Little-known browser commands and functions

Fred Langa

No matter what browser you use, chances are good that you’ve never even heard of some its powerful and useful commands, features, and functions.

Here’s a guided tour to some of the most interesting — and unfamiliar — functions in Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox.

Power beneath the top-level menus

Today, about 75 different browsers currently are in use across all the major computing platforms, although just three browsers dominate on Windows: Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox.

As each of those browsers has evolved to its current version, developers have added new features, functions, and commands — including some powerful, special-purpose ones that don’t appear on the usual, top-level menus.

Here are some of the more useful and interesting obscure features and functions to be found in the big three. I’ll focus on the most current of these browsers: IE9 (site), Chrome 19 (site), and Firefox 12 (site). Previous versions often have the same or similar functions and features. (If you’re still using an older version, check your browser’s Help file for specifics.)

The specialist’s approach to Internet Explorer

Did you know that IE9 supports over two dozen command-line parameters (software switches) you can use to install and launch IE in specific modes for specific purposes?

For example, the -k switch immediately starts IE in true, full-screen, kiosk mode — with no frames, menus, toolbars, or other distractions visible. Instead, kiosk mode takes 100 percent of the screen to display whatever webpage or other HTML content you specify.

This is different from IE’s conventional full-screen mode, which you can invoke by pressing F11 anytime IE is running. In that simplified mode, you simply press F11 again to exit full-screen mode. But as you might have noticed, when you’re using the F11/full-screen mode to, say, watch a video, another program or browser tab might steal the focus and cause the browser to fall out of full-screen mode or even to switch to a different tab or window.

The -k command locks IE9 into the full-screen mode. It launches a new instance of the browser in which no other tabs or pages are active. The browser stays full-screen on whatever page or document you’ve specified, and it won’t quit until you exit. The standard full-screen toggle, the F11 key, has no effect.

The only way to exit the -k full-screen mode is to press Alt + F4, which closes the full-screen instance of the browser.

Try it! Click the Start orb and type (or copy/paste) the following into the Search programs and files box, then press Enter. The Windows Secrets home page will open full-screen.

iexplore -k www.windowssecrets.com

(Of course, you can substitute other sites in place of www.windowssecrets.com.)

When you’re finished, press Alt + F4 to exit the full-screen browser.

This is just one simple example from the many commands available for setting up and running IE. Others include -nohome, which starts IE while bypassing whatever home page you normally launch; -new, which starts an entirely new instance of IE; -extoff, which prevents add-ons from launching; -nohangrecovery, which tells IE not to try to automatically reload any pages that cause a crash (avoiding potential loops where a tab crash leads to an attempted recovery, which leads to a new crash, etc.); and many more.

You’ll find command-line options for IE explained in the TechNet article, “Using command-line switches,” and in Microsoft Support item 927677.

But there’s more in IE’s bag of tricks than just command-line switches. My personal favorite, among IE’s lesser-known features is the suite of built-in developer tools — more than 50 in all.

These tools give you ways to examine what’s going on in any webpage — to see how it works or to learn what’s hidden in the page’s coding, to immediately resize your browser to any of several common proportions, to gain immediate control over your browser’s caches and cookies, to set or alter the user-agent string (you can tell IE to identify itself to websites as, say, Chrome or Firefox, if a site requires a non-IE browser), and lots more.

And all you have to do to access the developer-tools windows is press F12. Figure 1 shows an example.

IE developers tools

Figure 1. Pressing F12 puts IE into split-screen mode, with a bevy of powerful tools in a subwindow right at your fingertips.

For complete information on the developer tools for IE9 and other versions of IE, see the MSDN article, “Discovering Windows Internet Explorer developer tools”; the MSDN blog page, “Improved productivity through Internet Explorer 8 developer tools”; or the MSDN article, “How to use F12 developer tools to debug your webpages.”

The uncollected Google Chrome commands

The most interesting commands for Chrome are ones you enter directly into the URL box, as if they were Web addresses.

For example, entering chrome://flags into the address box enables a raft of experimental Chrome features — several dozen, as of this writing. (The available features change as Chrome evolves.) See Figure 2.

Chrome flags

Figure 2. Access hidden features in Chrome simply by entering chrome://flags into the address box.

Chrome also supports many other such direct commands, as discussed in the May 17 LangaList Plus item, “Hundreds more commands for Google Chrome.” That tip listed Web developer Peter Beverloo’s long list of little-known and powerful command-line switches for Google Chrome. It also mentions The Geek Stuff’s pared-down list, “12 most useful Google Chrome browser chrome:// commands.”

But there are more sites listing Chrome commands!

  • page of “Google Chrome command line switches” aggregates and nicely documents about 80 Chrome commands.
  • list: “Chrome.exe command line switches.
  • list of commands specifically targeted at managing that browser’s plugins.

You’ll see overlaps in these lists and sources — a consequence of Google’s astonishing lack of leadership in publishing a centralized, standardized list of these features. Instead, it’s been left up to individuals (such as those cited above) to track down the information, document it, and present it for others to use. Google, what are you thinking?

If you want to dig out additional Chrome command-line information on your own, use this search string to spelunk the pages at dev.chromium.org:

http://dev.chromium.org/system/app/pages/search?scope=search-site&q=command+line

Download commands and tools for Firefox

Like IE, Firefox ships with a built-in set of developer’s tools. You can access these tools via the Firefox/Web developer menu. Alas, this toolset is much less comprehensive than IE’s (see Figure 3).

Firefox developers tools

Figure 3. The available Firefox developer's tools are far fewer in number than those built into Internet Explorer.

Perhaps to make up for the relative paucity of built-in tools, Mozilla also offers a downloadable Web Developer’s Toolbox containing 13 additional special-purpose add-ons for Firefox. It’s free via Mozilla’s add-ons site.

Like IE and Chrome, Firefox supports a number of command-line arguments. They’re listed on Mozilla’s “Command line arguments” page. Oddly, Mozilla explicitly states that this — their own official list — is incomplete and may contain outdated information. Sigh.

A second official source is a Mozilla Developer Network page, which lists several more “commonly used” commands, along with descriptions of how to use them.

With such scant and incomplete official documentation, Firefox users have picked up the slack and developed their own lists. But — as we saw with Chrome — the lack of an official, all-inclusive, centralized resource means you have to jump around to various third-party sites and wade through some of the inevitable overlap. But here are some of the best:

  • Technology Made Easy’s page, “Firefox’s about: commands (and easter eggs!),” contains a nice listing of some of the commands you can invoke by typing into Firefox’s address bar.

    For example, typing about:config brings you directly to the Firefox browser configuration page; typing about:privatebrowsing engages Firefox’s private browsing mode. And yes, there are easter eggs, which are bits of silliness the developers programmed into Firefox. To see an example, type about:robots into the Firefox address bar and see what happens.

  • On a more serious note, Binary Turf’s page, “Lesser known Firefox command line options” offers succinct summaries of some common commands.
  • Firefox Facts’ page, “More command line Firefox tips,” explains several useful commands for launching Firefox directly from Windows’ Search programs and files box.

Unsuspected power at your fingertips: All the major browsers offer little-known commands, features, and functions that give you more control and — especially in the case of Internet Explorer — access to a rich array of professional-quality developer tools built in — all free.

Spend a little time exploring your favorite browser’s less familiar byways. You just might be surprised at the riches waiting for you, right at your fingertips!



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Fred Langa

About Fred Langa

Fred Langa is senior editor. His LangaList Newsletter merged with Windows Secrets on Nov. 16, 2006. Prior to that, Fred was editor of Byte Magazine (1987 to 1991) and editorial director of CMP Media (1991 to 1996), overseeing Windows Magazine and others.