September 8, 2008

Firefox download extensions

Author: Bruce Byfield

Download management is one of the larger categories on the Firefox Add-ons site, but while hundreds of extensions fall under this category, they are a mixed lot at best. Many have yet to release versions compatible with Firefox 3.0, and others are designed to work with Windows programs. However, with patience, you can find some programs worth exploring -- and even a few small treasures -- in this category.

Extension series

Several add-ons offer small improvements to Firefox's default download manager (the window in which you choose to open a download or save it to disk, and the other dialog in which you can view and control each download). Using Custom Download Manager, you can add buttons and toolbars to the download window, and change the position of existing ones -- a reasonable idea, given that by default the buttons are at the bottom and the progress bars are at the top, and you can easily overlook the options in the right-click menu.

Custom Download Manager also gives you options for handling Windows files with executable extensions -- if you care -- and allows you to display the download manager in a window like the default or to display it instead in a sidebar or tab.

Another minor but useful enhancement is FavLoc, which allows you to designate multiple folders as download locations. These folders are designated by name and path for easy identification, and you can set where in the browser the list of them appears. The concept is simple, but, if, like many chronic downloaders, you tend to dump all your downloads in a default location and never get around to organizing them, you could find this extension indispensable for its help in getting you organized. After all, what better time to organize your downloads than as you start them?

Other small enhancers include SourceForge Direct Download, which automatically downloads from using your favorite mirror, and Auto Close Download Dialog, which closes the window dialog when it is empty.

A couple of other extensions are supposed to improve the speed of downloads. Tweak Networks, which has a setting for the maximum connections to a site, probably does work as advertised, given a large enough network and a system administrator willing to adjust it occasionally. However, I am less convinced by DownThemAll! -- and not just because of the desperate effort to create a sense of excitement by adding an exclamation mark to the extension's name. The extension is supposed to be a "download accelerator," but, after various tests and tweaking of the settings, the most I could get it to do is possibly to maintain the highest speeds on my connection more consistently than the unmodified Firefox. But even that advantage seems minimal at best, and I am still not convinced it exists at all. Still, you might consider DownThemAll! for its dialog window for routine downloads, which is much better designed than the default.

If you are a downloader who likes to rip specific context from a page, you might also find DownThemAll! an all-in-one extension that is more convenient that the host of extensions for individual categories of content, such as Magic's Video Downloader, the self-explanatory Image Download, and PDF Download. However, each of these has its own advantages that make it worth checking out, such as Magic's Video Downloader's ability to monitor multiple sites, and PDF Download's integration with online editing tools.

Of all the download managers, by far the most useful I've found is ScrapBook, which, as you might figure from the name, helps you organize downloaded material -- text, URLs, images, videos -- into containers. What is more, in ScrapBook, you can edit the material, adding annotations or erasing all but the relevant passages, while still maintaining the link.

There are other extensions with similar functionality, such as Jet-Eye, which we recently reviewed, but none have the same maturity or power as ScrapBook. If you are constantly researching on the Web, an hour of using ScrapBook will soon make it an important part of your workflow.

The only extension I'd like but cannot find in the download management category is one that lets you return to an interrupted download later, after all the dialogs are closed, and resume where you left off. Considering the number of people who download DVDs, such a tool would seem a given. But no doubt all the GNU/Linux users who might have needed such a tool in the past are using Torrent Bar instead. At any rate, it's a small omission among so many useful pieces of additional functionality.

Every Monday we highlight a different extension, plugin, or add-on. Write an article of less than 1,000 words telling us about one that you use and how it makes your work easier, along with tips for getting the most out of it. If we publish it, we'll pay you $100. (Send us a query first to be sure we haven't already published a story on your chosen topic recently or have one in hand.)


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