Saturday, December 16, 2006

Firefox and fixing PDF madness, + Bonus Firefox Links

As I surf the web, I'm finding more and more links that are not HTML pages, but actually PDF files.

For anyone who doesn't know what a PDF is, it is a "Portable Document Format" file that is able to be exchanged and opened/viewed by users of different office productivity software and or operating systems. It's a very easy and handy way to exchange reports, memos, brochures, whatever without worrying too much if your end-user has the right office software to view them with.

Anyway, all too often I will click an unmarked link in Firefox and my browser will seem to lock up. Eventually I will discover this is because the link was actually to a PDF file.

The apparent lock-up is caused by two primary, sequential activities: first, Firefox must download the PDF file to the local machine cache. Depending on the connection speed and file size, this can take a second or minutes. Second, it must launch the appropriate software application to view the PDF file. And finally, it usually will end up opening the file in the PDF reader Plugin in a tab in your browser window.

In most cases, this means the ubiquitous "Adobe Reader" application. It remains a big mean dog in the middle of the yard. It is free, it is supported by a large number of operating system platforms, and it works.

But it is a big application (download file for Version 8 is 27.5 MB) and can take forever to load up, even on pretty beefy systems. And maybe you just don't like having to depend on a big mean dog in your yard.

As for the download time, we can't really fix that. But we can quickly and easily fix the rest!

First Step,

Instead of the big mean dog, lets find a better PDF reader pet: the free Foxit Reader 2.0.

It is very small (a 1.5 M download) and consists of a single exe file at 3.5 M. It launches blazingly fast and is able to handle annotations, conversion to a text file, and supports form filling.

Download the file, and unpack it somewhere handy.

Second Step,

Adjust Firefox to use Foxit Reader to open PDF associated files. (Note this is written for Firefox 2.0 but you should be able to get the gist to adjust earlier versions in a similar manner.)

In Firefox, click on the "Tools" then "Options" menus.

Next click on the "Content" tab.

Now click on the "Manage" button under "File Types" section on that tab. You will get the "Download Actions" window.

Carefully look through the list and locate all the extension file types that are currently associated with Adobe Acrobat Document and are opened with "Adobe Reader".

One at a time, select each of these specific items. Click on the item to highlight it, then click the "Change Action" button.

In the "Change Action" dialog box, under Use this Plugin, it should be listing "Adobe Acrobat". Lets change that!

Click the radio button "Open them with this application" then click the "Browse" button and browse to where you saved the FoxitReader.exe file you unpacked. Select it, and click the "Open" button to save the change.

Click "OK" to make the association to Foxit Reader stick.

Now repeat on the next extension file type for PDF's in the list. In my Firefox, I had to do that association change for the following extensions: PDF, FDF, XFDF, XDP, and XFD. You may have more or fewer than these.

When you are all done, click the "Close" button and then the "OK" button to close out the Options window.


NOTE: This is very different from changing the PDF default file associations on your Windows system. You can do that as well if you really like Foxit Reader (either from within Foxit Reader or in Windows), but I don't mind Adobe Reader when I'm doing "office" document work, it just irritates me when I am surfing the web. These changes will only set Foxit Reader to open PDF's from within Firefox.

This helps in two ways.

First, when you click a PDF link in Firefox now, the browser will download the PDF in the background, but not take focus away from the tab you are already on. Your browser will remain light and free to continue surfing at will.

Second, when it had completed downloading, it will almost instantly open the PDF in the Foxit Reader application, outside of the browser window. I like that a lot.

Taming PDF madness on the Web

It also helps to know ahead of time that the link you are about to click is a PDF file. Maybe you don't want to bother with PDF links.

Firefox has two handy Add-ons that can give you a heads-up while you are surfing:

Link Alert - This Firefox Add-on will change your cursor to an appropriate file-type icon when you over over a link. It can identify links that will result in, new window spawn, secure site, email link, JavaScript, Word, Excel and PDF file document, zip files, applications, text files, images, RSS feeds, and lots more. Really helpful tool for safe and informed web-browsing.

TargetAlert - I prefer this one myself. (Go to the developer's website to get the version for Firefox 2.0 versions.) In contrast to Link Alert, it places a small, icon next to web-links on the pages if they will take you to a PDF document, leaving a secure site, opening a new window, or other actions. I like this one because it has the option to load them statically next to the links as the page loads or (the default setting) change your icon when you hover like Link Alert.

Either way, you have some nice options now to be informed about what will happen when you click that link.

A Final PDF tip

Lavie recently called me up at work and asked me if I knew of a way to convert a PDF document to EMF format instead. I don't know why someone would find EMF more beneficial than PDF already, but whatever. I pointed her to the freeware application: Cool PDF Reader.

While not quite as nice as Foxit Reader for PDF viewing in my opinion, its real power and value is in its ability to easily convert PDF files to BMP, JPG, GIF, PNG, WMF, EMF, and EPS formats. This alone in a tiny and free application makes it worth the time to download and keep handy. No installation required. It's a single EXE file. That's it!

Check it out.

Bonus Firefox Linkage!

Full Map Firefox Add-on - One of my pet peeves with Google Maps is that it is never big enough! That side area of text always cramps my style when I am doing some virtual sight-seeing. With this Wicked Cool extension, you can expand the Google map view to cover your entire browser window. I don't know how I lived without it! Did I mention how Wicked Cool this is?

TIP: Once you have downloaded and installed the extension, restart Firefox, then customize your toolbar to find and place the Full Map icon on your toolbar. It doesn't appear by default.

X-Mas (Light) Firefox Theme - A pleasant and well done theme to add some Christmas cheer to your Firefox browser. Nice and subdued, not over the top at all. Spread the holiday cheer for a few weeks in Firefox.

Firefox Update releases delayed: New release date for bug fixing looks to be Thursday, December 19th.

The Burning Edge - If you have been playing with Mozilla's "Minefield" nightly trunk build version (on it's way to being spun off into Firefox 3.0) you may be curious as to what's happening in all those nightly fixes. In most cases, it is not obvious at all on the user interface surface. But be assured, big changes are going on under the hood. The Burning Edge is a blog that documents developments in nightly builds of Mozilla's Firefox development trunk version. Not for everyone, but I find it interesting to read.

Firefox (Gran Paradiso) Safe Mode - Many Windows users become quickly aware of having to execute the "Safe Mode" feature of Windows when Something Evil happens with Windows from time to time. Mash that F8 key kids! Firefox also has a handy way to deal with problems. Flux Amm recently posted in the TechBlog comments about how he ran into trouble using a non-default theme in a test-build release version of Firefox. I hadn't been having any problems until the other day using the Orbit Blue theme in the alpha versions. But then disaster struck. What to do? I couldn't load Firefox Minefield at all! I was trapped?

What? Me Panic? Nope.

I launched up my custom Minefield profile in safe mode using the following command in a command-prompt box: C:\Program Files\Minefield\firefox.exe -p Minefield -safe-mode and flipped the theme back to the default version. I then restarted Minefield and was back to normal browsing.

Your command line path may vary depending on where you installed the firefox.exe executable. Also note the "-p Minefield" switch...I use a different profile for each of the three versions of Firefox I run, this is instructing Firefox/Minefield to use my profile for Minefield.

Mischief managed. Nice "hack" to know.

See you in the skies,


Anonymous said...

I used to have the same problem with Mozilla. Clicking on any PDF caused the browser to (seem to) hang up. It's because Acrobat reader takes so blinkin' long to load. That shouldn't cause the browser to come to a standstill -- doesn't Mozilla have a multithreaded design? My solution was to disable most of Acrobat's plug-ins. Now the reader loads quickly and I don't miss the plug-ins.

Anonymous said...

Yep. We do that at work on many of the machines for our users where they complain about that issue with IE and such.

For visitors who aren't familiar with what Jim is talking about:

Disable Acrobat plug-ins

For my personal/work machines, I like this approach because while it doesn't take any of the functionality away from Adobe Acrobat Reader, it does give a very light/fast alternative PDF reader partnered nicely with Firefox for quick viewing of web-found PDF's I stumble across.