I’ll admit that this post is largely self-serving. Having rebuilt two WindowsXP machines (one of them twice) in the past week along with installing Windows 7 on my Toshiba NB205 Netbook, I am tired of trying to keep track of the add-ons that I love every time I install Firefox. Perhaps someday Xmarks or a product like it will synchronize these things across multiple installations, but counting my home PC, laptop, netbook, work PC, etc. I’ve ended up with quite an array of different add-ons on each machine. With any luck, by listing the best ones here along with links, I will be able to more easily manage these things — and if it benefits you as well, that’s great!
So here, in no particular order other than my ability to remember them, are my favorite add-ons for my favorite browser, Firefox:
I wrote at length about Xmarks back in May. Briefly, it is a way to synchronize your bookmarks (and passwords if you choose) across multiple Firefox installations. In the scenario I mentioned above about installing a fresh version of Firefox on a new (or rebuilt) PC, all that is needed to have all your bookmarks is to install this add-on and enter your Xmarks username and password and the bookmarks are downloaded from the Xmarks server to your new machine. All icons are maintained as the order and foldering structure present on your other machines.
I’ve sung the praises in-depth of Adblock Plus before. Disregarding whatever moral issues there might be to blocking ads on sites that are otherwise free, this add-on will make your browsing experience faster and less cluttered. There are very few times that I’ve had to disable Adblock Plus due to “false positives” but it has happened on a couple sites. Even so, turning it off is as simple as clicking the icon in the status bar and choosing from the menu.
I’m pretty sure that Forecastfox was the first add-on I ever used back when I first adopted Firefox as my primary browser. My previous post explains the details of this great tool and it really hasn’t changed much over time, which is just fine.
Normally when you choose to download a file, Firefox pops up a separate window to show the download status and from which you can launch the file when the download is complete. This is interesting behavior given that one of the primary reasons many people first adopted Firefox was because of the pop-up blocker that other browsers lacked. With this add-on, you can eliminate the extra pop-up window and instead monitor and execute downloads from the Firefox status bar.
This add-on is different from others in that by itself it does nothing. Instead, you have to download (or create) Greasemonkey scripts (there are thousands) to make it do whatever it is you desire. A more lengthy post I wrote in May provides more details, but having Greasemonkey is like putting your browser on steroids. Just like there are add-ons for Firefox I find it hard to live without, there are Greasemonkey scripts that I depend on heavily as well. Many of those are listed in the post from May, but I’ll update the list via a new post soon.
CamelCamelCamel.com used to have a Greasemonkey script that worked on Amazon so that you could see historical prices for a given item without having to visit the main CamelCamelCamel site. They have no released a Firefox add-on that does much the same thing except that it now also functions on NewEgg and Best Buy. This is a great way to know if that deal you are eyeing is really a deal and you also have the ability to set price alerts so that you’ll receive an email when the price drops below a certain point. If you enjoy shopping online, this is a must-have add-on.
Download Link: I discovered this add-on when I first got a netbook. Screen real estate is a premium on a small screen and I wanted to turn off the status bar at the bottom of the screen but I missed having the progress bar that shows how much of a page has downloaded. This add-on combines the address bar with the download progress meter at the top of the screen.
Another way to maximize screen real estate on a netbook is to eliminate the menus/links at the top of the browser screen. On my Toshiba NB205 this add-on is indispensable as I wrote about back in August.
Thanks to a camelcamelcamel alert, I was notified that the price had dropped at Amazon on the Philips PowerSquid Surge Protector. The PowerSquid is one of my favorite items and I was tipped off to its usefulness at a continuing ed conference I attended a couple years ago. I immediately snapped one up at $24.01 last night only to have the price later fall further to $22.28 this morning (only two left as I write this so it probably won’t be that cheap for long). Even for a couple bucks more than the lowest price it is still an excellent value, in my opinion. From looking at the camelcamelcamel graph of long term prices (see below) I could have guessed that the price would drop further, but for a couple dollars it wasn’t worth missing out on this deal because I need one of these right now (“need” being a word that is a tad strong I suppose, but when Amazon calls I answer).
The great thing about the PowerSquids (and there are other models to choose from wihout surge protection, for example, or in different colors) is that you can actually use every single outlet. The unit looks like a squid (hence the name) where each outlet is on a short cord attached at a central location. Near my computer I was able to go from using four “normal” power strips to using two PowerSquids because I could actually use every outlet on the PowerSquid, whereas before the large “brick” plugs on many items blocked up to three outlets in addition to the one being used. In addition to being tidier, it seems safer (I have no idea if it actually is) to have a more neatly orgranized bunch of wires using two collection points, plus I still have wall outlets free for other uses.
This post piggybacks somewhat on my previous post about Amazon Prime in that the usefulness of Amazon (among other sites) can be extended by another Firefox Add-on called Greasemonkey. Greasemonkey is easier to understand if you think of it as “an add-on that has plug-ins” because the way one person uses Greasemonkey can be vastly different than the way someone else uses it because the functionality is determined by the Greasemonkey Scripts that you choose to install for it to use and by itself, Greasemonkey does nothing. It needs scripts installed to be useful.
In brief, Greasemonkey is usually used to change the behavior and/or appearance of a webpage or part of a webpage. That sounds like a pretty broad concept and I suppose it can be. This Wikipedia post gives more detail than I will delve into here, because I think looking at a few things that I use Greasemonkey for will better illustrate its functionality. But since there are no restrictions to who can write a script or what it can do so the list of functionality is constantly changing as new scripts are written/released and users (like you!) could create scripts themselves for a very specific purpose that only they need/desire as well.
First, to install the Greasemonkey add-on for Firefox, visit this link: https://addons.mozilla.org/en-US/firefox/addon/748 and follow the instructions similar to other add-ons. Once that is done, you need to find some scripts to install to make Greasemonkey functional. There is a site called userscripts.org that is a great place to start. As mentioned above, though, here are some brief descriptions of the scripts I have found particularly useful:
This brings the functionality of camelcamelcamel to Amazon so that you don’t need to visit a separate site to see the price history of an item. If you don’t know already, camelcamelcamel tracks the prices of nearly everything sold on Amazon. It also allows you to set price alerts so that you get an email when the price drops below a level you specify. Installing the Greasemonkey script means that you don’t have to go to camelcamelcamel to see the price history…just click on the widget on the item page at Amazon and it will show you the price history in graphical form.
This script will show you right on the Amazon book page whether or not the item is owned by Hennepin County Library (there are similar scripts for other libraries if you live elsewhere). Simply click on the link to go straight to the HCL catalog page where you can reserve a copy for yourself. Also, this script (and other HCL scripts listed here) only works for the suburban (i.e. not in Minneapolis) libraries until the catalogs are combined as a result of the library merger completed last year.
What if HCL doesn’t have the book you need but you don’t want to buy it? This neat script adds links to search for the book from the Amazon page in each of the area library systems’ catalogs. Also, it provides a link to MnLINK, a computer system that will search across the libraries of Minnesota and from there you can request a book to be delivered via inter-libarary loan (ILL) to your local branch. I found this very handy for seeing some obscure books (like for geneology, for example) before I decided to spend a lot of money purchasing a copy.
Barnes & Noble/Hennepin County Library Lookup Tool
HCL came up with a script that works on Netflix for movies kind of like the one that works on Amazon/B&N mentioned above. So you can get the movie at the library for free and save your Netflix rentals for things that aren’t availablel at HCL.
One of the most annoying things about viewing articles on the StarTribune.com site is that they have gone to this format of showing you a few paragraphs and then requiring that you go to the “next page” to view more. I believe this is so they can show you another screen full of ads, but it drives me crazy. This Greasemonkey script makes it so that the entire article displays on one page. I forget how nice this is until I’m looking at a Strib article in a different browser or on a different computer and I’m quickly reminded how annoying the multi-page articles are. Examples below are from an article that appears today at http://www.startribune.com/business/44610492.html
Another annoying thing that StarTribune.com does is to refresh most pages every few minutes. This can be annoying if you are reading an article when it happens or if you go offline to read your articles and then you get a “page not found” error when it auto refreshes. This script puts an end to that behavior.
So there, in a nutshell, is some of the functionality that Greasemonkey offers as a Firefox Add-on. Depending on the sites you use, there may be dozens of scripts that you will be able to use to make your browsing experience that much better. Because Greasemonkey is so unobtrusive I often forget that it is running until I use a different computer and/or browser and I wonder why pages looks different.