Taking Tabs to the Limit with Tabbrowser Extensions

by Bruce Byfield

When you're hardcore about tabbed browsing, Tabbrowser Extensions is the way to go.

When I'm writing or researching, I often have 20 or 30 web pages open. My desktop would be in chaos and my productivity overing near zero without tabbed browsing. Even with Firefox's tabbed browsing, I am only slightly better off, because, with that many tabs, their labels are unreadable. I've tried most of the tabbed browsing extensions available from the Firefox Add-ons page -- including Tab Mix, Tab Mix Plus, SuperT, Tabs Menu, and Tab Sidebar -- but none gave more than minor improvements to my work flow. The only tab extension that really makes me efficient is Tabbrowser Extensions (TE), or mozilla-tabextensions, as the Debian package is called for some reason. Not so much a single extension as a collection of related extensions, Tabbrowser Extensions is one of those projects that you have to admire for its sheer thoroughness. It boasts a comprehensive choice of settings and omits only a couple of minor pieces of everyday functionality that I would like.

The first time you open Firefox after installing TE, you can choose one of the Pre-set configurations for it. The most useful of these are Casual User, which is light on memory usage and modifies only a few of Firefox's default settings, and Heavy User, which enables all the options. You might also choose the Authors' settings, to see what the writer of TE prefers. However, whichever configuration you choose, you will probably want to begin by selecting Tabbrowser Extensions Settings from the new Tab menu in Firefox.

Setting options

Many programs, let alone browser extensions, have fewer options than TE, so you'll want to take your time over the settings. One of your first stops should probably be the Use Tab section, where you set how different items -- for example, external links, popups, and links from history or bookmarks -- behave. Personally, I set them all to open in a new background tab, but your preferences undoubtedly differ.

Once these basic choices are made, probably, the single most useful setting you can choose is Appearance > Tab > Width of Tabs. This setting removes one of the greatest annoyances of default tab behavior in Firefox: The fact that, the more tabs you have, the smaller they are. From the same settings page, you can also choose how page titles are truncated on the tab, how and whether each tab has a close button, how loading pages are displayed, and the coloring for the current tab.

Appearance > Tab bar is almost as useful. It allows you to move tabs to any side of the browser window. Since TE displays tabs in a resizable pane, moving them from the top of the window is not essential. However, displaying tabs on the left or the right has the advantage of keeping the amount of screen space occupied by tabs constant. If the column of tabs becomes longer than the height of your display, you can enable scroll bars from the same setting window. Moreover, just by resizing the pane with your mouse, you can instantly view all trunctated labels.

Other highlights include:

  • General > Window Mode > Use one window always: This setting forces all new pages to open as a tab in the current window, allowing you to reduce desktop clutter without having to use a different key sequence to constrain the page.

  • Tab Mode > Tree Mode: Displays tabs opened from another one slightly indented, so that the hierarchical structure is clear. Since TE uses randomly selected colors to group tabs and you can always use the Back button to find your place, this feature is strictly unnecessary, but it's still visually convenient when you have a few dozen tabs open. With this feature enabled, the Back button moves you up the tree, and the Forward button moves you down. Others might prefer Group Mode, which gives parent and child tabs the same color, but does not indent child tabs.

  • Use Tab > Load in background / Keep window in background: Opens new tabs, but does not make them active. This combination allows you to open pages that you think might interest you while not disturbing your reading on the current page.

  • General > Hide Tab bar automatically: Conceals the tab bar if you have only one page open.

  • Features: Sets the default permissions for what the tab can load, such as images, plug-ins, or java-script. These permissions can be over-written on individual tabs from their right-click menus.

If you are unsure what settings you want, or foresee more than one way you might use tabs, you can select Tabbrowser Extensions, the top-level category in the preferences window to save a configuration.

Using Tabbrowser Extensions

TE automatically assigns parent and child tabs the same color for easy reference. One of the few gaps in the settings is the ability to choose the default colors used, but you can reassign the color for a group once it is assigned to help you keep track of related tabs. For the most part, behavior can be edited either for individual tabs, or, by editing the parent tab, for the group. If you have multiple configurations saved, you can change how TE works by loading a different set from Tab > Load Tab Sessions

Both groups and individual tabs can be locked, reloaded or moved in the Tab pane, while the current tab can be duplicated. Strangely, no button exists for opening a new tab, although you can start one from the Tab menu or by pressing Ctrl + T. By contrast, the right-click menu offers a wealth of options for how you close tabs: they include Close Above Tabs, Close Below Tabs, Close Other Tabs, and Close All Tabs (which leaves the top tab open).

When you are finished with the tabs, TE automatically saves the current ones, so that they are opened the next time you start Firefox. If you prefer, you can use Bookmark All Tabs in the right-click menu or Tab > Save Current Tab Session in the main menu to store all current tabs for later reference. This feature eliminates the need for scrolling through the browser History, and can be invaluable when you are working on multiple projects.


For all its functionality, Tabbrowser Extensions comes hedged with all sorts of warnings. Open more than about 70 tabs, and it sometimes crashes if you try to close all of them at once, forcing you to restart Firefox to get it to behave. In places, too, it's buggy. For example, while I can collapse a branch, I have yet to be able to expand it again, which makes this potentially convenient feature unusable. Fortunately, the scroll bar in the TE pane almost compensates for the fact that this feature is crippled.

More seriously, TE is not an extension officially supported by the Mozilla Foundation, nor is it likely to be so. Its code is allegedly so convoluted as to be difficult to work with, and, because it changes some standard behaviors in Firefox, TE may not be compatible with some other extensions. Also, enabling all its features can seriously slow Firefox down on machines with less than a gigabyte of RAM.

However, the same can be said about many of the Firefox extensions I've tried. If TE has more conflicts than most, the reason is mainly that it does more. Despite these imperfections, official or not, Tabbrowser Extensions remains the single most valuable Firefox extension I've seen.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist and course designer who writes mainly for Newsforge and Linux Journal.