Saturday, March 26, 2011

What they messed up in Firefox 4

Mozilla has been pretty good about allowing the user to customize the interface. Of course, it seems that every time there's a new major release I spend the first twenty minutes trying to undo all the “improvements” the UI team made. Likewise with Firefox 4, I immediately set about trying to get my old environment reestablished.

And good Lord, did they mess it up. It's never a good sign when there's a Lifehacker post titled “How to Fix Annoyances with Firefox 4's New Look”. The saving grace is it's a little easier to tinker with than Chrome, and it's not worse than Chrome in most ways when tinkering is not possible.

1) Reload / Stop – The most obvious changes are with the tabs-on-top and the new consolidated “Firefox” menu, but I'll start with some of the more unambiguously moronic changes they made. “Reload” and “Stop” are now a single button that changes depending on whether a page is currently loading. Never mind that those are two completely different functions. The UI team seems to think that just because one would rarely need to chose between the two, that the extra button isn't worth the space.

Here's why I want them separated: Say you have a large, slow-loading page that is, let's say 90% loaded, but you want to stop the connection. You go to click on the “stop” button, but at the last millisecond the page completes, and the button morphs to “reload” before the signal gets from your brain to your index finger. Congrats, you have now just accidentally clicked the wrong button, because the correct button vanished. Enjoy waiting for your reload.

Unlike so many other UI preferences, this one seems unfixable to the user.

2) Add-on bar / Status bar – They took the “worst of both worlds” approach to the Status bar. The old Firefox 3 bar did double duty as a traditional status bar and a place to put Add-on interfaces for popular extensions like NoScript and IETab. FF4 removes the bottom status bar to free up vertical UI space. The load progress display now shows as an overlay like Chrome does. However, having removed the place for Add-on buttons, they now need a new home. NoScript appeared to the left of the URL bar, near the navigation buttons. No. Just no.

There's an option to restore the Add-On bar, and you can drag your stuff back to where it used to be. Great! Except that the Add-on bar doesn't double as a status bar, and the status overlay appears above the Add-on bar, totally ignoring that prime screen real estate where the status used to reside. Now you have a big-ass bar with like four buttons on it that uses up a bunch of space and serves no other purpose.

Fortunately there's an extension to restore the old function, “Status-4-Evar”. But there shouldn't have to be such a thing.

3) The “Firefox” menu / Bookmarks menu. One big consolidated drop-down menu? Ok. except that I use the Bookmark menu constantly. A separate bookmark menu button can be added back in, but it defaults to the right side of the screen. The problem with a right-default is that the bookmark folder menus scroll left-to-right, so now you're in zigzag menu hell, reminiscent of the Windows 95 Programs menu on a small screen. You can get the bookmarks menu placed on the left side, but it's not obvious how to do so. Loading the the UI preferences interface actually changes the displayed UI, so there are some circumstances where you're not sure whether something will stay where you put it. And be sure not to confuse the bookmark drop-down button with the bookmark sidebar button...

4) Old-style tab close buttons. As I mentioned before, I have a tendency to undo new UI changes where I can. I think some of my preferences might date back as far as the “Phoenix” development releases, later to be renamed “Firefox”. One of my older preferences is to not have close buttons on each tab, but to have a unified tab close button on the right side of the screen. This preference is enabled in the “about:config”, and is probably one of the more obscure preferences available.

The setting still exists, but the new close button and tab-list button are barely visible against the Win-7 translucent title bar.

 Can you see it?

5) Menu bar / Firefox menu / Tabs-on-top / Title bar – Sure, it's easy enough to undo the “tabs on top” preference. And it's easy enough to restore the drop-down menu bar. But they didn't exactly make it look good when you do so.

Restoring the old 3.6 configuration leaves a distracting amount of window transparency, and with no good way to turn it off. Even the URL bar is transparent, affecting readability depending on what's behind it. The only solution I've seen is to use a “persona”, which is sort of like a theme but for some reason called by a different name. Unfortunately, most Firefox personae look like garbage. (Alternatively, the user could turn off transparency at the OS level, affecting all applications.)

The user is thus cajoled into using the default configuration, which is tabs-on-top and no menu bar, which for some reason restores opacity to the URL area. Go figure.

While I'm not a fan of tabs-on-top, I understand some of the theory behind it (even if tabs-on-top doesn't fully resolve the UI “ownership” issues), and I appreciate the fact that others do like it. Fine. Except that tabs-on-top robs the user of a workable title bar area. Apparently some developers view the title bar as wasted space, especially in a maximized window. But Windows-7 actually uses the title bar as a grippable space for nifty drag & drop functions. So I guess I can't take a maximized window and drag it anywhere, or shake it, or any of the new functions that Microsoft added to the title bar.

What they might have done instead is put the drop down menus on the title bar. They wouldn't take up the whole title bar, so you'd still have those functions available to you. This would look a little like what happens when you press “Alt” when using the default configuration.


With Firefox 4, Mozilla has finally made so many fundamental changes to the user interface that supporting user reversions to old UI patterns has become difficult. They're taking a “if you can't beat 'em, join 'em” approach to Chrome, and for those of us who have been sticking with Firefox because it wasn't like Chrome, we're getting the first indications we might eventually be left behind.

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