NWA-PCUG Newsletter Article, June 2009
How Can I Tweak Firefox and Thunderbird
to Be As Great as People Say They Are?

Written by Gabe Goldberg, Computers and Publishing, Inc.
(click to email author)

This article has been obtained from APCUG with the author's permission for publication by APCUG member groups; all other uses require the permission of the author `(see e-mail address above).

One of the Internet's many beauties is the diversity of choices available -- for everything. There are multiple search engines, Web browsers, ISPs (Internet service providers), operating systems (Windows, Linux, Mac). This means that no two people have precisely the same computing setup or online experience and leads to hours of fun-filled arguments about whose choices are best.

In fact, competition works to everyone's advantage: no matter what your choice is for a given function, the vendor or manufacturer knows that you have alternatives and must hustle to keep your loyalty. The "browser wars" -- first when Microsoft pushed Internet Explorer (IE) development to catch innovator Netscape and more recently with Mozilla Firefox stealing market share back from IE (and, of course, with contributions from Opera, Chrome, and other contenders) -- have generated beneficial innovation and evolution.

Recent reports show Firefox taking market share from Internet Explorer -- but Microsoft is introducing Internet Explorer Version 8, so the horse race continues. So it's worth exploring (pun intended) why software like Firefox, which must be added to Windows systems which by default include IE, can be so successful.

In addition to speed and security superior to at least earlier IE versions, Firefox and its Mozilla sibling email client Thunderbird provide powerful customization tools. In Firefox, click Tools and then Options. Explore the tabs: Main, Tabs, Content, applications, Privacy, Security, and Advanced; within Advanced, subtabs address different functions. For each options group, the Help button displays specific information describing choices available.

You needn't study and learn all options at once but it's worth occasionally browsing what you can tweak. Firefox defaults are certainly pleasant and workable but by making your own decisions, you can customize the browser to accommodate your unique preferences. On the Advanced/Update tab, I recommend checking all three boxes to check for updates, and then selecting "Ask me what to do" about updates. That way you'll find out about available updates and control when they're downloaded and installed.

But there's more! Click Tools, then Add-ons, then Get Add-ons, to open a wonderful catalogue of small tools you can add to perform new functions. These are available because Firefox is open source software, meaning it's developed, supported, and maintained by volunteers. While the most important browser functions are included in the basic browser, hundreds of developers produce add-on modules to extend it.

You'll initially see a few Recommended add-ons; click See All Recommended Add-ons to visit the Web site of all-things-add-ons. On the left, you'll see broad categories (e.g., Appearance, Bookmarks, Search Tools); the main display shows the most popular tools.

Explore categories in which you're most interested. But before installing any, browse for alternatives, since several add-ons may perform similar functions. Look at ratings (number of stars) and number of downloads reported -- obviously a highly-rated add-on being downloaded 150,000 times a week is a safer bet than a less-popular lesser-rated choice. And read reviews for real-people descriptions of how add-ons work -- or don't. Note which Firefox versions an add-on supports, since some may need a relatively new version and others may not have yet been updated for them.

Thunderbird handles options and add-ons in a similar fashion. For perspective, I have 15 Firefox and 9 Thunderbird add-ons installed and occasionally shop for yet more to improve my browsing and email experience.

This article first appeared on the Tiplet Web site, http://www.tiplet.com> and is copyrighted by the author, Gabriel Goldberg. All rights are reserved; it may be reproduced, downloaded, or disseminated, for single use, or by nonprofit organizations for educational purposes, with attribution to Tiplet and the author. It should be unchanged and this paragraph must be included. Please e-mail the author at tiplet@gabegold.com when you use it, or for permission to excerpt or condense. Tiplet's free newsletter provides weekly computer tips.

Click here to return to top