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Thread: Uncovering Firefox's secrets

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    Uncovering Firefox's secrets

    It may no longer be the alternative browser of choice, but Firefox still leads the way with features, many of which are unknown

    Firefox was the hammer that put the first crack in Microsoft’s desktop monolith. That was over ten years ago, and while the browser landscape has changed since then, there’s little doubt that Firefox remains one of the strongest contenders when it comes to everyday browsing. Its developer regularly introduces new features, to the extent that it has all the characteristics of a mature piece of software – including hidden catacombs of features that its regular users don’t know exist.
    Join us, then, as we uncover 20 features that might just change the way you browse forever.

    Custom search keywords

    Wouldn’t it be useful to be able to utilise the search functions of Amazon, or eBay, without having to browse to the sites first? Firefox’s keyword search feature lets you do just this, although it requires some configuration. First, head off to the site in question, and right-click in one of the general search fields on the site (be careful you don’t click in one of the specialised search fields that search just a subsection).
    Next, from the menu that appears select ‘Add a Keyword For This Search’. In the box that appears, type the keyword for the search into the relevant box – something like ‘ebay’ would make sense for eBay, for example. In the name field, type something memorable – ‘eBay’ would work there too.
    Click OK, then test your search. In the address bar type ‘ebay’, then a space, then your search term. Note that this only works in the Awesome Bar (i.e. the address bar) and not the actual search box.

    Use bookmark keywords

    Another use of the previous tip is to create bookmark keywords, which are words you type into the address bar that will open a particular site – useful if you don’t like taking your hands off the keyboard to grab the mouse and navigate the bookmarks menu.
    To add a keyboard to a bookmark, simply right-click it and select Properties from the menu that appears. Then type a keyword into the relevant field. As before, keep it simple – ‘mm’ for google.com, for example. Then click Save, and test your changes by typing the keyword into the Awesome Bar.

    Get rid of the search box

    Several years ago Firefox introduced the Awesome Bar. Other browsers call this the omnibox or simply the address field, but the long and short of it is that you can type search terms straight into the Awesome Bar rather than having to use the actual search box. So why’s the search field there? You’ll need to ask Firefox’s engineers, but getting rid of it is easy – just right-click any of the toolbar icons and select Customise from the menu that appears. Then click and drag the search box to the Customise Toolbar dialogue box.
    Restoring it is the inverse of this procedure – again, open the Customise Toolbar dialogue box, and just drag and drop it back on the toolbar area. You could even drop it before the Awesome Bar if that would help your workflow!

    Controlling Awesome Bar’s searches

    If you undertake the previous tip, you might be left wondering how you can change the Awesome Bar’s search engine. By default, it defaults to the ‘local’ Google (i.e. Google.co.uk for UK users), but even this can be a pain if you prefer Google.com. (To see the difference between local and non-local, search for ‘test’ on the British and US Googles; on the British page you’ll see mostly results about test cricket, while on the US page you’ll see results about testing software.)
    Changing the Awesome Bar search engine is easy, although first you’ll need to find the default search URL for the search engine in question. Put simply, this is the URL without the search terms. You’ll find many by (ironically) Googling, but the one for Yahoo is http://search.yahoo.com/search?p=, for example, and the one for Duck Duck Go is https://duckduckgo.com/?q=. The one for Google.com (rather than UK) is https://www.google.com/search?q=. (In case you’re wondering, no, there isn’t an https: gateway for Yahoo.)
    Once you’ve got the URL, type ‘about:config’ into the address bar, and then click the button saying that you’ll be careful. Then in the search field type ‘keyword.url’ and double-click the single result. Type the search engine URL into the dialogue box that appears. Then test your changes by typing a search query into the Awesome Bar and seeing the results.

    Search by typing

    To search a page’s content in most browsers, you simply hit Ctrl+F, but even this can be one step too far if you do a lot of researching on sites. Instead, you can activate a Firefox feature that lets you simply start typing to initiate a search on any page. Of course, this can bring annoyances too, especially if you accidentally tap a key and don’t realise search has been activated. However, it works well most of the time.
    To activate the feature, click the Firefox menu at the top left, then click Options. Ensure the General tab is selected, and put a tick alongside ‘Search for Text When I Start Typing’. Then click OK.

    Search into a new tab

    Whenever you type anything into the search box, Firefox will display the results in the currently open tab. If you forget that the tab is showing something important, this can be something of a pain when you have to click the back button and then open a new tab and repeat the search.
    There is a solution involving a small configuration change. In the Awesome Bar, type ‘about:config’ and in the search field type ‘browser.search.openintab’. Double-click the entry in the list of results so it turns bold. Then test your new setting by searching for something and watching as a new tab is automatically opened showing the results.
    Note that this only works for searches using the search box and not the Awesome Bar.

    Download now

    To download anything – from a file to an image – just drag and drop either the item or the link to the download link at the top right of the browser window.

    Use a cursor

    Caret mode makes a text cursor appear in pages you view using Firefox, as if you’re using a word processor. It isn’t an ordinary text cursor, however. You can’t type with it, but you can use it to make the page scroll up and down line by line, and by holding down Shift you can highlight text for copying and pasting elsewhere. Caret browsing might sound strange, but it can be very useful, especially if you like to keep your hands on the keyboard rather than frequently leaping to the mouse.
    To activate it, hit F7, then click anywhere to place the cursor. Then use the arrow keys to move the cursor. Sometimes the cursor gets ‘lost’, and Firefox will then revert to its usual behaviour of scrolling page up/down when the up/down arrow keys are pressed, but clicking again in any text on the page will again place the cursor.
    To turn of caret browsing, just tap F7 again.

    Get the menu back

    Firefox’s decision to get rid of menu bars aped that of Google Chrome and many Microsoft products but, let’s be honest, menu bars are damned useful things. Luckily, the one in Firefox is only hidden and can be restored by maximising the window, then right-clicking in a blank spot near the maximise/minimise buttons, and then selecting Menu Bar from the menu that appears.
    To restore the Firefox bar later, just click View > Toolbars and remove the tick alongside Menu Bar.

    Read newsfeeds

    Google’s decision to get rid of Google Reader caused consternation, not least because RSS feeds are still widely used across the Internet. Put simply, they allows sites to broadcast their headlines (and often the complete text) of their latest updates. The idea is that the user has a central app that ‘subscribes’ to the headlines so they can then read only the stories they’re interested in, making for a very efficient setup.
    A separate news reader app isn’t necessary if you use Firefox, however, because you can add an RSS feed as a Live Bookmark that, when clicked, will show the headlines as a list that you can then click within to jump straight to the story in question. To set it up, simply click the RSS/Atom link on the web page (this is often hidden away at the bottom of the site) and in the page that appears, click the Subscribe Now button, ensuring Live Bookmarks is selected in the list above.
    A new bookmark will appear on the Bookmarks Toolbar. If you can’t see the toolbar, maximise the window, then right-click near the maximise/minimise buttons and select the option on the menu that appears.

    Quickly search

    Spotted a word or phrase that you want to Google quickly? Just double-click to highlight it, then drag and drop it onto the Firefox search box. The text will be pasted in and searched for immediately.

    Prune the Awesome Bar

    In one of its TV adverts Microsoft joked about how a fellow’s spouse discovered his browsing history and thereby also discovered what birthday present he was buying her. Whatever the true reasons for him not wanting others to see sites or searches he’s made, removing them from Firefox’s Awesome Bar’s pop-up list of results is easy – when the questionable suggestion appears after you’ve typed something, just use the cursor keys to move the highlight to it and then tap the Delete key. Bang! It’s gone from the Awesome Bar and also your browsing history!
    Control Website Permissions
    Firefox allows you to set what individual websites can and can’t do. For example, if your online banking site is a fan of creating pop-up windows (why, First Direct, why?), then you can allow that URL to create pop-ups but without turning off what is otherwise a very useful feature.
    To access the settings, right-click anywhere in a blank spot on the page, then click View Page Info. In the dialogue box that appears, click the permissions tab, and make your permissions selections by removing the tick alongside Use Default.

    Tear off tabs

    If you’ve opened a new tab and would like it to become a window then the answer’s simple: just click and hold the tab in question, then drag it downwards for a short distance, then release. A new Firefox window will be opened, showing the contents of the tab. Alternatively, if you’d like to integrate a window’s tab into another Firefox window, click and hold it, then drag and drop it in the tab bar of the existing window – a small arrow will appear showing the position where the new tab will be placed.

    Save and quit

    Ever had to reboot in the middle of a busy Firefox session with multiple tabs open? Firefox used to offer an option in its quit dialogue box to save all tabs so they’d open again when you next started Firefox, but for some reason that option has been removed. Well, not exactly removed, because it’s still there and you can activate it by typing about:config into the Awesome Bar and clicking the ‘I’ll Be Careful’ button. Then in the search field type ‘browser.showQuitWarning’ and double-click the entry in the list beneath. From now on the quit dialogue box that appears when you’ve more than one tab open will show an option to save open tabs.

    Click and hold for tablets

    If you use Firefox on a tablet computer, such as an x86 Windows 8 Surface device, here’s a tip that might make it easier to get right-click menus to appear. It configures Firefox so that the right-click menu appears if you click ordinarily with the left button but hold for a few seconds (in other words, tap and hold for tablets).
    In the Awesome Bar type ‘about:config’ and click the ‘I’ll Be Careful’ button. Then in the search field type ‘ui.click_hold_context_menus’ and double-click the entry in the list of results so that it turns bold.
    To get the best results, be sure to drag your finger instantly to the right-click menu when it appears after a few seconds. Otherwise Firefox will simply interpret your tap/click in the usual way.
    Have multiple home pages

    While Firefox’s home page is actually pretty useful – offering quick access to settings, for example – you can make Firefox not only open with one of your favourite websites but with several of them, each in different tabs. To do so, open the Options dialogue box (click the Firefox button at the top left, then select Options) and in the Home Page text field type the addresses separated by a bar character (i.e. shift plus the key left of Z).

    Check for updates

    Firefox automatically updates itself when a new release is made, but if you keep your browser open it can be difficult for Firefox to find the opportunity to restart once the update has been installed. One solution is to check manually to see if updates are available, and the quickest way of doing so is to click the orange Firefox button at the top left, then select Help > About. You’ll see underneath the version number a progress indicator as Firefox scans for any update, and Firefox will download and install it if there is one.

    About the about

    A lot of interesting hidden Firefox features can be discovered by typing ‘about:about’ into the Awesome Bar. This will show the list of the about: configuration options, some of which are available through the main options and menu systems, and some of which aren’t. For example, did you know that typing ‘about: privatebrowsing’ into the Awesome bar will open a new private browsing tab? Add some of the about: options to bookmarks on the Bookmarks Toolbar and you’ll have quick access to some of Firefox’s useful yet obfuscated features.

    Add a progress indicator

    Once upon a time, all browsers had process indicators – usually an animated icon that indicated the browser was busy fetching pages, back when that wasn’t as easy a task as it is in today’s broadband world.
    Firefox tabs have their own tiny individual progress indicators, but you can add a larger one that covers all network activity Firefox gets up to. To do so, right-click the icon to the left of the URL in the Awesome Bar and select Customise. In the dialogue box full of icons that appears, drag the Activity Indicator icon to a location of your choosing on or around the other toolbar icons. Click Done when you’ve finished, and then visit a page to test the new feature.

  2. #2
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    Thanks Taylor for the information about Firefox's secrets.

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