Dig deeper to reveal the secrets of Firefox 3

Scott dunn By Scott Dunn

The latest version of the leading IE alternative is fresh off the assembly line, with revved-up performance and handy new features.

Firefox 3′s about:config settings let you fine-tune the browser to the perfect mix of speed and security.

Venture into Firefox’s settings repository

Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, the browser built into Windows, is the most popular browser in the world. Yet many in the tech industry — including us here at Windows Secrets — prefer Firefox for our Web browsing.

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This isn’t the result of a bias against Microsoft, though there may be an element of that for some Firefox users. Most of us prefer Firefox simply because it offers more ways to customize your browsing experience.

Firefox 3, which the Mozilla Corp. released on June 17, adds many useful new features, though some of my favorites aren’t readily apparent. I’ll show you how to tweak Firefox’s about:config settings to get more out of the Location Bar, zoom settings, and other features. I’ll also describe ways to customize your browser history, work with Web apps offline, and cope with plug-ins that haven’t kept up with the times.

Read all about:config

To view Firefox’s about:config list, type about:config in the Location Bar and press Enter. If you’ve never worked with these settings before, be sure to consult Brian Livingston’s Dec. 2, 2004, “Secrets of Firefox” article for a primer. Several of Brian’s tips still apply to Firefox today.

Follow the steps described in that article to back up Firefox’s config files in the Profiles folder. (Note that changes to about:config settings take effect when you restart Firefox.)

Now you’re ready to remake your browser.

Harness the power of the Location Bar. As with the Location Bar in Firefox 2 (and IE’s Address bar), you can type a Web address and press Ctrl+Enter to have Firefox add www. to the beginning and .com to the end of the address automatically. Press Shift+Enter to append the elements for .net addresses and Ctrl+Shift+Enter for .org sites.

Firefox 3 does away with the need for these key combinations. In many cases, you just type the Web site name and press Enter to open the site. If Firefox doesn’t find a site that matches what you enter, the browser will show search results for the word or phrase.

Here’s a feature I find very useful: enter all or part of the site name and wait before pressing Enter to have the Location Bar display a drop-down list of search results from your history and bookmarks.

Firefox 3's location bar drop-down menu
Figure 1. Get to sites faster by choosing them from Firefox 3′s Location Bar drop-down menu.

I’m not one to gush over software, but one Firefox 3 user referred to the Location Bar as the “awesome bar.”

Resize the Location Bar drop-down. As soon as you start typing in the Location Bar, the search results appear in a drop-down list. To see the entire history list, click the down-arrow control, or press Alt+D to activate the Location list and press F4.

If this list is too big or too small, right-click in the about:config list and choose New, Integer. Type browser.urlbar.maxRichResults and press Enter. When prompted, enter a value lower than the default of 12 if you want to see fewer lines in the drop-down list. Enter a higher number if you want to see more lines here.

The list adds a scroll bar once it exceeds a certain size, so you can scroll through whichever number of items you requested in this setting.

Get more boom for your zoom. Firefox 2 lets you shrink or enlarge text by holding the Ctrl key and pressing the or + key. You can also zoom by pressing Ctrl while you spin your mouse wheel. To return to the default zoom level in either Firefox 2 or 3, press Ctrl+0.

Firefox 2 keeps the same setting for every site, so when you navigate to a new site you have to zoom back out. If you return to the site you zoomed, you need to re-zoom. This gets old pretty fast.

Fortunately, Firefox 3 remembers the zoom level of each site. When you return to that site, the browser reverts to the last magnification level you set for the page.

But maybe you want the same zoom level for each site you surf to. To change this setting in the about:config page, scroll to and double-click browser.zoom.siteSpecific. Toggle the value from true to false. When you restart Firefox, your zoom setting will be consistent from site to site.

Zoom text and images, or just the text. Firefox 3′s zoom mode is more like Internet Explorer’s in that the page’s graphics and other layout elements are magnified or reduced along with the text. However, zooming all elements on the page can cause some information to disappear off the edge of the browser window.

It’s possible to change this setting via about:config, but there’s a simpler solution. To return to the text-only style of zooming, choose View, Zoom, Zoom Text Only.

Expand or limit your zoom options. If you think Firefox’s zoom feature doesn’t let you magnify or reduce your view enough —l; or if you Ctrl+spin the mouse wheel too quickly and zoom in or out too far — you can reset the minimum and maximum amount Firefox 3 will zoom.

Navigate to and double-click zoom.maxPercent in the about:config list. Enter a larger or smaller number to change the maximum zoom amount. Now double-click zoom.minPercent to change the minimum zoom size.

Make your add-ons toe the line. The most popular add-ons for Firefox 2 work fine with version 3. Still, if one of your add-ons acts up, you can instruct Firefox to stop checking the compatibility and security of all your add-ons.

Naturally, doing so could put your system at risk. But if you’re desperate to make an add-on work, try this change at your own risk.

Right-click anywhere in the about:config list of settings and choose New, Boolean. When prompted, type extensions.checkCompatibility and press Enter. At the second prompt, select false and press Enter.

Now right-click in the list and choose New, Boolean again. Type extensions.checkUpdateSecurity when prompted and press Enter. Select false at the next prompt and press Enter.

Reset your history’s maximum and minimum

George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeatedly look up the URL.” Or something like that.

To set the maximum number of days shown in your visited-pages history in Firefox 2, choose Tools, Options, Privacy. Set a new value under History.

At first glance, this dialog box looks the same in Firefox 3. However, the Firefox 2 setting controls the maximum number of days remembered (the default is 9), while Firefox 3′s control sets the minimum (the default is 90).

Although the setting in Firefox 3 is arguably more useful, you may want to limit the number of days the browser remembers, especially if you’re concerned about privacy. To apply these limits, scroll to and double-click browser.history_expire_days in the about:config list. Enter the number of days you want your history recorded and click OK.

Work offline by increasing your cache value. Firefox 3′s built-in support for offline applications lets you continue to work in Yahoo Mail, Google Docs, and similar services without an Internet connection. Not every Web application works offline, however; each one has to be coded to support offline access.

By default, Firefox 3 caches 500MB of data from supported offline Web apps. If you need more, you can enlarge your cache. Locate and double-click browser.cache.offline.capacity. Edit the default amount of 512000 (kilobytes) to the amount of your choice and click OK.

Crack open a new Easter Egg. A new about: setting in Firefox 3 can add to your knowledge of cybernetics. For a few fun facts about robots, click in the Location Bar, type about:robots, and press Enter.

There are plenty of other changes you can make to Firefox to suit your individual needs. Maybe you have a favorite Firefox 3 tip of your own. If so, send it along using the Windows Secrets contact page so we can share more Firefox secrets in the future.

Scott Dunn is associate editor of the Windows Secrets Newsletter. He has been a contributing editor of PC World since 1992 and currently writes for the Here’s How section of that magazine.
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