Firefox Extensions Refactored

Warning: Potentially Boring Topic!

I have to admit to having been something of an extension collector from the time I started using Firefox. I came to Firefox from Opera and Avant[0], and extensions are what sealed the deal. Step 1 was extending Firefox until it had mouse gestures and session saving. Step 2 was adding everything I thought was a cool value-add. Step 3 was using it like this for over a year, collecting cool extensions as I discovered uses for them, and generally just browsing extremely slowly. Step 4 was discovering the source of the biggest Firefox memory leaks, which is important to a guy who opens hundreds of links a day. Originally, I “worked around” this problem by restarting Firefox every once ina while — mostly painless when you have session saving capability — but this is a sub-optimal solution which had to stop. So, Step 5, which happened this weekend, was a paring-down of extensions to fewer than two-dozen (!) that either add value to the browsing experience, or at least stay out of the way and (mostly) out of my memory when they’re not in use. In the hope that this list will prove to be useful to others, I present it here, along with my rationale for each piece. I will also do my best to admit the guilty pleasures and not hide my shame in rationalization. ;) 

  1. Adblock Plus – I installed this because some nefarious cabal of advertisers decided that banner ads were not enough, and that they should include animated, flash-based, inline advertisements, in order that I have the maximum distraction possible while trying to read technical articles. I respectfully disagreed.
  2. Adblock Filterset.G Updater – This is essentially a precaching extension for Adblock, if you will. It obviates the process of explicitly blocking ads from each of the sites you visit, which is nice if you visit a lot of new sites during your web time.
  3. All-in-One Gestures – Oh, my sweet gestures. How did I ever browse when I had to click on buttons?
  4. BugMeNot – This one is a bit of a guilty pleasure. I mean, how hard is it to go to the site and copy/paste? Hard enough to enjoy using this extension once a month, apparently.
  5. CustomizeGoogle – I started using this while I was car shopping over the summer. It’s quite nice to use while browsing Google Images for car pictures, as it makes the image links direct links. Combine with the greased lightbox script for GreaseMonkey, and you’ve turned the entire web into your interactive gallery. Oh, yeah, it also does cool stuff like force Gmail into HTTPS mode, so you can use it in a relatively unsecured environment without thinking about which protocol you are using to connect. Pretty sweet.
  6. Dictionary Tooltip – If you read anything more esoteric than, say, PA, you’re going to need to look something up occasionally. This extension makes it painless. [dt0]
  7. Download Statusbar – If you download a lot of archives (or anything else larger than a few MB, for that matter), it’s nice to keep track of your downloads in a toolbar. You can also access files from there, and do about anything you would need to do with a file-in-transit.
  8. DownThemAll! – If you donwload a lot of files at once, this is a nice download queueing plugin. It’s basically a stripped down wget-alike that I find occasionally convenient.
  9. Forecastfox – This is on probation! It leaks, apparently. I have to decide whether having the weather at my fingertips is really worth that… but since all weather sites are developed in the off-season by the guys who make hedge mazes, this is a more convenient option. Ah, yes, the old RAM/sanity trade-off.
  10. Gmail Skins – Borderline useless! However, since it can change the Gmail color scheme from “Aggressive Clown” to “Slate”, I will keep it.
  11. Greasemonkey – You already have this one, right? If you don’t, get it. Basically, it lets you (or those who have gone before you) change the web to better suit you, without all that incessant whining you’d otherwise have to email to webmaster@my.favorite.site until your wishes were granted. While greased lightbox is an extremely polished example, the script that got me started was one that simply extracted the alt text from a comic strip and printed it right on the page.
  12. Platypus – Once you get used to GreaseMonkey, you will land somewhere on the emotion scale between disappointed and livid the first (or eigth) time you can’t find a script to do the simplest, most reasonable thing you can THINK of to your favorite site. Of course, you are obligated to write your own script in that case! But who wants to write a 100-line script longhand to extract a measley piece of text and print it in the document? Platypus will let you do it with less typing and more clicking. [p0]
  13. Plain Text Links – If you’ve ever been to a blog comment page/forum that doesn’t support hyperlinking, you’ll appreciate the ability to highlight a textual URL and go. Well, okay, without using C-c C-t C-v ENTER.
  14. Restart Firefox – Oh, so unnecessary. I installed so many extensions and updates that I felt the need for something just to restart the browser! I got used to having the functionality, so the extension remains.
  15. Searchbar Autosizer – There is not much reason for this, either, but once I got used to it, any Firefox that didn’t automatically adjust the address and search fields to show me the most of what I wanted seemed positively hazel.
  16. Slim Extension List – Um… another artifact from Extensionzilla. I keep it because I can see in one screen which extensions are installed.
  17. Sourceforge Direct Download – If I wanted to click thirty hidden or nosy links to download a single file, I’d go to a commercial website, where the business model is based on offending and driving away paying and potential customers through link obfuscation, licensorrhea and endless click-throughs. I want my new file package from SourceForge, I already know which mirrors I like, and I don’t want to have to read about my options.
  18. Tab Mix Plus – A few of the extensions I used for enhanced tab management and session saving showed up on the MEMORY LEAK LIST OF DEATH. So I am now using Tab Mix Pro, and can’t complain.
  19. WellRounded – This just makes the address and search fields round at the ends, instead of rectangular. No, there’s no reason other than the look.

I also got rid of a few extensions that I had to think twice (or more times) about…

  • ColorZilla – This is neat, but it was not useful enough to keep around, since I do very little front-end development on a day-to-day basis.
  • deskCut – Duplicates the INCREDIBLY POWERFUL ability of Internet Explorer to SEND A SHORTCUT TO YOUR DESKTOP. Theoretically, this is handy. You can place shortcuts on your desktop, where you will see them and visit them later, and you can do so when your desktop is completely covered by windows (and thus, you cannot drag the address icon onto the desktop yourself). But wait! If the desktop is completely covered with windows, I ALREADY CAN’T SEE THE ICONS ON THE DESKTOP. In the end, I decided I could live with either dragging the address icon to a holding folder or toolbar myself, and make less clutter besides.
  • GooglePreview – Pure, unadulterated fluff, but I liked it. It gave me a half-decent idea of what to expect when I visited a link — provided I could muster the patience to wait for all the thumbnails to load before I clicked through. In the end, it just didn’t add enough value, since it only worked when I was in “slow search mode.” Once the only tangible effect is having your users comment that “Your Google looks different!” when they see you do a search, it may be time to let go.
  • IE Tab – What a grand idea this one is. If you regularly visit websites that are so broken that they only support IE, then you can visit them in a tab with IE Tab. The problem is, apparently, that it leaks. Also, it doesn’t support gestures or anything, being that it just puts a big, drooling block of IE Control in a tab. I can do without it, I hope.
  • MediaPlayerConnectivity – This was handy for viewing some movie previews and game demos and making them full-screen. With the appearance of Google Video and other video sites with inline players, this is less important. The fact that it tends to mess up the layout of sites with video never helped. The fact that it works with a shrinking number of sites in combination with my media app of choice isn’t a plus. The facts that I have an iPod that supports video playback now, and interesting video podcasts available, also precipitated a change in the way I consume internet video.
  • NoScript – Came VERY recommended. I like the idea, I like the security. I also like dynamic content, and visit a lot of different sites. I visit between 5 and 20 new-to-me sites a day between my home browsing and work research. Once I stopped thinking “Oh, great, my browser/their server’s broken” every time a vendor site didn’t show any links, and instead started adding every server I visited into the “allow this site” list, I realized that this extension just wasn’t helping. When this extension (probably in conjunction with another extension) caused my CPU to peg every time I added a website to the allowed list, I realized that this extension was hurting me. When I noticed that the sources on different scripts were from different hosts for the same page, I realized that I couldn’t even guarantee that I was capable of using the darned thing correctly. I HOPE your mileage varies on this one. This extension is a very good idea. But I am now LIVING ON THE EDGE. YOUR DROP DOWN MENUS ARE NOW VISIBLE TO ME, HUMANS! WHAT YOU NOW FEEL IS FEAR!
  • ShowIP – This is neat, but it didn’t really do enough to justify keeping it in the status bar all the time.
  • Translate – I like this one. I will probably install it or one of its brethren again in the future when I’m in need of multilingual forum search results again [tr0], but until then, I’ll leave it out.

New extensions come out often enough that I’m sure I’m missing some golden ones. Hopefully you found a new extension or two in my list that you will really like. [0] I was already addicted to tabbed browsing and mouse gestures from my Opera exposure. I used Avant to escape Opera’s adbar and incompatibilities while keeping the tabs and gestures, although I was (of course) still using Opera on my Linux boxes. [dt0] Special bonus hint: change the options so the tooltip doesn’t come up automatically when you double-click a word. Otherwise, this extension will get annoying when you use multiple clicks to highlight text. I find the context menu to be acceptable. [p0] Be warned that it’s not all fun and games. I spend most of my time in the regex editor/tester, and it still not total cake. But it does write the script framework for me, so I’m pleased to have it installed. [tr0] Usually this is when tracking down some obscure Microsoft operating system error. Why these sorts of problems I have in my line of work are only discussed online in Danish, I may never know.

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