Why to embrace Firefox 3.6's new-tab ethos

A change to how the new browser positions new tabs is subtle but good, especially as browsers rise in importance. But more work is needed in tab switching.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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  • I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Stephen Shankland
7 min read

Sometimes it's the little things that count.

The most prominent feature of Firefox 3.6 is Personas, which let you reskin the browser with thousands of different looks. But my single favorite change is a subtler change to the open-source browser's user interface.

CNET News Poll

Tab behavior in Firefox 3.6
New tabs now appear immediately to the right of the active tab, not at the far end of the list of tabs. What do you think?

Problem solved!
A step backward
Why do I need this?
Nice start. What's next?

View results

Specifically, when you open a link in a new tab, it appears immediately to the right of the active tab. Before, the new tabs would appear to the far right of the strip of tabs.

Yup, that's it. For those of us who spend hours a day in a browser, though, the new tab behavior helps group related tasks together. I constantly shuffle among dozens of tabs, and the new approach automatically brings some organization to my cluttered life.

However, I know it's not everybody's favorite browser behavior. So along with explaining why I like it, I'll also take some potshots and share instructions on how to get the old way back.

Why it's better
The more things I do with a browser--and the number has increased steadily for years now--the more important it becomes to be able to find different tasks amid the chaos. Microsoft and Apple understand this, as evidenced by the new taskbar features in Windows 7 and dock expose in Mac OS X 10.6, aka Snow Leopard. Those features make it easier to pluck out the one window you need from among the many you may have open.

There's a pattern to how I spawn the dozens of tabs I use as a day progresses. On a variety of pages--Gmail, Google Reader, Yahoo Finance, somebody's blog post--I'll encounter a host of links to other pages. I'll middle-click my mouse button to open interesting pages as background tabs, then use Ctrl-Tab to switch to the new pages when I'm ready. I repeat this pattern many times a day.

With the old behavior, each tab appeared to the far right of the tab strip. That's fine when getting started, but when I've moved halfway across the list and want to open another batch, I want the new ones--call them children--to open next to their parent tab. When I go away and come back, or when I lose place juggling tasks, it's easier to find my bearings again.

It's like being in a library. When you're in the European history section, you don't want to find books on rewiring your house and on vegetarian cooking.

As a longtime Firefox user, I didn't realize tab positioning could be better. When I started using Google's Chrome, which introduced the new tab behavior to me, the scales were lifted from my eyes. I immediately could get to the next tab with a quick press of Ctrl-Tab on the keyboard rather than have to use the mouse to click over to the far end of the list. I use both browsers daily, but until the Firefox 3.6 beta arrived, the new-tab position had become a sore point for me when in Firefox.

The change is actually a big deal in a couple ways. First, even seemingly minor changes in software can be disruptive. Old habits die hard, and computer users wrestling with constant change can get angry when more is foisted upon them.

Second, though, browsers are assuming an ever greater role in what people do in their personal and professional lives, and keeping one's bearings is commensurately important. That's especially true for those people for whom a gaggle of browser tabs represents a collection of chores going on in parallel.

Internet Explorer 8 categorizes related tabs by color.
Internet Explorer 8 categorizes related tabs by color. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

How the competition handles it
Tabs are now universal among browsers, but new-tab behavior isn't. Firefox and Chrome handle it the way I like best, but how do others tackle the issue?

First, let's look at Internet Explorer 8. Microsoft showed it understands some of the challenges of tab management in its latest version of its browser by coloring child tabs the same hue as their parents, but I have a gripe with how it works. Specifically, although child tabs get the same color as their parents for easy grouping and arrive to the right, grandchild tabs are the same color as child tabs. Similarly, grandchild tabs appear to the far right of the whole group of child tabs.

In my mind, I consider grandchild tabs a separate group from the child tabs. But with IE, grandchildren get the same color and position treatment as children. The only way to get a new color is to start a fresh empty tab There's no easy way to give grandchildren a new color without causing some confusion, though--should the child be the same color as the original parent or change color to be grouped with the grandchildren?

Next is Opera, which gives users a choice. By default, it opens new tabs to the far right, which I don't like, but in the Advanced|Tabs section of the preferences dialog box, you can check "Open new tab next to active." Huzzah!

There's a subtle change here I don't care for, though. Tabs always appear immediately to the right of the active tab. I'd rather have all one tab's children appear in sequence to the right. For example, if a parent tab is in position 1, then the first child would be in position 2, the second in position 3, and the third in position 4. Opening three child tabs in Opera leaves the parent in position 1, the third child in position 2, the second child in position 3, and the first child in position 4.

Last, there's Safari. It does it the old way I loathe with no option to change. Too bad.

Firefox can show thumbnail previews of new tabs, but I find them hard to recognize in front of busy Web pages.
Firefox can show thumbnail previews of new tabs, but I find them hard to recognize in front of busy Web pages. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Why it's not enough
Most browser makers are excited about the fact that their software is subsuming more and more computing tasks that previously ran on computer operating systems. But as browsers inherit this central importance, they also inherit some of the hassles.

The new tab positioning behavior in Firefox is a step in the right direction, but there's more that needs to be done. Moving from one tab to a related adjacent one, whether through a keyboard command or mouse clicking, is a minor change. But things get harder when you need to switch from one group of tabs to the next.

There's work under way here. Opera is perhaps the leader with the ability to show thumbnails as you use Ctrl-Tab to cycle your list of open tabs.

Firefox has been noodling with the approach too. It tried then dropped tab thumbnail previews earlier, but the technology is still present. Using the about:config system for tweaking the browser (more on this later), you can change the "browser.ctrlTab.previews" setting to "true."

But for reasons that aren't clear to me, I don't find this effective either in Firefox or Opera. Perhaps I haven't used it enough, or the thumbnails are too small to be immediately recognizable, or they're just hard to see against the noisy background. There's a good reason that Apple dims the background most of the way to black when using Expose.

Aero Peek in Windows 7 lets the task bar show a glimpse of Firefox and IE tabs.
Aero Peek in Windows 7 lets the task bar show a glimpse of Firefox and IE tabs. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Windows itself is helping, too. The new taskbar in Windows 7 can show individual tabs, once browsers support the feature. It's in Internet Explorer 8, and it's in the new Firefox 3.6 beta.

Add-ons such as Firefox Showcase can further tweak Firefox. (Indeed, for a wealth of options, check Mashable's handy Firefox tab management guide.)

More interesting to me, though, is work under way to expand Firefox's "awesome bar" abilities. Today, typing in it opens Web pages and retrieves ones you've already visited or bookmarked. In the future, it could be able to move you to another open tab, too. I'm a keyboard guy, so particularly appreciate this idea.

You can get a taste of the idea now. If you've enabled the "browser.ctrlTab.previews" option, hitting Ctrl-Shift-Tab will not only show you thumbnail previews, but will put a cursor in a search box.

Typing the letters of the Web page name will winnow down the thumbnails. For example, typing "netap" will cull my open tabs so only Net Applications and NetApp show. If you have a bunch of similar tabs all open, this might not help much, of course.

However, the feature only works with the tabs of one browser window, so if you can't use it to search among other browser instances.

How to get the old way back
Perhaps I've convinced you that the new approach is better. But perhaps not--in which case I encourage you to share your thoughts in the comments so people will hear more than my opinion.

For those who don't like the new tab positions, you can revert to the old method.

To get the old style back for new tab position, use Firefox's about:config system. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

First type "about:config" in the Firefox address bar. You'll get a warning that you're tinkering with Firefox's innards and you should be careful, but this isn't brain surgery, so don't be frightened. Click the "I'll be careful, I promise" button, and you'll see a big list of all the browser settings that can be tweaked.

Next, in the text box labeled "Filter:", type "tabs.insertRelatedAfterCurrent"; you should see just one entry below. In the column marked "Value," double-click on the word "true" to change it to "false." You're done.

But I'd encourage you to at least give the new way a try. If you don't like it, you can always change back.