Chicago (IL) - Mozilla's research department has released a new extension for the beta version of Firefox 3.1. Simply named New Tab, the extension adds interesting functionality to the blank pages which appear when you create new tabs.
You may wonder: "Why even worry about blank tab pages?" But the creation of a new tab mostly leads to new tasks, like browsing, checking email, following new links, searching, etc. And with New Tab, Firefox gets site thumbnails and a savvy performance that doesn't add bloat or reduce performance like in other browsers. Additionally, the user also gets intelligent buttons which automatically offer to map addresses, search for terms and visit copied URLs. While other browsers simply bring up thumbnails of the most-visited sites in general, New Tab relies on some impressive logic which results in a list of the sites visited most often after creating a new tab.
Mozilla's Firefox first brought a comprehensive set of tabs management abilities to bear but, of course, they didn't invent tabbed browser. That honor falls to Opera. That being said, Firefox did manage to popularize tabs thanks to its 20+ percent market share. However, the browser is now falling behind somewhat when it comes to tabs management, especially compared with IE8 Beta, Safari 4 Beta and especially Opera. If the latest Firefox 3.1 Beta 3 is any indication, tabs management in Firefox will remain virtually in tact as the Tabs tab in Firefox's preferences dialog (which still shows just five basic options that let you show a tab bar, switch immediately to tabs created from links, display warnings when closing or opening multiple tabs and choose if new pages should open in a new tab or a window).
While these limited settings work for average users, a blank page showing that a new tab has been created is hardly impresses to anyone these days. Nowadays, browsers like Chrome, Opera and Safari 4 Beta all feature very nice, informative, even intuitive pages when new tabs are created. Sure, there are several existing Firefox extensions which replicate Opera's speed dial feature, for example, and even Chrome's information-rich new tab pages, and even the latest beta version of Google Toolbar tweaks Firefox with thumbnails of nine most frequently visited sites in addition to lists which autofill with past searches, recent bookmarks and recently close tabs. But Mozilla Labs' New Tab extension brings this much desired ability to Firefox while producing an interesting, fresh take on the whole "new tab" concept.
SOMETIMES BEAUTY COMES AT A HIGH PRICE
Safari 4 Beta features Top Sites, some jaw-dropping eye-candy which renders the best new tab page we've ever seen. Still, many users hack Safari to turn it off due to its high CPU demands and often intrusive visual appearance.
Create new tabs with New Tab
"What do people do, what are they trying to do, when they open a new tab?" asked Aza Raskin, chief of user experience at Mozilla Labs. "They're starting a new task", he said, adding that users "certainly don't want just a blank page."
Indeed, but New Tab also comes with a twist. Mozilla says that the built-in extensions intelligently pinpoint those sites you visit most after a new tab creation -- unlike other browsers that list thumbnails of most frequently-visited pages which may not necessarily be the pages you visit the most right after you create a new tab. To achieve this, New Tab scans your local browsing history, Places feature and bookmarks.
Rudimentary appearance: Faster is "nicer"
Unlike Top Sites (found in Safari 4 Beta) that produces visual effects by rendering mid-air-suspended 3D site thumbnails with cool eye-candy reflections, the New Tab extension opts for a simpler appearance optimized for speed. If you hated Top Sites because it's such a resource hog, you may well appreciate New Tab's basic approach, one Raskin says is a "polite" way of dealing with users.
"If we start loading up the page with large thumbnails, that slows down the 'feeling' of speed," Raskin argued. "What we don't want to do is break [the user's] train of thought." New Tab lets you choose between list and thumbnail views by clicking on an arrow at the bottom right-most part of a page. To avoid eating up CPU time, Mozilla restricted its thumbnail view to a single left-most column that lines up smaller thumbnails in a vertical column, resulting in snappy performance at almost no CPU cost. New tab page appears immediately, even when you already have dozens of tabs already opened.
One highlighted innovation is New Tab's RSS feed integration. Either in thumbnail or list view mode, the extension adds up to five lines of content below the title of each listed page. It grabs snippets of content from a RSS feed associated with each page, enabling you to quickly see new headlines of each listed page. Clicking a headline takes you directly to the content on that site. Kudos to Mozilla! -- we haven't seen this in rival browsers yet.
NEW TAB: LIST VIEW
Simple list of sites frequently visited after creating a new tab. It places no burden on the CPU and is stripped of all eye-candy, making it work blazingly fast. Notice how New Tab cleverly polls an associated RSS feed to display the latest news headlines for a site...
NEW TAB: THUMBNAIL VIEW
There is also a basic thumbnail view that puts a couple of smaller thumbnails in a column. The extension renders thumbnails after you first visit a site. Despite this view having more graphics, its new tab pages still appear in an instant.
The killer feature: RSS feeds integration
RE-OPEN CLOSED TAB
New Tab lets you reopen last closed tab with a single click. In Opera, for example, this can be done by pressing Ctrl-Z.
New Tab has one more trick up its sleeve. When you select and copy text on a page and then create a new tab, the extension displays a button that lets you perform a web search automatically for the term. For example, if you copy the word "Apple" from a web page and then create a new tab, a new "Search for 'Apple'" button appears enabling the user to search for "apple" using your default search engine with a single click. If you copy a street address, there will be two buttons: One for aforementioned search, and another that maps a copied location. Finally, copying a URL in the browsers address bar prompts New Tab to add a button leading you right to this destination. In other browsers the Ctrl+V (paste) keystroke and Enter key is often required -- sometimes faster for power users.
COPY & SEARCH TEXT
If you copy text on a web page and then create a new tab, the extension offer a button to click and search the copied term using the default search engine.
COPY & SEARCH URLs
If a URL is copied, there will be a button to visit the copied URL with a single click.
Conclusion: Mozilla is really on to something here
New Tab is still in its early stages, working only with current beta versions. So, you shouldn't be surprised that it's a bit rough around the edges: There are no settings to play with, keyboard shortcuts don't work (this will be addressed in future versions), layout preferences are non-existent, etc. Nevertheless, New Tab clearly shows there's a lot of room left for innovation when it comes to browser tabs. Frankly, with so much stuff rival browsers are throwing at tabs these days, we're not surprised at all that the latest versions of Safari 4 Beta and IE8 come bloated and choked down with fluff when creating a new tab.
New Tab works only with Firefox 3.1 Beta 2 or later. If you happen to meet the requirement, download the extension from the Mozilla Labs website, restart Firefox and play around with it. While New Tab remains just an extension for the time being, Raskin did says the Firefox team may eventually bake the feature directly into future Firefox versions. Sweet!
COPY & MAP
Copy a street address to the clipboard and New Tab will offer two buttons: One to perform a general-purpose web search and the other to map the copied address. Where do you want to go today?