Thursday, July 01, 2004

OT: One Week with Firefox, its Extensions and Opera

One Week with Firefox, its Extensions and Opera - OSNews.com

By Martín Marconcini - Posted on 2004-07-01 19:04:42
at OSNews [http://www.osnews.com/]

I have to admit that I am an Opera fan; I started using it when a friend of mine came with version 6.0 and installed it to me. My first impression was not very good because the screen was crowded with toolbars, icons and things. But I spent a few minutes examining each one and removing all; I like the screen clean, not filled with toolbars and things that waste screen space, after all, 1024 x 768 is not enough.

Firefox Vs Opera, Page 1/3
I am a power user but I use Windows XP because I am working with .NET on a big project. So I've heard about mozilla a long time ago, tried it, and uninstalled it quickly. Huge piece of slow software (compared to whatever I was using back in that time –either opera or IE-). But then Firefox appeared and everybody started talking about it, and then Opera 7 and now 7.51, so I always stayed with Opera.
Last week I decided to try Firefox because I saw that version 0.9 was released; but I made a promise, I was not allowed to criticize feature X, just because it was different in Opera. To fulfil this I decided that I was going to use Firefox as my default browser for a whole week… or more.


I am not going to post boring screenshots of the install process and all that stuff. All I can say is that install package for Firefox version 0.9 is about 4.7MB vs. Opera 7.51 (without Java) 3.4MB. Not a huge difference. Install was a breeze, no weird questions and soon I had the default Firefox in front of me.

The first thing I noticed is that Firefox is very limited in features. I mean the default install doesn't include many things, no mail –I don't use Opera Mail client either-, no chat, no bars, no nothing. It's just a single window browser with security in mind which blocks pop-ups. Soon I discovered that many of the features I like about opera are available for Firefox under the name of Extensions. These "little" things are plug-ins you add to your browser to accomplish a specific feature.
There are about one hundred (more or less) available at Firefox Website. Many of them are the same but written by different authors. Anyway, I picked up these:

All-in-One Gestures 0.11.1 by Marc Boullet: the idea behind this is to have mouse gestures just like in Opera. Not that I use them a lot but the back and forward are very nice and if you get use to them, you just start doing stupid things with your mouse when you're using I.E. and people may look strangely at you. The Firefox extension replicates Opera features perfectly and it's even better; you have a control panel for the gestures and can customize a LOT of things. Believe me, a LOT. I really liked it.

Single Window 1.0 by Aaron Spuler: I think that one of the best features Opera has is the tabbed navigation; the first time I saw that (I think it was Netscape) I didn't like the idea. Soon after I discovered that I was really wrong. Tab navigation is the best thing you can have if you open lots of documents at the same time. The opera tab bar has the ability to be placed on top, left, right or bottom, and you can reorder tabs (aka: move them), or close a tab with a middle-button click. This extension is Firefox response to tabbed navigation; since Firefox is a single document browser, every new page will be opened in a new browser window. This may sound nice, but if you happen to have 20 windows, your taskbar will be crowded. Even in 1024x768 I place my "tab-bar" on the right, it's much more comfortable than on top, because you can read tab names easily.
Despite the fact that this extension does provide tabbed navigation, it does not work as well as it should. The first thing you notice is that you cannot move the tab-bar (that is not too important but I'd have loved to do it); then I noticed that sometimes even when you're using this extension, some clicks or windows will open on a NEW window. This behaviour is really annoying because now you have a "new" Firefox window ready to be filled with tabbed documents, therefore having two instances. It didn't happen many times, but when it did, I really had to close the new window, copy the url, create a new tab (control-t), paste and go. Problem solved but this demonstrates that at least with this version of the extension, tabbed navigation is not as integrated as it should be. Another proof is the fact that Control-N shortcut (to create a new window) will actually create a new window, not a new tab. You have to use ctrl-t to create a new Tab. I promised that I was not going to compare with Opera but I have to say that in my humble opinion, the user who's using Tabbed navigation expects to create "new" windows directly. If you happen to create a new Window (as the shortcut says) you will actually get a new window. Not really big fuzz about it, but it was just something worth to mention. Beware if you're an Opera fan who loves shortcuts.

Paste and Go 0.3.1 by Jens Bannmann: This is really a nice and sometimes unknown Opera feature. If you have an URL in the clipboard, you can actually paste it into the address box and press enter (or click "go") or you can (in Opera) click control-d to paste and go. Nice if you get used to it, it will save you less than a sec and sometimes you forget about it, but it's there. I have to admit that Paste and Go Extension is almost perfect, except for the fact that there is no such shortcut as far as I know. If there's one I didn't see it and I apologize; the thing is, what's the point of having an new entry in the popup menu of the address text box which says "paste and go". I mean it's better than nothing but the idea is to have a shortcut. If you are using the mouse to paste an URL then you've already "wasted time". I don't want to spend more time with this, you get the idea. It's a very small extension and it's worth to have it just in case. Let's hope the author finds a way to add a shortcut for it.

Close Tab on Double Click 0.1 by Twanno: I don't know why I installed this; I was tired and thought it was something like Opera's close tab with middle button click. Fortunately, that feature already exists, so this extension "close on double click" is just that, double click on a tab and it will close.

FLST 0.6 by Daniel Lindkvist: Focus Last Selected Tab: Brings focus to the last selected tab when closing the active tab. You can (via F9) enable or disable this feature for the current window.

Session Saver: This is strange because I remember installing session saver (more on this later) but I don't have the extension; and I have the options: File -> Restore Session and Options -> Session Saver -> Preferences. And in fact it's working! Anyway let me explain briefly what's all about Session Saver. In Opera (yes again!) the best feature (in my opinion) is the ability to save your session automatically; I don't know about you, but I tend to have 20 or more documents open at the same time; mainly because I start surfing and I open new tabs on background and I read them later when I have more time. If for some reason Opera closes, crashes or anything, I have my windows back the way they were when I reopen it. It's mandatory and lovely; I was disappointed when I found out that Firefox didn't come with this by default and happy when I found out the extension. No, it's not the same, Opera's more flexible (it can prompt you when you start what would you like to do), but Firefox's version did work all the times I've tested it; I simply opened ten or fifteen documents, and simply closed it. When you reopen it, the tabs reload. Now some differences:
Opera's version will reload your session the way it was, it won't actually re-request the documents to the server; if you were reading a news paper last night and reopen your session now, you'll still see the "old news" (this is not *entirely* true, but it works like that, possibly taking it from its cache, if somebody knows the truth about this, feel free to correct me). I've noticed that Firefox reloads the document directly from the server.
I've read that session saver has problems with tabbed navigation *AND* multiple windows at the same time but since I don't do that I cannot tell; I've made a small test and opened three windows and populated them with some tabs. I killed the process tree from Task Manager and when I reopened everything was back the way it was; too easy, just as I thought. ;)

And this concludes the extensions I've installed, I've seen dozens more but with these I mimic more or less my lovely Opera behaviour (or at least I have what I consider a "must" for my browser experience). After all I'm trying to be fair with both products but if a program does not something I need, then I expect to find out an alternate way to do it. So far, Firefox is great; let's now examine daily usage.

Firefox Vs Opera, Page 2/3

Using Firefox: Surfing the net

I may be crazy, but not only does Firefox parse the documents differently (very netscape/mozilla like obviously) but it *looks* a little bit faster. Maybe it is just perceived speed because of the way things get drawn on the screen. I don't know, but speed is very fast; you won't be disappointed here.Regarding application loading time, Firefox is slower than Opera by a few seconds during the first startup. People will complain about this and even start a flamewar, I don't know, in *my computer* Firefox loading time is higher than Opera's, with or without documents/tabs or whatever. I made some tests freshly booting before each attempt (to prevent dll caching or anything like that). Perhaps on *your computer* this doesn't happen. I've got to say that this is not a *major* issue since loading a browser is not something you're going to do all the time and having to wait one or two seconds more won't kill you.
Memory Usage

At first this could be a problem; when my computer boots up the memory usage is about 64/66 MB (I have 512 MB ram). My services list is tweaked and I don't have fancy stuff (apart from Winamp, Damon-tools and F-Prot) loading when the computer boots up.
What I have noticed is that Firefox uses a little bit (sometimes a lot) more of ram when it starts for the first time, but then you start opening tabs the ram usage will remain flat. On the other hand, Opera may use less ram when it starts but as soon as you start opening tabs, the ram usage will grow (sometimes beyond 80 MB).
Here are two screenshots of both browsers' task manager; same amount of tabs and same documents on each page:
My Task Manager with Firefox
My Task Manager with Opera

The result, far from official, it clearly shows that both use more or less the same amount of memory; after my testing week, I've noticed that Firefox tend to use a few more megabytes; but that's just an impression.

I have to admit that I'm used to Opera's shortcuts, therefore getting used to a new set of shortcuts is not easy; but I've tried hard and the experience has not been too bad. I've noticed that is not that Opera has more, but Firefox has fewer features out of the box. On the other hand some common functions like for example: "jump to the address box" in Opera is F8 but Firefox uses ALT-D. Differences apart both browsers have a set of shortcuts and if you like using them, all you have to do is read the fancy manual.
Search Engines

One thing I got used to do with Opera is type a search query directly in the address box, instead of jumping to the "Search" box on the right –which is available in Firefox too-. In Opera you can type: "g OpenBSD PPPOE" (without quotes) and it will automatically search Google for pages containing OpenBSD PPPOE strings. Now I don't know if this feature is used by a lot of people but I really got used to it and I have never used the Search box. There is no such feature in Firefox or an extension -as far as I can tell-; if you happen to use the Search Box, then I haven't found major differences. In Opera you can use other characters for different search engines; for example "f" will search in the current page, "z" will seach amazon, and so on. I think that you can't change those; on the contrary Firefox doesn't have shortcuts you can use in the address box, but you can select other search engines directly from mozilla's web site. I didn't invest more time with this since I only use Google (default on both) and if for some reason I have to seach somewhere else, I normally do it manually (aka: I visit the website directly and then perform a seach there).

Firefox has a download manager which can either prompt you with a save dialog or save it to a configurable path. A curious bug that I experienced is that when you download mp3's, it automatically executes them, thus adding them to my Winamp's playlist; apparently it executes the file before moving it to the configured directory (my custom download folder). The problem with that is that after it has been added to Winamp's playlist, it cannot be moved to the customized path you've chosen, so it stays in the document and settings\user\bla bla bla temp folder; annoying!
I even selected prompt before downloading but Firefox kept saving my mp3s in the temp folder. When I realized that a new catalyst driver for my ATI was available I went to ATI's web site and downloaded it, but this time it asked, so I guess it was a problem with mp3s and "auto execution" if you have Winamp with the auto-enqueue activated instead of replace playlist. I went to the options and found that ".mp3" extension is supposed to be opened in Winamp automatically, so that's why it is being added to my playlist (I have enqueue in play list by default when I double click on an .MP3). Maybe this is a bug, maybe not, I didn't investigate any further.
All in all, both download managers are ok, Opera's one is integrated as "another tab" which, in my opinion, is more convenient since you don't have to have "another" window floating around; if there's a way to accomplish this in Firefox, I didn't find it.
You can temporary pause any download and auto close the download manager when it finishes its pending downloads in Firefox. It just works and there's nothing else you might need or ask from a download manager (it is, by far much better than Microsoft's I.E. download box). A nice thing about Opera is that when a save dialog box appears, Opera is actually downloading the file in background. Sometimes when you finally find your desired path, the file is either finished or halfway there. I don't know if this happens in Firefox because there's no progress bar until you actually select your location and the Download Manager appears. I have tried with a couple of files and it looked as if it wasn't happening, but I can't be sure.
Finally, I'm satisfied with Firefox download mechanism and that's what I consider important.

There's little I can say about this, I don't use skins, although I've used some Opera ones in the past. Firefox comes with a "Theme" selector. It only has one and if you want more you have to go to firefox website, just like Opera (Opera has one *and* a "windows standard" skin which looks like Win2k and below).
Page Display

This is one of the most important aspects. I have to confess that even with my precious Opera, some pages were either unusable or had problems; the solution was to use Internet Explorer for that site and problem solved. But we don't like IE!
Well Firefox really rendered fine most of the pages I've worked with. One nice example of this is GameSpot [http://www.gamespot.com]. Opera has troubles with all those layers and renders the page really bad. Firefox, on the other hand did a fine job and the page was really usable. That said, Firefox is a great browser and even my Home Banking, the MS website, and some others worked fine. In summary, I have had a pleasant experience with Firefox during the last week.
Here you can see what I mean when I say that Opera has troubles with GameSpot:

Opera has rendered Gamespot badly...

Firefox did a great job with such complex piece of code

Firefox Vs Opera, Page 3/3
Other Features

It is a little bit unfair, because I am going to mention things I found in Opera that aren't available in Firefox; of course there are many, because Opera is huge, but I'd like to mention only a few that I find useful.

The quick properties menu: In Opera you can enable/disable many options by pressing F12; the following popup menu will appear:

Opera's Quick Preferences popup menu

As you can see, you can easily identify as another browser when the website says that the page is "only for IE" or you can enable/disable a proxy server, and the most beautiful, block unwanted pop-ups. I haven't found all these options or their equivalents in Firefox, with the exception of the Pop up blocker (which is per site in Firefox). As you can see all this could be added either as an extension or as a part of the original installer in Firefox. I can live without these, but they'd have been a nice thing to have.

A nice feature in Firefox is the "Page Info" thing (Control-J), it will display a window with some tabs and several information about the current page:

Firefox Page Information

You can actually see all the images, the form query string (if any) and all the links. A nice interesting feature if you are debugging or inspecting an HTML document.
On the Zoom side, there's no such feature in Firefox (so nice when it's late and you can't read anymore) but you have the usual Increase/Decrease font size.

Firefox bookmark handling is adequate, although not as user friendly as others when it is time to Import. I personally don't use bookmarks a lot so I didn't pay much attention; the usual ctrl-d works and it adds a page to the bookmarks, but it will prompt you before doing so.
Things I'd love to see in Firefox

Where do I start? Here we go. I have to confess that I haven't seen extensions for these but there *may* be somewhere. I'd be glad to hear about these. On the other hand be warned that these are features I use with Opera most of the time. I am not going to suggest that Firefox should include a Chat Client, because I think that's the worst thing Opera has; after all it's a web browser, not a multimedia centre. The features I post here are actually things I've missed when working with Firefox during this week.

- Window Menu: there's no such and therefore you can't minimize, maximize, tile, cascade all your "tabs" or windows, maybe because in Firefox the Tab thing is not 100% natural, it is an extension and the whole thing is Multiple Document. The tab is kind of a Cheat.
- The quick preferences I mentioned above, it's a nice feature you won't be using everyday, but when you get used to it, you miss it.
- Rewind – Fast Forward: When Opera introduced this feature it wasn't clear what the whole idea about it was; until you started using it. Plain simple, suppose you search something on Google, and click on a link and start digging into it, but suddenly you realize that this is not what you were looking for; you'd have to click back many times to reach Google again –sometimes fighting with JavaScript scripts that will try to stop you-. If you click on Rewind, Opera will take you directly to Google. I think you got the point.
- Reload Every...: not a very useful feature but sometimes when you're checking or waiting for a page to change, you can, under Opera, right click on any part of the document and select Reload Every: and a list of choices will appear, ranging from 5 seconds to 30 minutes; you also have a "custom".
- Image Load: It would be nice if it were possible to disable the load of images for a specific website. That speeds up page load a lot and when you're looking for text, you don't need images. A single click can restore the images back. Just like in Opera.
- Tight integration with tabbed navigation; right now the extension is really nice, but it's nothing compared to the native Opera's implementation.
The FlameWar

I remember people starting a flamewar because Firefox lovers said that Opera was too complex and needed a lot of tweaking before it was usable or comfortable (all those toolbars and 'things' that appear on a default install), therefore that behaviour was not suitable for newbie's or people coming from I.E who were going to be confused by all the stuff.
On the other side, there were Opera lovers (I wasn't there!), assuring that the Firefox approach was completely the opposite; the default install didn't have anything and you needed to accomplish tasks by downloading and installing complex extensions; that alone was complex enough for a newbie who wouldn't even know what an extension is. And if you didn't download extensions the "browsing experience" was really poor.
And so the war begun, just like an epic Warcraft II [http://www.blizzard.com] battle, Humans vs. Orcs.
I'd like to add my opinion after trying both pieces of software. Your mileage may vary.

The Opera Way: It's true that the first impression you get when you open Opera's default install is a little bit shocking. Loads of things: toolbars, buttons, icons, etc. You will definitely have to spend some time (I do it in 2 minutes, but I know what to do) customizing your browser. The truth is I've seen newbie's using Opera and they didn't touch anything, they liked it the way it was. Perhaps it is just a matter of preference; to be honest if you don't like a toolbar you're likely going to be able to remove it in no time; even if you're a newbie. That said I think that Opera Package is growing a little bit beyond what I'd like to see. The Mail client was ok (although I don't use), but now the latest version has a Chat Client. If they're going in *that* direction, perhaps in the future they may suffer the Netscape Syndrome; that is, a complete package, but too "heavy". This is something that, in my opinion, mozilla suffers. Time will decide.

The Firefox Way: Firefox, on the other hand, offers a very simple and extra-features limited experience in its default install. A newbie will likely appreciate the "looks like explorer" appearance and will go from that. The risk here is that a newbie may never ever discover what an extension is and if it does, chances are it'll take much more time to get used to that. Is not that extensions are bad, but I spent more time browsing the net and looking for the ones I wanted (even when I didn't know them, I knew what functionality I needed) than removing and touching a few toolbars in Opera. NOTE: I am not saying Opera's better here; it's just a matter of preference and opinion. I don't think that neither browser is truly a super-newbie experience. A newbie won't even know what Opera or Firefox is. A friend or an Ad may lead them to one or the other. From there, only time will decide. This flamewar is nonsense. My personal preference is still the Opera Way. I'd rather spend a few minutes removing stuff *I may use* than, looking for "third party" extensions that do not fulfil 100% my requirements. Maybe in the near future, extensions start being more powerful and that could be another history, because you could "build" your browser with those features you need and like. Firefox zealots here could argue: why do I need a Mail Client if I don't use it. I agree. Opera Zealots will respond: If you need mail, you need to download another piece of software, nah, we've got one integrated!
As you can see, there's no winning position, both are good. It just depends.

I'm back at my Opera, but the good thing is I haven't uninstalled Firefox because now, instead of jumping straight to I.E., I'll first give Firefox a try when there's a problem with Opera.
I do recommend Firefox if you don't like Opera (or can't afford it to remove the banner); I understand that there are people out there that hate Opera (nobody is perfect) so Firefox is the natural way to go. If you prefer Opera, don't be afraid to give Firefox a try, it's worth the effort and you will find a very nice web browser package; we don't want to run I.E. because its security flaws, now there's another "layer" in the middle between your and Microsoft Internet Explorer.
I haven't mentioned that both Opera and Firefox are Cross Platform, so you can have your Opera or Firefox for Mac or Unix/Linux. I don't have a unix X box here but I imagine the experience is the same.

This is it, my week with Firefox is over and I've gained a new ally; the story is not over, because Firefox is at version 0.9, and it claims: "0.9 is a Technology Preview. While this software works well enough to be relied upon as your primary browser in most cases, we make no guarantees of its performance or stability. It is a pre-release product and should not be relied upon for mission-critical tasks."
I don't agree with them, it works fantastically.

About the author
I am a Chief Technology Officer and I live in Madrid, Spain. I read OSNews via RSS and tend to read Flamewars more often than I should. I don't know why, I just love them. I work with *BSD/Linux Servers since 1997 and used DOS, Windows and OS/2. I also work with Databases (MS-SQL and MySQL) a lot; but in the end, we, as geeks, would love to have fancy Powerbooks to hang around... ;-)
My desktop has Windows XP Professional because I need Visual Studio .NET and the ability to be defeated by some occasional co-worker in Starcraft BroodWar.


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