Why I Still Use Firefox

Background

I’ve been using Firefox since late 2002 (when it was called Phoenix version 0.4). It was a nice lightweight1 alternative to Netscape Navigator. I’ve been consistently using Firefox since them when I’m on Windows (at work). I’ve also been using it almost full-time at home on my Macs, with a few failed attempts at switching to Safari. A couple of minor features in Firefox keep bringing me back to it from Safari:

  • Per-site scaling
  • Command-enter shortcut
  • Awesome Bar
  • Command-# shortcuts

Per-site scaling

Resolution of my displays has increased faster than the actual physical size, resulting in higher and higher pixels per inch. This has resulted in me needing to zoom many web pages. Firefox does a great job with automatically remembering my preferred zoom level for each site I visit, making subsequent visits painless.

Command-enter shortcut

Using this shortcut in the location bar prepends www. and appends .com – For example, typing apple/safari into the address bar and hitting command-enter would cause Firefox to attempt to load www.apple.com/safari. Typically, the same behavior occurs in Safari if you enter the same text and hit enter2.

In the old days of slow dial-up network connections, there was a noticeable performance difference between loading apple/safari and letting the browser figure out that apple wasn’t a valid web site, then try apple.com. Nowadays, there’s not really any difference in performance. I’ve just trained myself over the years to omitting the .com and using command-enter.

In Safari, command-enter causes the URL to open in a background tab. Ironically, this is probably much more useful to me, but I need to unlearn my habit.

Awesome Bar

Firefox provides both an address bar and a search box. I tend to use just the address bar (called the Awesome Bar by Mozilla). If what I type in is a URL, it opens the URL. If I type in keywords, it brings up auto-complete suggestions from my browser history and bookmarks. If I type in text, and don’t autocomplete to a URL, it performs a search on Google and shows me the results page. It’s great because I don’t have to think about whether I’m going to end up searching or loading a single URL.

Command-# shortcuts

Firefox lets me jump to a specific open tab using a quick keyboard shortcut. It uses the command-1 through command-8 keys to jump to any of the first 8 tabs and command-9 jumps to the last tab3. I find this much more useful at work, where I tend to have certain sites always open in the same tabs in the same order (first tab is the intraweb site, second tab is our team wiki, third tab is the Java API site, fourth tab is the system I’m working on, etc.).

I use these shortcuts all the time to quickly jump between tabs. This is less useful at home, where I tend not to have tabs persistently open to the same sites.

Workarounds

Out of the four features I would miss from Firefox, the per-site scaling is definitely the one that I wouldn’t want to live without.

I’ve tried the AllPagesZoom extension from Side Tree Software, but it only remembers one global zoom for all sites. This is similar to a tip I found on Mac OS X Hints/Macworld which accomplishes the same thing via a global CSS file. These are better than nothing, but still don’t provide the functionality that I’m looking for.

I also found reference to an extension called SafariMagnifier, which sounds like exactly what I’m looking for, but the site hosting the extension seems to be gone.

I finally decided that I would look into building Safari Extensions and try to build one myself. I’ve got a decent start and hope to have a working version in the next week or two. I think if I can solve this issue, I can work past my other missing features in Safari and make the switch (at least at home).

[Update - 08/24/11] – I’ve released the first version of this extension.

[Update - 09/14/11] – Read about how I have now switched over to Safari.