Productivity

The Power User's Guide To Firefox

Now that Firefox is on a rapid release cycle, we’re getting a new version of Firefox every three months — and each time, it becomes more tricked out than ever with new customisation options, shortcuts, and convenient features hidden away in its menus. Today, we’re covering it all — from longtime shortcuts to hidden features from the latest version of Firefox. Even if you’re already a Firefox fanboy, there’s bound to be something in here you haven’t noticed before.

Title image remixed from an original by Lok Yek Mang (Shutterstock).

The problem with such frequent, incremental updates (which, by default, happen automatically without you realising it), is that it’s hard to keep up with all the new features that pop up in Firefox every few months. So we’ve created this power user’s guide to Firefox, featuring all of our favourite advanced features, and which we’ll update every time a new version of Firefox comes out.

Interface Tips And Tricks

Whether or not you think Firefox is the prettiest browser on the block, it’s without a doubt the most configurable. Here are some great tricks for customising and navigating Firefox’s UI.

Customizs the Toolbar: Between the separate search box, add-on buttons, and other additions, your Firefox toolbar and add-on bar can get cluttered quickly. To add or remove any items, just right-click anywhere on the toolbar (except on the bookmarks bar). From there, you can show and hide the menu bar (which contains things like File, Edit, Tools, and so on), the navigation bar, the bookmarks bar, and the add-on bar. You can also put Firefox’s tabs back on the bottom of the toolbar, like it was in the old days.

Those are just basic tweaks, however. For more advanced customisation, right-click anywhere on the toolbar and click customise. From there you can move around the back, forward and reload buttons, move the bookmarks toolbar, add and remove add-on buttons, or even add buttons for other functions like full screen or history. Note that you can also move these buttons to the add-on bar at the bottom of the window, if you’d like quick access to them but don’t want them wasting space in your toolbar. You can also choose to use smaller icons if you’re starved for screen real estate.

Separate Tabs Into Groups: Your tab bar quickly grows unwieldy once you open more than a few tabs. If your tab bar is overflowing, you can hit the Tab Groups button in the upper-right hand corner of Firefox’s window. This will bring you to a new screen where you can drag tabs into separate groups and name those groups. Whether you’re organising them by topic or just saving some tabs for later, it’s a great way to free up room in your tab bar without closing tabs you still need.

Pin Tabs You Always Keep Open: Gmail and other tabs you keep open all the time can waste a lot of space in your tab bar. You can condense them by right-clicking on them and clicking “Pin as App Tab”. This will move the tab to the left end of your tab bar and resize it to just the favicon, so you can have quick access to it without it taking up room. These pinned tabs will show up in all your tab groups, too, whether you manually put them there or not. To unpin a tab, just right click on it and hit “Unpin Tab”.

Decorate Your Browser with Themes: If you’d like to give your Firefox window a little more zazz, you can check out Mozilla’s extensive Personas library, which will let you preview and install different themes for Firefox.

Tweak Every Pixel of Firefox’s Window with CSS: Whether you want to save a bit of vertical space or give Firefox a more transparent look, you can do so with a bit of advanced CSS editing. You can add code to Firefox’s userChrome.css file or, if you want something easier, use an extension like Stylish to install any UI tweaks you want (see the add-ons section for more information about Stylish).

The Most Time-Saving Shortcuts

Navigating Firefox via its many menus can be slow and cumbersome, but fret not: Firefox has a stack of built-in shortcuts for both your mouse and keyboard. Rather than overwhelm you with the full list, here are some of the shortcuts we find most useful.

Note: If you’re a Mac user, just substitute the “Control” key for the “Command” key (and know that the “Alt” and “Option” keys are the same) when performing these shortcuts, unless a specific alternative is noted.

Navigate Back and Forward: Unless you have specialised back and forward buttons on your mouse, you probably click on the back and forward buttons in Firefox’s window to navigate between pages. If you’re more of a keyboard maestro, though, you can press Alt+Left Arrow or Alt+Right Arrow to move back and forward, respectively. Alternatively, you can hit Backspace to move back and Shift+Backspace to move forward.

Reload and Stop a Page: Whether you’re trying to access a web site that’s down or meticulously following a live blog, you can quickly refresh the page by pressing either Ctrl+R or F5 on your keyboard. If you’re having trouble with a specific page and reloading doesn’t help, you can try pressing Ctrl+Shift+R or Ctrl+F5 to do a “hard” refresh, where your browser ignores the cache when it reloads the entire page — handy when you need to fix formatting or other problems often caused by bum files in your cache.

Jump to the Top and Bottom of a Page: If you finish reading a page and want to jump back up to the top without scrolling your wheel endlessly, just hit the Home button on your keyboard. Similarly, you can hit End to jump to the bottom of a page as well. If you don’t want to jump all the way to the top or bottom, you can also use Spacebar and Shift+Spacebar to page down and up, respectively.

Find Text on a Page: As with many other programs, you can search for text within a page by hitting Ctrl+F on your keyboard, typing in the phrase you want to find, and hitting Enter.

Open a New Tab or Window: To quickly open a new tab, just hit Ctrl+T on your keyboard. It’ll open a new blank tab and you can just start typing the URL you want to visit and hit enter. Alternatively, to open an entire new window, just hit Ctrl+N instead.

Close a Tab or Window: To close the current tab, press Ctrl+W or Ctrl+F4. To close an entire window (all tabs in tow), press Ctrl+Shift+W or Ctrl+Shift+F4.

Undo Closing a Tab or Window: Say you’ve closed a tab or window and realise you actually need it back. You can undo that action with Ctrl+Shift+T, which opens your last closed tab, or Ctrl+Shift+N, which opens your last closed window (again, all of its original tabs in tow). You can keep hitting this shortcut to bring back even older tabs, too.

Open a Link in a New Tab: As you browse the web, you may find a link you want to open without leaving the page you’re on. In that case, you can hold Ctrl and click the link to open it in a new tab. You can also click the link using your middle mouse button, if your mouse has one.

Open the Tab Groups Window: If you like the new Tab Groups feature described above, you can jump straight to the Tab Groups window by pressing Ctrl+Shift+E.

Bookmark the Current Page: Instead of clicking the Star icon in the navigation bar to bookmark a page, you can just press Ctrl+D to bookmark the current page. This will bring up the bookmark dropdown where you give it a name and assign it a folder. If you want to bookmark all your currently open tabs, you can hti Ctrl+Shift+D instead.

Complete a URL with .com, .net or .org: As you type URLs in the navigation bar, you can save yourself a bit of time by appending .com to the end of the address with Ctrl+Enter. This will add .com and go straight to the page. You can similarly append .net with Shift+Enter and .org with Ctrl+Shift+Enter.

Jump to the Address Bar or Search Box: If you’re on a page and want to head somewhere new, you don’t need to click on the address bar to type in a new URL. Just press Ctrl+L on your keyboard, and Firefox will focus (and select) the address bar, so you can just start typing. Ctrl+K will select the search bar, if you use that instead.

These are our favourite mouse and keyboard shortcuts, but if you want to see the full list, check out Mozilla’s Keyboard and Mouse Shortcut pages.

Customise Firefox’s Settings

Firefox is the most customisable browser out there. Most of this customisation takes place in its preferences, so head on over to Tools > Options (or Firefox > Preferences on a Mac) to get at the really good stuff. Here are some of our favourite must-tweak options.

Session and Tab Management

Under the General and Tabs panes, you’ll find some handy settings for managing what Firefox loads when it starts, and how it manages multiple tabs. Settings to check out include:

Load Tabs when Firefox Starts: By default, Firefox will load your home page when you start it up. If you’d prefer it show a blank page, or all the tabs you had open when you last closed it, you can go to the General tab and choose “Show My Windows and Tabs from Last Time” next to “When Firefox Starts”. You can also change your home page from the text box below it.

Don’t Load Tabs Until Selected: Under the Startup section of the general tab, you’ll see a checkbox with this label. This is useful if you choose the “Show My Windows and Tabs from Last Time” option, as described above. It essentially helps Firefox avoid crashes and slowdowns by loading tabs one at a time, as you select them — not all at once when you first start up the browser. That means you’ll have to wait for each individual tab to load when you click on it, but you won’t have to wait for them all to load when you first start the browser up (nor will it be as slow as molasses when you first start it up).

Choose How Firefox Handles New Tabs: Under the Tabs pane of Firefox’s options, you’ll find a number of checkboxes that configure how you open and close new tabs. For example, you can open all new windows in a new tab, have Firefox warn you when closing multiple tabs, focus all links opened in a new tab, and even show tab previews in the Windows taskbar.

Choose How Firefox Handles Certain File Types

Firefox can handle certain links internally, like links to email addresses, PDF files, or other media. To edit how it handles these, just head to the Applications panel of Firefox’s options. You’ll see a list of the content types its recognised before. So, for example, to tell all mailto: links to use Gmail, find “mailto” on the left side of the list and click the dropdown under the “Action” column. Choose “Use Gmail” from the list to direct all mailto links in Firefox to Gmail (note that this won’t work for mailto links in other applications, like a Twitter client — just links in Firefox). Similarly, you can tell Firefox to open up MP3s using a QuickTime plugin, JPG files with the GIMP, and so on.

If you don’t see a file type in the list, it’s probably because you haven’t encountered a direct link to one on the net yet. You can’t add content types manually, but any content type you want to add should pop up in that list the first time you come upon it in your browsing.

Sync Bookmarks, Passwords And More With Firefox Sync

If you use Firefox on your other computers and mobile devices, you can sync your bookmarks, saved passwords (which you can access from the Security panel in Firefox’s options), preferences, history, and open tabs to those devices with Firefox Sync. To set it up, just head to the Sync tab of Firefox’s preferences and click “Set Up Firefox Sync”. If you haven’t created an account, do so. Then, on your other computers, head back to that same area of Firefox’s preferences and it will give you three 4-digit codes. Head back to your original computer and hit “Pair a Device” from the Firefox Sync window, and type in your codes. Firefox will now sync whatever you want back and forth between those machines.

Note that I only use Firefox Sync to sync my preferences. For passwords, we recommend using the more feature-filled LastPass, and for bookmarks, history, and tabs, we recommend Xmarks. Both are also advantageous because they work with other browsers like Chrome, but if you only ever use Firefox you can do it straight from Firefox Sync.

Advanced Options

Lastly, there are a few miscellaneous features littered around Firefox’s preferences we definitely recommend checking out. They include:

Do Not Track: Many web sites track your behaviour on their site, usually for advertising or other purposes. If you’d rather keep your behaviour hidden, you can head to Options > Privacy and check the “Tell Websites I do Not Want to Be Tracked” box. It won’t stop every site from tracking you — since Firefox can’t require that — but any sites that have given you the option to avoid tracking should honour your request if you check this box.

Automatic Updates: Firefox now updates automatically whenever a new version is out. If you’d rather not do this, head to the Update tab of the Advanced panel and choose one of the other options (“Check for updates, but let me choose” or “Never check for updates”). You can also tell Firefox to warn you if it will disable any of your add-ons, though we recommend checking out the Add-On Compatibility Checker to fix this problem instead (see the “Using Add-Ons” section below for more information).

Smooth Out Firefox’s UI: If you head to Advanced > General in Firefox’s options, you can turn on a few settings that should smooth out Firefox a bit — most notably Smooth Scrolling and Hardware Acceleration, both available under the Browsing section of this pane. Hardware acceleration should be on by default, giving graphics-intense web sites a bit of a speed boost. However, some users find it makes their fonts blurry and difficult to see, so if you’d like to turn it off, you can do so here.

Enhance Firefox’s Functionality with Add-Ons

One of Firefox’s greatest features has always been its extensibility. Mozilla has a massive add-on library that, with a few clicks of your mouse, can add tons of new features to Firefox. We’ve already shared ten of our must-install extensions, but here are a few more that we think everyone should check out.

Make Old Extensions Compatible with New Versions of Firefox: Whether an extension has been abandoned or whether it just hasn’t been updated to include compatibility for the newest version of Firefox — since it updates so often now — you can try to make those extensions compatible with Firefox’s Add-On Compatibility Reporter. Not only will it disable version checking for all your add-ons, but it will also let you report an extension’s incompatibility to the developer with one click, making it especially handy for those using the development channels of Firefox.

Download the Add-On Compatibility Reporter

Pin Your favourite Sites to Your New Tab/Window Page: When you make a new tab, Firefox just gives you a blank page. If you’d rather see a page with a list of your favourite sites on it for quick access, you can install something like Fast Dial, which lets you customise your own new tab page with a cool background, thumbnails for your favourite sites, and more.

Download Fast Dial

Send Web Pages to Your Phone: If you’ve got an Android phone and want to easily transfer a page from your desktop to your phone, you can use the Fox to Phone extension in combination with the Chrome to Phone app for Android. Alternatively, you could use Firefox Sync to sync open tabs to Firefox Mobile, or use something like Xmarks Premium to sync it to any mobile device you want. If you have an iOS device, you can use the similar Site to Phone to send web pages to your phone.

Download Fox to Phone and Site to Phone

Save Form Text in Case of Crashes or Accidental Tab Closures: Have you ever spent a painstaking hour filling out a form on a page, only to accidentally close that tab or have Firefox crash on you? The Lazarus extension solves this problem by automatically saving your work as you go, so you can recover it in case of an accident. Install it now, or you’ll be sorry the next time it happens to you.

Download Lazarus Form Recovery

Make Pages Easier to Read: Most web pages have complex designs, advertisements, or other things that make it difficult to read the content you went there for. The Readability extension solves this problem by stripping the page of all ads and other formatting so you can get straight to the good stuff.

Download Readability

In addition to traditional add-ons, you also have the option to install userscripts and userstyles to Firefox. Userscripts and userstyles both change, add, or alter functionality on a given site, though userstyles can also change the UI of Firefox’s window. We’ve talked about them before, so we won’t go into too much detail here — just know that if you want to install userscripts, you’ll need the Greasemonkey extension, and to install userstyles, you’ll want the Stylish extension. You can find good userscripts at userscripts.org and cool userstyles at userstyles.org.

Master Firefox’s Other Features

Firefox has a few other features that are a bit less advertised than others, but can seriously power up your browser. Here are a few of our favourites.

Access Bookmarks and Search Engines with a Keyword: Clicking on bookmarks is slow, and if you want to search an engine other than Firefox’s default, it takes a lot of typing. Firefox has a great feature called keyword bookmarks that lets you access sites and refine Google searches with just a few keystrokes in your address bar.

To give a bookmark a keyword, just enter your Bookmarks Library, click on a bookmark, and press the “More” button at the bottom of the window. You should see a box labelled “Keyword”. Type in a letter or two (for example, I use the keyword “l” for Lifehacker), then exit the bookmarks library. By typing in that keyword and hitting Enter in the address bar, you can head to that site quickly, without having to type out the whole URL or wait for autocomplete to get it right.

If you want to perform custom searches with a keyword, just create a new bookmark with the URL of the type of search you want to perform. To get this URL, make a search on your favourite engine — say, Yahoo — and copy the resulting URL in your menu bar. It should look something like this:

http://search.yahoo.com/search?ei=UTF-8&fr=crmas&p=lifehacker

If you look at the URL you can see I searched for the term “lifehacker”. You can replace that word with any modifiers you want and the %s value to symbolise search terms:

http://search.yahoo.com/search?ei=UTF-8&fr=crmas&p=%s

Now, add that link as a new bookmark in Firefox, with the keyword “y” (or whatever you want). Now, when you type something like y lifehacker firefox tweaks in Firefox’s address bar, Firefox will understand you want to search for “lifehacker firefox tweaks” on Yahoo instead of your default engine. You can also use this trick to search specific sites via Google, which can be very helpful.

about:config: For every option that isn’t in Firefox’s options menu, there exists an about:config entry. About:config is almost like the Windows Registry, but for Firefox — you can tweak nearly any setting in existence as long as you know where it is. Whether you want to stop Firefox from greying out text in the address bar, make spellcheck more recognizable, or even enable hidden tab management features, there are bound to be a few about:config options that suit you. If you want to see what different about:config options do, you can check out the MozillaZine Wiki page for some descriptions, and keep an eye out here at Lifehacker — whenever we find a cool about:config tweak, we’ll usually post it.

Development Channels: Lastly, if you’re a power user, you’re probably itching to get the latest Firefox features as soon as possible. With Firefox’s new development channels, you can. Instead of using the public release of Firefox, you can try out the beta or Aurora channels, which are up-and-coming versions of Firefox still being tested. They’re often quite stable, though, and give you a chance to try out Firefox’s newest features before they’re released to the rest of the world. For more information, check out our rundown of each channel, and head to Firefox’s Future Versions page to try one out.

As long as this guide may be, there’s still plenty more you can do with Firefox. If you’ve got any favourite tips or tricks you’d like to share, post them in the comments below.