Must-Have Firefox Extensions
If there's anything out there that could push me to buy a video-capable portable media player, it's the Authors@Google series on YouTube (and similar lecture series available on Google Video from various think tanks and science conferences). Science, public policy, arts discussion—the Net has everything a growing brain needs. Unfortunately, a lot of it isn't in easily downloadable podcast form, but it's sequestered in various video formats behind the YouTube Flash curtain or hiding in other embedded players. Bringing it down to the hard drive, even just in audio form, used to be a pain and a half, often requiring some fancy stream ripping involving speaker wires and mencoder scripts. Not any longer. Now, there are a bunch of extensions and Greasemonkey scripts for Firefox that let you rip your beloved content from the cold, uncaring fingers of the Internet and then load it on your portable media player to take with you to family reunions. Two of them are worth special note.
The first is Fast Video Download, which, as its name suggests, will let you download pretty much any embedded video with the click of a mouse. When you call up a video on YouTube or Google Video or just about anywhere else, and it's one you want to take with you for viewing on the commuter train or for listening to at the gym, simply click on the handy-dandy video downloader icon that appears at the bottom right-hand corner of the Firefox screen, and away you go. It pulls the video from the Web server, in whatever format it's natively stored, and drops it on your hard drive, from where you can load it onto your portable media player at your leisure. Fast Video Download's philosophy is no-nonsense and unobtrusive, and it either works on a given site or it doesn't—your mileage may vary.
The second is an extension called Download Helper, and it has a different approach. It maintains a compatibility list and a directory of video sites from which it can download and file types it keeps an eye out for. Accessing its submenu through the Tools menu on Firefox allows you to customize it, to allow or block adult and/or pornographic content, and it also has special entries to help you find instructional and tutorial videos. It's a more comprehensive tool than Fast Video Download, but it's also less elegantly integrated into Firefox. Although Fast Video Download is the tool you want on hand when you stumble across something you're going to want to listen to again later, Download Helper is a tool better suited for dedicated video hunts (say, if you're doing research or you're going to be on a long plane ride and want your portable media player loaded up with things you haven't seen before).
Not all Firefox extensions are little plugins or interface tweaks. Some of them are full-on, serious applications that just happen to run in a Firefox tab. There are quite a few of these, including a number of very good security auditing tools. However, today I'm focusing on must-haves for everyday users, so in this section, we're going to look at three tools that make the life of a normal Web 2.0 Netizen less hassle-prone.
If you're hip deep in new media, you've probably got a blog. And a Flickr account. And a YouTube channel. And a Box.net file repository. And a Facebook account. And a...well, you get the idea. There are a lot of passwords to remember, and a lot of files to upload, and a lot of really crappy, limiting interfaces through which you have to do that uploading.
File Uploader changes all that. It's essentially a specialized FTP client that's compatible with a number of on-line file services and social-networking sites. After installing the extension and restarting Firefox, you are presented on the Tools menu with a File Uploader entry. Click on it, and a new tab loads with the application. Using the accounts management and services menus, you can sign up for new accounts with any of the supported services (including, but not limited to, the aforementioned YouTube, Box.net, Flickr and Facebook), or use accounts you already have and manage your files and photo albums remotely. Reordering, batch uploading, deleting and renaming are all supported, and, unlike the HTML interfaces offered by the services, you are not subject to the files-per-upload limits that the Web interfaces impose. If you are, like me, a working photographer (or merely an avid hobbiest), and you're dependent on Flickr to showcase your work, this tool will save you a lot of time. If, on the other hand, you're a social-networking junkie, File Uploader will let you share more/better/faster with more people.
Although File Uploader is patterned after a classic dual-paned FTP client, it is not actually an FTP client. Instead, it emulates an FTP client over HTTP for particular services. For a true-blue FTP client that runs in a Firefox tab, you'll need FireFTP.
FireFTP is one of the oldest and most mature Firefox extensions around. It supports all the essential features you need in an FTP client—proxy support, multiple account support, integrity checks, encryption, hash and time synchronization. It operates on a classic three-pane view: local filesystem on the left, remote filesystem on the right and console data scrolling in a wide pane across the bottom. It also will keep local and remote directories synchronized, and it can do deep-tree comparison, so you can see what might be present on one filesystem that's absent from another. It's fast, it's light, and it works very, very well. Some standalone clients, like GFTP, have a few more bells and whistles, but they're the kind of features you use so rarely that you'll seldom need to call it up if you've got FireFTP handy. FireFTP is also cross-platform, unlike some of the other best open-source FTP clients, which are Linux or *nix only.
The other entry in the oldie-but-goodie pile is ChatZilla, a venerable in-tab IRC client with all the trimmings. Although it doesn't have the $@%!ing provocative veneer that bitchX does, it handsomely organizes chat channels, logs, has an extensive built-in list of available channels, supports DCC chats and file transfers, and has its own plugin and theming architecture. After install, just like FireFTP and File Uploader, you'll find it easily launched with a click from the Tools menu. In a sense, it's nothing really new—IRC is old tech—but it does implement all the standards very well, and for those who prefer to keep desktop clutter to a minimum but still enjoy fighting with random strangers on IRC, ChatZilla is a must-have.
The last of our full-on apps that just happen to run in a tab is NewsFox, an RSS newsreader for Firefox. It's a three-pane Atom/RSS feed reader laid out very similarly to an e-mail reader: feeds on the left, news items on the top right and story content on the bottom right. It handily auto-imports any Live Bookmarks you've got set up as soon as you launch it, so you don't have to worry about re-adding feeds to which you've already subscribed. Again, like FireFTP and ChatZilla, it's a solid, no-frills app that “just works” and does what it's supposed to do. And, also like ChatZilla and FireFTP, it doesn't cause a performance drag, which is a welcome change from the bad-old days when Firefox was new and full of memory leaks all the time.