Monday, December 17, 2007

On the Edge of Firefox Bliss

Oh my, I've been down the Mozilla Wonderland of Firefox/Minefield 3.x (nightly builds) all weekend.

And though I have retreated back to the safety and familiarity of Firefox 2.0, I must say...I am now teetering on the edge of adopting Firefox 3.0 full time.

What pulled me back?  It was the bookmarks, baby.

Stick with me for a moment and see the Wonders that I found along the way.

Meet Firefox 3.0

I've long been running the latest alpha versions of Firefox 3.0 (a.k.a. Minefield) along side the stable 2.0 version.  I use 2.0 for all my daily work both at home and at work.  I still do a regular daily update of my Minefield installation as well.  I take it around the block for a bit to see the progress on "Places" and the memory leak issue, the speed and graphic and page rendering.

It has been a clean installation with no extensions.

If you want you can play with a "standalone/portable version of Firefox 3.0 beta 1" put together by PortableApps.com.  This is a good and safe way to experience Firefox 3.0 beta 1 without harming your existing 2.0 installation or profile. Or you can Build your Own: Firefox 3 (alpha/beta) Portable versions. Choice is yours depending on your geek-level.

WIRED has two very good articles that provide some hope on the state of Firefox 3.0's progress:

The first outlines some primary changes most users will encounter in the new version; a revised address bar functionality, the Places bookmarking system, the secure-website identification handling, the revised download manager, Add-on installations. While the second expands on the ages-old review of Firefox's memory-leak problem.

Regarding the Memory Leak Issue

My Firefox 2.0 with its large number of extensions averages about 146 MB of RAM.  That's quite a lot.  By comparison, Firefox 3.0 (nighty) is generally averaging about 97 MB RAM.  That's a bit of an improvement...but I wish it was slower.  Granted, this includes the about:config memory management tweaks I found still work for Firefox 3.0.

That 2nd post points out a new extension available only for version 3.0beta releases: RAMBack :: Firefox Add-ons.  This extension creates an icon for your toolbar.  When you click it, it releases memory that Firefox hangs onto for performance reasons.  CyberNet News has some more details on it: Clear Firefox Caches to Recover Memory.  My tests with it find that it temporarily recovers about 5 to 8 MB of RAM. Not much, but its a start.

For Firefox 2.0 users, who might be tempted to outfit their current version with using the Clear Cache Button :: Firefox Add-ons it doesn't seem to help in the same way as RAMBack.  It does dumps the cache files but in my tests, doesn't have any impact on program RAM used.

In the Mozilla Pipes...Firefox 3 Beta 2

The Firefox Extension Guru has some news on the next beta release of Firefox 3.0:

  • The current plan is to have Firefox 3 Beta 2 released on Friday, December 21st sometime in the afternoon
  • Firefox 3 version numbering is going to be be 3-part (3.0.X) instead of the current 4-part (3.0.0.X) scheme
    • However, extension developers can NOT yet use the new version scheme and must set their maxVersion at 3.0b2 (or whatever the current beta is at that time)
  • Extensions now require a secure update channel to function - either by using an updateURL with SSL or by using a new updateKey. Add-ons hosted at addons.mozilla.org are not affected by this.
  • Drinking the Mozilla 3.0 Kool-Aid (but now swallowing)

    So, enthused by the growing stability I was seeing in Firefox 3.0 nightlies, enjoying the speed of page-rendering, seeing the memory leak issue getting better, seeing Places in place in 3.0 now, and finding a number of extensions now 3.0 beta compatible, I decided to see if I could fully outfit my Firefox 3.0 nightly version and use it over the weekend.

    First thing was to pick out a handful of "critical" add-ons for Firefox that I can't live without.  I have quite a list.

    First thing I encountered was that most of them still were not compatible with 3.0 and refused to install.

    So, I did my little "hacking the fox" trick by downloaded them to my desktop, opened the .xpi files with 7-ZIP and edited the install.rdf file inside by bumping the max-version setting up to 4.0. I saved the file and added it back to the .xpi package. Then dragged and dropped it onto the Add-on window.

    I did this for about ten or twelve extension that weren't outright 3.0 compatible.

    When I rebooted, many of them were working, but a few were not. Sage, my favorite RSS feed reader refused to work due to the new Places bookmarking structure no doubt.

    However, the real deal-killer for most of them seemed to be a cryptic message that the extension "does not provide secure updates" resulting in a disabled extension.  This is tied into the changes activated that FF Extension Guru pointed out above in the last bullet. Unless the add-on .xpi package links to a secure web-address for it's source, it will not be allowed to run.

    Some users found that by editing the .xpi file to point to a https:// location (real/working or not) that allowed the extension to work.

    I quickly found a simpler (and more dangerous) global workaround to get these "hacked" extensions enabled:

    1. In your Firefox 3.0 address bar type the following: about:config
    2. Confirm the nice warning message that you are about to eat mushrooms,
    3. Right-click on some white-space on the page and select "New", then "Boolean"
    4. For the name carefully enter the following: extensions.checkUpdateSecurity
    5. For the value, set it to "false"

    Save the new key and restart Firefox.  Now they should all be working and you won't get the "Does not provide secure updates" deal-blocker for the modded extensions.

    So now I had all of my critical extensions and they seemed to be working well.  Of those that I chose, none seemed to have any fatal flaws that prevented them from working.  And as I said, a few were already natively 3.0 compatible already.

    A New Firefox Feed Reader

    I have gushed, evangelized and attempted to convert the masses to the joys of using Sage.  However, it just refused to work due to the new Places bookmarking structure.  Adding to my dismay, the extension hasn't had an update in a very long time, and no news has been forthcoming from the developers.

    I have considered using a freeware application-based RSS reader application (GreatNews, FeedGhost, Omea Reader, RSSOwl, orSharpReader) and there are some good ones out there, I have also tried Google Reader.  However, my blogging style just isn't conducive to these "stand-alone" RSS readers.

    Firefox does have a number of RSS feed reader extensions available besides Sage, these include Brief, Beatnik, and Wizz. I actually used Wizz for a week before finding it just a bit too awkward to use.  I really wanted something just like Sage, but that was Firefox 3.0 compatible.

    Then I found NewsFox.

    It knocked my socks off. It has all the features I wish Sage had and then some, but it remains fast and has features I didn't know I was missing.  It fully supports Firefox 3.0 builds as well as 2.0 builds.

    How much do I like it?

    This Sage evangelist has seen the light.  I exported my Sage RSS feeds in a OPML format.  I installed the NewsFox extension. And restarted Firefox.  Tonight, I have deleted my Sage RSS feeds out of my bookmarks and removed the Sage extension. No looking back.

    NewsFox allows you to build your own list, or import a list from a URL, file or OPML file.  I did the last one.  Then it allows you to add it in to your existing list of feeds for do a "clean start" which puts it in as-is.  In less than a minute there was my familiar RSS feed/folder breakdown, exactly as it was before.  I ran a quick update and the feeds were pulled in.

    NewsFox presents the feeds in a three-paned tabbed window format.  Sage opened the feeds in a tabbed window, but the interface selector was actually a sidebar element. So unless you had another extension that allowed loading of multiple sidebars, you couldn't have both, say, your bookmarks and the Sage open at the same time.  NewsFox allows this easily.

    Feeds may be viewed in a master folder "Feeds" that sorts all feeds by columns for a master view.  As I've noted, it also allows you to create your own folders for organizing your feeds. Folders can be ordered any way you wish and are not locked into an "alphabetical-only" format like some I've used.  Individual feeds also can be ordered inside them any way you wish.

    You can globally mark all feeds as "read", individual feeds, or individual folders.  That's something Sage didn't let you do either. Nice. You can even flag posts. You can encrypt feeds on the disk, and you can password-protect individual feeds to "secure them" from prying eyes.

    There are a number of options which I might discuss later, but you got-em by the loads.

    Feed scanning and processing is very, very fast.  It is easy to monitor the progress on the status bar.

    Adding NewsFox to the Firefox RSS feed reader list

    The current version makes adding RSS feeds a bit tedious.  You have to copy the feed URL then go into NewsFox and create a new feed, and paste the feed. Once saved and a refresh ran, it will correctly update the title information.  Not bad.  If you want to add in NewsFox to the Firefox drop-down RSS picker, you can follow these steps to get it to show up in the list:

    Starting in NewsFox 0.8.2, there is a bug so that the NewsFox autosubscribe option in Firefox does not get added properly. This will be fixed in 0.8.4. Here is how to add the autosubscribe facility manually: go to about:config and type browser.content in the filter box. Then change

    browser.contentHandlers.types.3.title = NewsFox

    browser.contentHandlers.types.3.uri = chrome://newsfox/content/addurl.xul?%s

    You can use a different number than 3 in the above, but you need to use the same number for both preferences. For instance if you want to get rid of Bloglines, you can use 0 instead of 3. Alternatively you can install NewsFox 0.8.1 and then upgrade to 0.8.3.

    Works like a charm!

    Customizing the NewsFox reading pane

    The other issue I had was the bottom pane where the RSS posts are displayed seemed a bit large on the font and the white background was too bright.  I had updated my CSS stylesheet for Sage to do a smaller font and a misty gray-blue background.  Could I do the same for NewsFox?

    Yep!

    Style sheet for text view - MozDev forum post

    Starting with Newsfox 0.7, the styling of articles in text view can be changed. This is done by editing the file 'textview.css' in the newsfox folder inside your profile folder. The file 'textview.css' is just an ordinary CSS file and can be edited with any text editor.
    Here is the default file contents and a small view:

    body
    {
      font:10pt Verdana,sans-serif;
      background:white;
    }
    #newsfox-box
    {
      background: #e3dfd9;
      padding:10px;
      overflow:hidden;
    }

    And here is an alternative file contents and a small view:

    body
    {
      font:12pt Helvetica;
      background: #dfdfbf;
      padding: 20px;
    }
    #newsfox-box
    {
      font: 12pt Verdana;
      background: #7f9fbf;
      padding: 8px;
      overflow:hidden;
      border: 2px solid black;
    }

    In the body of the article, the alternative view has larger text in a different font, a parchment colored background, and more padding between the body of the article and the edge of the article box.

    Inside the heading box, the alternative view has larger text, a different colored background, and a border around the heading box. Newsfox uses bold face type for the article title without it being specified in 'textview.css'.

    The views are much narrower than is usual in order to fit this page better, which makes the alternative not as appealing due to the larger type and extra padding.
    The syntax is reasonably self-explanatory once you understand 'px' for pixels and #xxyyzz is one way to specify a color. Use your favorite search engine with 'css tutorial' to find more information about CSS, and have text view look the way you like.

    I ended up setting mine as follows:

    body { font:8pt Verdana,sans-serif; background: #dfdfbf; }

    #newsfox-box { background: #c7c7cf; padding:9px; overflow:hidden; }

    .srch { color: red; font-weight: bold; }

    Looks much better now.

    The Firefox 3.0 Downfall

    For two days I used Firefox 3.0 quite happily.  Sure there were some quirks.  NewsFox absolutely refused to work if I had Firebug enabled on it.  For some reason, it appears that NoScript was keeping NewsFox from launching links from its reader pane in new tabs, unless I right-clicked the link and chose "open link in new tab."  I tried to whitelist it, but the chrome format it uses in the address bar just wasn't being accepted.  It worked fine in Firefox 2.0 with both Firebug and NoScript.

    I was able to sort though my (almost 100) RSS feeds with speed and ease. Because I could keep my bookmarks sidebar open at the same time as NewsFox, I could drag links for blogging topics over into my "To Blog" folder easily.

    Aside from a few "hacked extension" hangups...everything worked fine

    Except for a problem with my bookmarks.

    I had imported my bookmarks.html file from Firefox 2.0 into Firefox 3.0 and it went smoothly.  I had a bit of reorganizing to get the old-file structure in line under the new Places format, but it was easy enough to accomplish.

    It took me a while to get used to not looking for "Organize Bookmarks" option which is present in Firefox 2.0.  It is gone in 3.0 and now to open the "Library" window which contains your bookmarks and structure you click "view all bookmarks".  I didn't use the bookmark "tagging" ability, I did find the "most frequently accessed" and other automatic "specialty" bookmark folders in Places to be pretty handy and cool.

    But other than coming to terms with the new Places structure, I didn't have many problems.

    Until I began moving or re-ordering a bookmark in my folders, it would jump up several links from where I wanted to place it. Or it might appear near the very top.  Since I often have 8 to 10 groups of bookmarks with anywhere from 4 to 10 or more bookmarks in each group, hunting for a missing or mis-located bookmark became very frustrating.  And I was unable to find a good technique to put them back in order. It came down to a LOT of cut/paste of bookmarks to reinsert them where I wanted.

    I have a highly ordered and structured bookmarking system to keep track of all my blog post subjects and the like this was a Big Deal.  I continued to wrestle with "jumpy bookmarks" for the rest of Sunday, but it got so frustrating that I had to go back to the stability of Firefox 2.0.

    That's too bad because all-in-all using Firefox 3.0 (nightly) was a very pleasing experience.

    As soon as the bookmarking bugs get ironed out, I will make the jump to 3.0 permanent, even if they are still at alpha/beta level releases.

    It's really that good.  And now I have fully outfitted build of Firefox 3.0 to continue testing and monitoring the nightly updates for fixes.

    Bonus Must-Have Add-on.

    Rip (Remove it Permanently) is a (literally) killer Add-on extension for Firefox sure to make Computer World's next Top 10 Firefox extensions to avoid list.

    It compliments the other 3vil extension Adblock nicely.

    Whereas Adblock is like a sniper, picking out advertisements, ads, and other unwanted media elements on a case by case basis, Rip allows you to select block elements on a page...from very tiny ones to humongous ones. It has made a number of sites with rather annoyingly large blocks of ad/feature embellishments very enjoyable now to view and access.

    Definitely a keeper.

    So Firefox 3.0 (betas) are very close to being at the tipping point for daily usability. Just a few more bug-fixes and enhancements and I will be shutting down Firefox 2.0 and adopting 3.0.  And as it continues to climb up the beta-ladder, more developers will be putting the final touches on their 3.0 extension updates since they will be able to work with a version that is more stable and approaching final release code level.

    Happy Firefox frolicking!

    --Claus

    2 comments:

    aggie75 said...

    Claus, thanks for the great tip on switching from Sage to NewsFox. I've tried several other RSS feed readers but none compared to Sage. Based on your recommendation I have now installed NewsFox and it looks great. I haven't done all the tweaks yet and I haven't nuked Sage at this point but it looks promising.

    Thanks for all you do to help us & Merry Christmas! Don't forget to get some green tea from our friends at Hibiki-an for Lavie's stocking!

    Harmon

    Claus said...

    Hi Harmon,

    Nice to hear from you. I'm so happy with NewsFox that I'm going to be posting a follow-up post just on it, with a few more tweaks I've uncovered. Stay tuned!

    I like it more and more each day!

    Happy Holidays to you and yours as well!