists the contents of the feed in the sidebar and, optionally, renders an browser page of the elements in the feed in your browser's content pane. Clicking on a feed either within the sidebar or in the content pane loads the page that the RSS entry refers to.

Sage can detect feeds on any page and add them to your bookmarks as standard live bookmarks, ensuring that your RSS feeds will continue to function as live bookmarks in the absence of Sage.

For completeness, Sage also provides a search box that allows you to search the latest postings across Feedster, BlogDigger, DayPOP, BulkFeeds:ja, and Feedback:ja.

On the down side, Sage can get confused when you use XBEL bookmark synchronisation (see above), reportedly forgetting which folder the live bookmarks that it was using were in. The simple workaround for this problem is to edit the Sage preferences after Firefox starts up. Whilst this is by no means a critical issue, it should serve as a reminder that not all Firefox extensions are guaranteed to coexist happily. Users have also recently registered bugs for feeds that fail to render, and these will be worth monitoring for fixes. However, in my experience, Sage rarely fails to discover or read a feed.

Coming up: StumbleUpon, Add Bookmark Here, Googlebar, and more

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