How I Learned to stop using Firefox and love the Chrome

One word: SPEED.

Seriously. I have been a long proponent and user of Firefox, having been lured into it by its relative elegance and the extension framework many moons back. Also, the web development support has always been far better than its competition, with Firebug and Web Developer to name just two great reasons for it being the developer’s browser of choice.

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The sheer number of Firefox add-ons and extensions (about 13,000 in the last count) is staggering – and list absolute essentials such as Adblock Plus, XMarks and DownThemAll! This combined with the themes (I suggest GrApple Yummy on the Mac) has been making the web browsing experience a far better one for me than Safari.

But the problem with Firefox is … it is SLOW.

With just seven add-ons (Adblock Plus, XMarks, DownThemAll!, 1Password, LastPass, FlashBlock and Firefox PDF Plugin for Mac OS X) it takes about 3-4 seconds to launch the application opening a blank home page on an OS X 10.6.3 MacBook. Another 2-3 seconds before any reasonable page is fully rendered. This becomes excruciatingly slow when I am busily opening tabs from a RSS reader or another application – and frustrating when it has to launch the first time I click on a link in another application.

Also, while a custom theme does look pretty – it sometimes does expose artifacts in the chrome (no pun intended) when rendering new pages – especially in the “awesome bar”.

All in all, while the experience is nice, it certainly is not perfect. Speed of launch and rendering are the main gripes.

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I have been toying with Google Chrome ever since the beta for OS X came out. I was initially put off by the inverted tabs as well as lack of extensions (hey, a 21st century browser with no extensions, come on!) Also, the single URL bar/search bar UI seemed … odd. So while the beta version did stay on the HDD, it did not see much use, and Firefox remained the work horse for daily use.

However, with the recent launch of the stable OS X version, I became interested again. And this time Chrome did have a pretty mature extensions ecosystem, some of which seemed to be reasonable replacements for the Firefox equivalents. Time for a spin!

The first thing which struck me was the speed of launch as well as page renders, and the UI feels much more “fluid”. The Inverted tabs still look odd and out of place, but I understand the need to squeeze the additional 20-30 pixels for actual page use.

Actual page rendering in terms of quality is more or less at par with Firefox, though a few oddball sites (especially the work related sites) sometimes get weird effects. I blame it on the IE centric development though. :-)

The unified bar is also starting to make sense, as it actually helps in not having to remember one extra key short cut for searching. It has good support for Firefox like keyword searches as well (example, ‘wk’ for Wikipedia searches) provided you set them up.

I also found more or less feature equivalent extensions:

Xmarks is available for Chrome
Lastpass is available for Chrome
AdThwart in replacement of AdBlock Plus

I found that FlashBlock does exist for Chrome, but I don’t really need it anymore.

The one big hole in the extensions/add-on replacement is DownThem All! There are quite a few download managers, but none can match the Firefox one in terms of features (I am still looking).

The extension manager is also pretty nice, and arguably better than the Firefox one (at least for FF 3.6.3). However, the actual extensions gallery on Google is not quite as user friendly as the Firefox one. The extensions are not categorized completely, which makes it somewhat of a pain to search and find the right one.

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All in all, the Chrome experience has been a refreshing one so far, and Firefox has not seen much use of late – except where I needed to use DownThem All! (simultaneously downloading all chapters of the free audiobooks from www.librivox.org is one example). If anyone has recommendation for a good replacement, let me know.

So there you have it. My infatuation with Chrome has already lasted more than a week, and I still find it a pleasure to use. Have not really dabbled much with the extensions (and themes – Chrome does have support for these as well) – but am finding that I don’t really need to.


Replacing Mail.app with Gmail on OSX

Off late the Mail.app email client on OSX has been acting up on me. It often stalls or displays the spinning beach ball of death till a forced quit is required. Also, it seems to have display rendering issues when a mail classified incorrectly as junk is moved back to the inbox.

I tend to use the Mail.app as a local email client for three main purposes:

  1. Offline mode for reading my emails when there is no Internet connection available
  2. Easy desktop search for the mails via Spotlight, and
  3. Easy archival of important mail in my project workspaces (either in Devonthink or plain text export)

The other features (TODO and Notes) are nice, but not really useful for me as I use other tools for these items. The mail itself is served out via gmail accounts and IMAP synchronization.

However, Mail.app is one of the few (only?) Apple provided applications that I have a love-hate relationship with. I love the fact that it integrates seamlessly with iCal and Address Book, and the other features such as support for multiple signatures, digital signing and encryption via the GPG plugin and the smart quote while responding are quite good. the threading is also functional.

But the incessant crashes and freeze ups are getting to be more than annoying. I have tried the various cures such as re-synching the entire mailbox, rebuilding the mailbox, trashing preferences, changing the cache setting and a ton of other voodoo. These seem to be temporary solutions however, and the problems come back pretty fast. Apparently I am not alone in my suffering though – Apple’s discussion and support forums are full of unhappy Mail.app users.

So I am now on the hunt for an alternative offline/local client solution. I have already tried Mozilla Thunderbird, and it looks too ugly for my tastes (though an excellent client on the Windows platform). In addition, two more deal-breakers exist right now:

  1. Getting Spotlight to work with Thunderbird requires a third party indexer which seems to be a hack. It looks like an experimental mdimporter plugin does come with version 2.0 but is flacky
  2. Missing integration with the system provided AddressBook.app application (I need to sync the addresses with my Blackberry, and AddressBook.app is a core part of the synchronization workflow)

Another promising solution seems to be using Gmail directly as the primary email client. This requires a few additional steps to enable a seamless offline operation:

  1. Installation of the Google Gears extension for the browser (no support yet for the latest Safari 4.x version) – this enables a copy of the emails to be stored on the local disk and allows access and usage of the gmail interface when offline – note that the first-time sync takes a long time as last 6 months worth of emails are downloaded to your computer – it is pretty peppy from then on
  2. Installation of the Gmail Notifier application which provides notifications on receipt of new emailgooglenotifiersignin.png
  3. Setting up Gmail as the default mail handler from URLs by using an option on the Gmail notifiergooglenotifierpreferences1.png
  4. Using a Site Specific Browser such as Fluid.app or Mozilla Prism and creation of a Gmail SSB application (remember to set a nice icon)fluid1.png
  5. Setting up the Gmail SSB as the default mail application by setting the “Default Mail Reader” option from Mail.app’s general preferencesmail-appgeneralpreferences1.png
  6. Synchronizing the addresses between Addressbook.app and Gmail using iSyncaddressbookpreferences.png
  7. Using Google Desktop for searching the mails on Gmail

Whew! Quite a bit of setup here to do – and it is still not perfect. Lets look at the pros and cons:

Pros:

  1. Can use the excellent Gmail UI everywhere, online or offline – on all platforms. Hurray for Web apps!
  2. Great keyboard shortcuts – much better than Mail.app
  3. Using the SSB allows a smooth integration of the mail experience with rest of the desktop
  4. No more waiting for the local client to download the mails before accessing – it is near instantaneous after the first offline synchronization
  5. No more crashes!

Cons:

  1. It is a hack right now – definitely not a “download and start using” solution
  2. Google Desktop is duplicating search functionality that already exists via Spotlight
  3. Synchronization of the addresses between Gmail and AddressBook is not reliable
  4. No support for multiple signatures (can get around with a auto-typing solution such as Typinator or TextExpander)
  5. Cannot export the emails (not the contacts) from Gmail to the local computer

I intend to use this setup for the next couple of weeks to get a better feel of the system. Will follow up with a post on the findings. Do let me know what you think.


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