Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Introducing Ubuntu's Default Web Browser, Firefox 3.0

Are you new to Firefox?

If you've never used Firefox on Windows, read this section to learn about how it may differ from Windows XP's default browser, Internet Explorer 6. If you are familiar with Firefox, you can safely skip to the next section, What's new in Firefox 3.0?

The Philosophy behind Firefox

Firefox tries to be a small, secure browser which follows the standards for the World Wide Web while still having the features that most people expect. It includes a pop-up blocker, a password manager, a download manager, and anti-phishing measures by default. Just about any other feature you want can be added through extensions and plugins. Firefox can even be extended enough to become a full-fledged music or video player.

Overview of the Application

As you can see in the screenshot, Firefox is quite similar to Internet Explorer 6 (IE6), which you're probably familiar with.

The main difference you'll notice between the two browsers is that Firefox uses tabs to organize your browsing. You'll no longer need to have fifteen different windows full of various web pages and pop-ups. Firefox stops virtually all pop-ups by default, and you can keep all your desired web pages in a single window with 1-15 tabs. If there is only one web page in a given window, the tab bar hides itself automatically.

There is a location bar which is used to show you the address of the web page you're visiting. It has two additional features when compared to IE6 -- one-click RSS feed subscription and a quick bookmark link. Use the RSS feed button to keep track of changes on a web page which changes often. The bookmark called "Latest BBC Headlines" is an example of this kind of RSS feed. The quick bookmark link allows you to save a few clicks over going to the Bookmarks menu.

Next to the location bar is the search bar. There are quite a few search engines installed by default, and many web pages will let you add more searches quickly by looking in the quick search drop-down menu for "Manage Search Engines."

There is also a bookmark toolbar which allows quick access to your most commonly used pages. By default, this toolbar has bookmarks, for your home page, a tutorial about Firefox, your most used and most recent bookmarks, and BBC headlines. You can add more by creating bookmarks and putting them in the Bookmarks Toolbar Folder.

What's new in Firefox 3.0?

If you've used Firefox before, you'll want to know how version 3.0 differs from 2.0.

It's significantly faster, having undergone some real architectural changes. The back end now uses a transactional database, too. What does that mean for you? It means no data loss to passwords, bookmarks, etc. if an application crash or power outage occurs. Memory use is also down, with the browser's memory leaks having been largely plugged. You can now leave Firefox on for longer without slowing your system down.
* Reliability: A user’s bookmarks, history, cookies, and preferences are now stored in a transactionally secure database format which will prevent data loss even if their system crashes.
* Speed: Major architectural changes put foundations in place for major performance tuning which have resulted in speed increases in Beta 1, and will show further gains in future Beta releases.
* Memory usage: Over 300 individual memory leaks have been plugged, and a new XPCOM cycle collector completely eliminates many more. Developers are continuing to work on optimizing memory use and reducing fragmentation.

There's a new, resumable download manager which is much easier to use than previous versions and which makes finding those files simpler. Password can be saved at any time, even after a successful login, by using the information bar.

Firefox has a completely revamped bookmark and history engine which makes organizing and finding your favorite sites a lot easier. Tags have been added to the traditional folders, making putting bookmarks in multiple places possible. You can also now add a bookmark for the current page by simply clicking the star located in the location bar.

And that location bar is more powerful in other ways, too. Typing the name or tag of a page you have visited recently or bookmarked some time ago will bring it right up for you to choose from.

The toolbar contains smart bookmarks with your most visited pages, recent bookmarks, and recent tags. Since people tend to visit the same places again and again when researching, smart bookmarks ease getting to those pages.

There have also been numerous improvements in security, making phishing and other misdirection more difficult.

Extending Firefox

You can add a lot of functionality to the basic Firefox browser, making your surfing experience that much better. There are hundreds of extensions and plugins available from the Mozilla website, but Ubuntu packages quite a few and makes it easy to add them system-wide from the Synaptic Package Manager.

Available extensions

  • Greasemonkey: There are quite a few scripts which will reformat web pages for you, e.g. adding a delete button to GMail or threading comments in a non-threaded forum. The scripts need to be added separately after the extension is installed.
  • Web Developer: Web developers need testing tools for various screen sizes and varying levels of browser fuctionality. This extension gives the developer those tools.
  • Sage RSS/Atom feed reader: If you want a more sophisticated RSS reader than Firefox's default Smart Bookmarks, this extension is for you.
  • Beagle: Some people use Beagle indexing to search their documents. Ubuntu uses a different program called Tracker, so this extension likely won't be very useful to you.
  • Image Zoom: You can easily enlarge the pictures on a web page by using this extension.
  • Live Headers: If you need to look at the conversation between your browser and the Web server, this extension will help you do that.
  • Scrapbook: With this extension, you can save pictures, web pages, or web clippings for later. This is especially useful for people who blog regularly.

Available plugins

  • Launchpad: Launchpad is Ubuntu's bug-tracking and project management space. You can get easy access to it through Firefox using this plugin.
  • Adobe Flash: If you want to play Flash games or watch online videos, you'll need this plugin. If you visit almost any Korean web page, the entire site will use it.
  • Gnash: This is a free alternative to Adobe's Flash plugin. It works for some things, especially videos, and has full support for everything below Flash 7. Flash 8/9 are only partially supported. If you run a 64-bit system, this may be the best option for you.
  • Java: You can view Java applets in a browser window with this plugin.
  • Acrobat Reader: Ubuntu has a great default PDF viewer called Evince, but it lacks some of the more advanced features of Adobe Acrobat Reader. If you want to view advanced forms in your browser, you can install this. I'd recommend waiting until you find out that you actually need it, though, because Acrobat Reader is significantly slower than Evince.
  • Noscript: If Javascript gets you down or slows down your computer too much, you can selectively turn it off using this plugin.
  • Totem: You can view movies like Quicktime and DiVX using this plugin.
  • VLC: If you prefer VLC over Totem, you want this plugin instead of the previous one.
  • Ubufox: This plugin is installed by default and adds Apt URL functionality, making writing HowTos a lot easier. When I say "Click the link to install," I'm telling you to use this plugin.


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