October 8, 2007

Firefox extensions for tab addicts

Author: Bruce Byfield

For Firefox users who are constantly referring to multiple pages, tabbed browsing is not a feature, but a way of life. There are enough of us that the Firefox addon page lists more than 110 extensions related to tabs. These extensions feature everything from simple add-ons to various means of saving tab addresses and sessions to thumbnails and collections of functions, as well as one or two uncategorizable ideas.

If you regularly have more than half a dozen tabs open, one of the first things you notice is how limited the default controls for managing them can be. One of the most basic yet most useful extensions is remove tabs, which allows you to close all tabs to the right or left of the current one. The remove tabs extension also ships with a Close All function that is not enabled by default, although you might choose Close All Tabs instead.

You might also want to consider Multiple Tab Handler, which allows you to manipulate any tabs you select as a group. And, should you make a mistake in your tab management, Undo Closed Tab Button will let you recover from it, although you should note that it adds an icon to the Firefox toolbars, rather than an item to the tab's right-click menu.

Another basic tab extension to consider is Tabs Open Relative, which opens new tabs directly to the right of the current one, instead of at the end of all open tabs. This small change in basic behavior saves you the awkwardness of scrolling when you already have a couple of dozen tabs open.

Other basic extensions allow you to handle tabs in groups, usually by pages at the same address. Separe simply adds a blank tab as a separator, while Separate Tabs leaves a space in Firefox orange between tab groups. A more useful way to group tabs is ChromaTabs, which colors each page from the same address with the same color -- either a random one, or one generated from the site's icon.

Managing multiple tabs

Heavy tab users may also want to take advantage of Tab X, which ensures that the Close widget is always visible on each tab, instead of disappearing when you have a large number of open tabs or certain combinations of extensions. Still another option for handling large number of tabs is FishEyeTabs, which gives a view of a tab when you pass the mouse cursor over it. To ease moving through multiple tabs, especially when there are more than can fit into the browser window, you can use Tab Overflow Scrollbar.

The Vertigo extension offers another solution to the problem of multiple tabs by displaying them vertically against the left side of the browser window, instead of the usual horizontal. This arrangement has the advantage of ensuring that tab width remains constant, and of allowing you to quickly resize all of them.

Another alternative method for dealing with many open tabs is to provide thumbnails of them. Ctrl Tab Preview gives you a thumbnail of the current tab, while by using Galleropa or Tab Catalog, you can view thumbnails of open tabs in a dialog window. You can also choose to view thumbnails as a filmstrip with Thumbstrips, or as a presentation with Tab Slideshow.

Saving and exporting tab addresses

Unmodified, Firefox 1.x requires you to bookmark each tab separately -- something that quickly becomes tedious with more than a few tabs. If you're not ready to upgrade to a 2.x version, which allows you to bookmark all open tabs at one click, try Bookmark All. On any version, if you just want a list of URLS to generate a bibliography, or to send a list to friends, then Tab URL Copier can help you.

Instead of using bookmarks, you may choose to save a complete session. LinkWad gives you the power to save groups of tabs, which you can then open using a keyboard shortcut. Session Manager offers much the same functionality via either an icon in the toolbar or a submenu under Tools.

Other functions

For those who prefer to keep their hands on the keyboard rather than the mouse, Swift Tabs offers shortcuts for basic functionality such as opening and closing tabs. For those who find themselves returning constantly to the same tabs all the time, Permatabs may be a solution; it opens up tabs for a saved list of addresses each time you open the browser.

RenameTabs, its developer suggests, is a way to preserve your privacy when you are browsing. The suggestion raises images of people surfing for porn on company time, but the ability to rename might also be useful when you are using a large number of tabs while researching, and want to name tabs according to the ideas you are working with.

Other tab-related extensions include Snap Links, which gives you the ability to draw a box with the mouse around links on a Web page and open them all in a tab, and Split Browser, which, while not a tab extension in itself, takes the idea of tabs to the next logical step by providing a split screen view in the same tab. Both extensions are worth exploring, regardless of whether you are a dedicated tab user or not.

Mixing and matching

As experienced users of Firefox extensions might guess, the one problem with so many tab extensions is that they are not always mutually compatible. Moreover, many extensions designed for version 1.x of Firefox no longer work in the current 2.x versions.

For instance, when running Vertigo, I lose ChromaTab. Similarly, when Separate Tabs is enabled, Remove Tab only closes the first tab on the far left or the right. Undoubtedly, you can expect other eccentricities or failures from other combinations.

One solution to this problem is to use a collection of extensions. The supreme collection is Tabbrowser Extensions -- in fact, it was the discovery that Tabbrowser Extensions no longer worked in the latest version of Firefox that led to this article. However, Tabbrowser Extensions is not recognized as an official Firefox extension because it changes too much of the default behavior -- and is such an ambitious program that it tends to crash on a regular basis.

For this reason, you are probably better off with collections such as superT or Tab Mix Plus, both of which boast such features as duplicating tabs, undoing tab closures, and a wealth of other enhancements. Using one of these collections has the advantage of ensuring compatibility between its own features, but chances are that, once you start looking, you'll find another extension you'd like with which the collection is incompatible. Nor are the collections compatible with each other.

The only solution is to keep trying different combinations of extensions until you find a set that you can live with -- and then save them, just in case you ever need to reinstall them. You may be able to find what you'd like in some form or other, but you do need to expect some trial and error until you find a working combination. If you're as heavily reliant on tabs as I am, you'll find the time you spent worthwhile for the ease of use you'll enjoy when you are finished.

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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