… and back to Firefox again

After spending some time with Safari I went back to Firefox again because I decided there was too much I missed about it:

  • When you start Firefox it automatically restores your session to exactly how it was when you left it. In Safari you can approximate this by manually selecting an option from the menu, but it only reopens tabs and windows and doesn’t remember history.
  • Firefox remembers usernames and passwords for a much wider range of sites than Safari does.
  • When you open a new tab then close it again, you’re taken back to the tab you were previously on, not whichever one happens to be at the right-hand end of the tab list.
  • You can reopen the last-closed tab with ⌘-Shift-T.
  • Firefox searches through history and bookmarks from the Address Bar much more intelligently than Safari, which saves a lot of typing.
  • I’ve configured Firefox so I can also search from the Address Bar (using this tip), which makes everything nice and quick and simple. This enables me to use it like Chrome and I’ve got rid of the Search Bar altogether.
  • There are still a few sites which don’t work properly in Safari. This isn’t Safari’s fault, but when one of the sites is MySpace then that’s quite a big problem for me.
  • I can use a plugin to easily perform ad-blocking within the browser (with Adblock Plus) instead of having to install either a browser hack or a system-wide ad-blocking proxy.
  • The Firebug plugin. How in God’s name can I not have known about this amazing thing until recently? For ages I’ve been looking for a graphical HTTP sniffer for OS X instead of having to fiddle around with ngrep, and Firebug does this brilliantly (and only for the site you want to sniff instead of just picking up all HTTP stuff happening on your workstation). It also allows you to inspect HTML, CSS and JavaScript, and all within a powerful, elegant and intuitive interface.

For bookmark synchronising between Firefox installations I use the Foxmarks plugin which does the job very nicely. To sync my Firefox bookmarks to my iPhone, I manually export my bookmarks from Firefox into Safari, and then MobileMe automatically syncs the new bookmarks to my iPhone.

How to navigate applications and windows effectively on a Mac

I’ve noticed that many people using Macs don’t navigate through windows and applications as effectively as they might, so I thought I’d write a quick and simple guide on how to do it better.

The basics

  1. To find a window that’s obscured by one or more other windows, don’t get to it by minimising all the windows you come across until you see the one you want. This is a very fiddly and time-consuming way of doing things.
  2. If the window you want is within a different application to the one you’re currently using, cycle through open applications by holding down Command whilst repeatedly pressing Tab to quickly get to the application you want (Command is the key with the ⌘ on it, immediately to the left of the space bar). Or, once you’ve pressed Command-Tab once, you can use the mouse to choose the application you want from the running applications shown. Alternatively, if for some reason you’re not so keen on using keyboard shortcuts, click on the application you want in the Dock.
  3. At this point you should be in the application you want. Sometimes, however, an application can have more than one window open. If this is the case here, and if the window you want is not currently visible, simply cycle through the open windows within this application by holding down Command whilst repeatedly pressing the backtick key until your desired window appears (the backtick looks like ` and is the key immediately to the left of Z (on a British keyboard, at least)).
  4. If you really do need to make things temporarily disappear, use Hide wherever possible because this hides an entire application with a single keystroke and thus is generally quicker and simpler than minimising individual windows. You can easily hide an application just by holding down Command whilst pressing H. Show a hidden application by cycling to it via Control-Tab or by clicking its icon in the Dock.
  5. On the rare occasions when you need to hide some, but not all, windows within a running application, that is pretty much the only time when minimising is useful. But try to minimise a window with Command-M on the keyboard because that’s quicker and less fiddly than clicking the minimise button with the mouse.

That’s the basic stuff. It might take a little while to get the hang of it all initially, but stick with it because it will soon start to make using your Mac a much faster and smoother experience. If, when you’ve mastered all that, you want to try out a few other things to make yourself even more efficient on a Mac, try the more advanced stuff below. Some of these will probably only help you if you tend to have lots of applications and windows open at the same time.

More advanced stuff

  1. People quite often have stuff on their Desktop that they need frequent access to. Getting to this stuff by hiding applications or minimising windows is a bad idea because it’s fiddly and takes time, and then you have the hassle of having to go back and show or restore everything again. There’s a facility on Macs called Exposé which helps out with things like this. To set up Exposé, go into ‘Exposé & Spaces’ in System Preferences. You can then choose a combination of keys and mouse buttons for ‘Show Desktop’. What I prefer to do, however, is to set the ‘Desktop’ option under Active Screen Corners (I use the bottom right hand corner). This enables me to get straight to the Desktop just by dragging the mouse to the bottom right corner of the screen, which is very handy. Drag and drop still works with this, too; so, for example, if I wanted to copy a Web link to my Desktop, I would grab the link from the Address Bar in Safari, move the mouse to the bottom right corner of the screen to get to the Desktop, drag the link to a place on the Desktop and let go to save it there, then move the mouse to the bottom right of the screen again to put all my windows back where they were before. Very convenient indeed.
  2. Exposé also enables you to tile windows around the screen, which means you can easily see all windows and then just click on the one you want to bring it to the front. You can do this either for all open windows, or just for the windows within the current application. In the ‘Exposé & Spaces’ panel in System Preferences you can set key and mouse button combinations to trigger these helpful behaviours. If you have a reasonably new Apple keyboard, the F3 key on the keyboard is automatically set to tile all open windows. This can be a good alternative to using Command-Tab and Command-backtick to quickly get to the window you want.
  3. When you run lots of applications simultaneously, it can be very helpful to spread your applications across more than one screen so that things are less cluttered. If you only have one monitor, you can create multiple virtual screens and easily switch between them. This is easily and elegantly achieved on a Mac by using a facility called Spaces. The settings for this are also accessed in the ‘Exposé & Spaces’ panel in System Preferences. Just enable Spaces then tell it how you want to arrange your virtual screens in terms of numbers of rows and columns. Two spaces is enough for many people, but you might want more. Once up and running, switch between spaces using the keyboard shortcut set in System Preferences plus the arrow keys. You can then drag applications from one space to another, or you can click the Spaces icon in the Dock to bring up a representation of your spaces which enables you to easily drag your applications and windows to whichever spaces you want. Once you’ve got the hang of that there are more advanced things you can do with Spaces such as assigning applications to specific spaces. Spaces is generally a very effective way of de-cluttering everything and getting to the stuff you want very quickly.

So there we go. Once you’ve mastered all that then you’ll be getting the most out of your Mac environment.

Project Bond

I recently finished working my way through all 14 James Bond books (12 novels and 2 short story collections). To make this project even more interesting, each time I finished a book I would watch the film version(s) of the book. I also watched the other Bond films (i.e. the ones which are not directly related to any of the books) during the course of this process.

This was a very enjoyable project. Fleming’s books are a wonderful combination of romance, melodrama, earthiness, glamour, adventure, sadomasochism and extreme violence. The quality and style of the films is hugely varied, but in each case it’s interesting to note how closely they follow the books. Each of the films offers something worthwhile in its own right, even the ones which deviate significantly from Fleming’s original vision of the character.

The only problem is that I feel lost without Bond now; a bit empty, as if a part of my life is suddenly missing. To help ease the pain, I’ve started reading the biography Ian Fleming by Andrew Lycett.