Build a better browser

CHOICE Computer's pick of the best add-ons for Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome
 
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01 .Introduction

Adding on to a browser

A browser is our window to the world (wide web), and is one of the applications we use the most. And while we might take it for granted, there are many ways we can improve upon it and expand its capabilities with optional, add-on features. It doesn’t matter which browser you use, as all the major players offer a huge range of add-ons from the fun and frivolous to the genuinely useful.

In this report, we’ve focused on the three leading Windows browsers:

That’s their order of popularity across the world and they share around 90% of the Windows PC market, leaving the rest to Safari (which dominates on the Mac), Opera and a few others.

Internet Explorer comes with Windows so it has a head start, but even so it has declined from around 90% usage in 2005 to half that and according to StatCounter (a web-site hit counting service) was actually overtaken in Europe by Firefox in December of last year. Firefox, with around 40% of the worldwide market, grew steadily until a couple of years ago but has since levelled off, with Chrome (backed by the power of Google) chiefly responsible for the erosion of IE numbers.

Whichever browser you choose (see our comparison report BrowserShowdown! in CC issue 79), there’s a massive range of add-ons to choose from – Firefox claims 5000, Chrome 8500. Whether it’s to help with blogging or social networking, managing tabs and bookmarks, stopping annoying ads or just giving your browser a unique look, there’s probably an add-on that does just what you need.

But which ones are worth your time? While everyone’s preference is different, the CC team has picked out what we feel are some of the stand-out plugins for each browser.

It’s worth noting some of these add-ons and plugins have direct equivalents in each of the other browsers, sometimes as the same plugin cross-platform (for example Stumble Upon, covered right). If you like the sound of an add-on for one browser, check out its site – it may be available for your favourite browser too.

The only thing to be aware of when adding plugins is that, often, the more add-ons you have the slower your browser may be. It really depends on the types of plugins however, but just be aware if you’re installing these on a low-powered computer such as a netbook.
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IE

The current version is Internet Explorer 9, and if you don’t already have it running, Windows Update will usually prompt you to upgrade. IE 9 is only available on Windows 7 however and has a more streamlined design, fewer dialog boxes and more intuitive navigation. It also aims to be faster – a major criticism of previous versions from Microsoft. For older computers running Windows XP you can still use IE 8, and the following plugins should work with both versions.

Installing add-ons

From the browser click Tools > Manage Add-ons, to bring up the Manage Add-ons window. This is the place to set options, or deactivate or de-install add-ons you currently have. Now click Find more toolbars and extensions (bottom left) and IE will load the add-ons website. Browse to the ones you want to install and click Add to Internet Explorer.

The pick

IEBrowster
Browster

displays an icon next to the websites on your search engine pages; hover the mouse over the icon to see a pop-up preview of the page before you commit yourself.

IEwot
WOT (Web of Trust)

rates the links in your search pages for safety, based on collected data from other users. The rating appears as traffic lights alongside the web-site before you follow the link.

IEworldclock
World Clock Search

provides ready access to the time anywhere in the world, so you can make sure that Skype call isn’t going to disturb someone’s beauty sleep!

IElastpass
LastPass

provides an encrypted, on-line repository for all your passwords. It provides a more secure alternative to IE’s own password file and with just a click, will take you to a website, enter your user name and password and sign in for you with your own details.

IEyoono
Yoono

is a boon for the socially connected, bringing your Twitter, Facebook, Skype and all those other messenger services into a single browser-based viewer. You can not only see all those messages coming in, but send out your replies from each one without leaving the browser.

IEzamzar
Zamzar

is an easy to use online conversion service that can also be accessed through this add-on. You can use it to download files and convert them to the format you want, whether it’s a Youtube video to WMV, an image to JPG, or that old classic of turning a word file into a PDF.

IE7Pro
IE7Pro

can disable ads, block Flash, perform searches and spell-checks, and run customised scripts (obtainable from userscripts.org) against the webpages you’re looking at and more. It’s a veritable swiss-army knife for IE, and works in IE 8 and 9 too.

IEstumbleupon
Stumble upon

learns what your interests are and suggests links to sites you might like based upon the likes of people with similar interests to your own. It’s a great way to find sites you might not otherwise know about.

IEXmarks
XMarks

automatically backs up and synchronises bookmarks and favourites between your computers. Just bring up the browser at home or work, and you can access the same bookmarks wherever you are.

IEmousegestures
Mouse Gestures

lets you perform common operations like scroll forward and backward just by moving the mouse, generally with the left button held down. There’s a whole series of defined actions, plus others you can add yourself.

Firefox logo

Version 4.0 has just been released with the promise of a sleeker look, better ease of use and substantially increased speed compared to version 3.6. Download the latest version at www.mozilla.com.

Installing addons

From the browser, choose Tools > Add-ons, bringing up the Add-ons window. This is the place to set options, or activate or deinstall add-ons. Click Get Add-ons, then Browse All Add-ons and you’ll be directed to Mozilla’s site for plugins. Browse or use the search function to find the ones you want. Installing is as simple as clicking Add to Firefox. Most add-ons offer a menu button you can simply add to the toolbar.

The pick

FFtmpTab Mix Plus

provides a range of capabilities including multi-line tabs, a drop-down list of the tabs you’ve closed (for selective recovery) and progress bars across the tabs when new pages are loading. The whole range of functions can be tailored to taste. See Make the most of Firefox tabs on page 28 for how to make the most of it.

FFpersonasPersonas

lets you decorate your browser window with any of a wide range of designs. There are now thousands to choose from and you can set them to change randomly. Some of them are even animated. Combine them with themes for a different look.

FFabpAdblock Plus

is the essential tool for blocking ads. Not only does it block any ads it recognises, it gives you the option to block other inserts on the page as you go. You can start with one of the default filters, downloaded as another add-on, and then tailor it yourself.

IEtab2IE Tab 2

provides support for those recalcitrant pages that won’t function properly in Firefox. You can switch in or out, and set IE as the default for specific pages you know will always require it.

FFfireshotFireShot

captures webpages – either just the part you can see or the whole page – just as you see them, as an image. You can save it or paste it somewhere else for inclusion in a document or to be printed. It guarantees your page capture is exactly what you see, not what the standard print version chooses to give you.

FFfireftpFireFTP

is for people who update web-pages on a server using FTP (File Transfer Protocol), but if you fall into that category, this is about as easy as it can be. It displays a two-panel page in the browser for your local and host files, with transfer as simple as pressing upload and download arrows.

FFdtaDownThemAll

manages downloads from webpages, particularly useful for pages with lots of pictures or links. Choose the ones you want (by criteria such as file type or individually), and it fetches them to a local folder while you get on with something else. It’ll resume where it left off if interrupted, too.

FFgreasemonkeyGreasemonkey

is very popular amongst dedicated techies. It runs scripts against the webpages you look at, so it’s capable of weeding out things like ads, selecting content for speed or doing just about anything else you can think of to tailor a web page to your liking.

FFfastestfoxFastestFox

claims to supercharge your productivity with improved searching, page pre-fetching, parallelised downloads, automatic copy of highlighted text and more. It even lets you save onscreen video. In many ways similar to the IE7Pro plugin (see page 23) for Internet Explorer.

FFcoolpvCoolpreviews

is a nifty addon that gives you a foretaste of where the links on your search pages will take you. When you mouse-over a link, a thumbnail of the page’s appearance is displayed. See where you’re browsing before you click!

Chrome logo

Rather than releasing big, infrequent updates like Microsoft and Mozilla, Google regularly updates its Chrome browser and provides three versions to try: Stable, Beta and Developer. The Stable version recently hit version 10, and among the major players is the fastest browser out there. See www.google. com/chrome for more.

Installing add-ons

Click on the spanner in the toolbar, then choose Tools > Extensions, bringing up the Extensions tab in Chrome. This is the place to configure, activate or deactivate add-ons. Click Get more extensions and Google’s webstore will load. On the left under the Extensions heading are the various categories you can browse, you can use the Search field in the top right to find a plugin. Installing is as easy as clicking Install to add to Chrome.

The pick

GCnotepad
Chrome Notepad

provides a note pad within your browser window. It’s not only a handy place to jot things down, but will also synchronise across all your computers. It’s very simple: just a single pane on the right.

GCautonito
Autonito

makes Chrome’s incognito mode automatic for sites you nominate. Normally, you have to explicitly choose incognito mode every time you access a site where you want to avoid leaving footprints, so there’s always a risk you won’t remember to do it.

GCflashblock
Flash Block

automatically blocks the flash content of websites, saving download time and avoiding Flash-based annoyances. It will also filter out ads, which makes it doubly useful.

GCweb2pdf
Web2PDF

lets you convert any website to PDF format at the push of a button, quite useful for those sites that don’t print nicely. You can download the PDF file, or view it with Google Docs. One limitation though: it can’t handle sites you’ve signed into. It’ll present the sign-in page instead.

GCfyts
Fast YouTube

search provides one-click access to searching YouTube to help you find the videos you’re looking for, which is not only handy for frequent users but can save your bandwidth too.

GCtranslate
Google Translate

helps you out if you wander into strange lands, or languages, online. It will detect foreign languages on a webpage and offer to translate the whole page. You can even set it to do that automatically.

GCdual
Dual View

splits the current tab into two views, very handy for comparing two sites side by side, or making notes about a site on one side while viewing it in the other. It’s a much easier way to do this than managing two browser windows.

GCsendgmail
Send from Gmail

takes any email links straight to Gmail, not the default link to Microsoft Outlook you normally encounter in Windows. It also makes it simple to email a link to the page you’re looking at to someone else.

GCstopyt
Stop Autoplay for Youtube

doesn’t just stop a video from playing, it buffers it up so you can wait until the whole video has downloaded before watching it. It avoids the stopping and starting you get when the download speed is less than the speed of the video itself.

GCfeedly
Feedly

gathers all those RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds you’ve subscribed to into one neat webpage in your browser. If you use RSS feeds regularly, it’s like having your own online magazine tailored to just your interests. It also keeps track of what you’ve read, so you can tell at a glance how many new items from feeds are waiting for you to read.

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