Fox hunting

Firefox is leaner and faster than Internet Explorer straight out of the box, so you may be wondering why anyone would want to tweak it any further (but if you are, I’m wondering why you’re reading PC Pro). A great deal of the attraction of Firefox, and Mozilla before it, is the ability to tap into its open-source code and make it work the way you want rather than the way some nerd in Redmond thought you’d want. There’s been plenty written about rolling up your sleeves and delving into the user.js (preferences) and userchrome.css (browser appearance) configuration files, and I’ll be sharing my favourite Firefox hacks in a moment. But you may want to tweak the performance of your browser without getting that hands-on. Try typing ‘about:config’ into your Firefox address bar and, if the huge list of parameters that appears turns you off rather than on, you’ll probably be happier following the Firefox extension route

Fox hunting

Start by taking a look at FireTune (www.firetune.com), which not only handles all the browser-optimisation tweaking in just a couple of clicks, but has some additional uses that are often overlooked. It’s based entirely on the proven and mature configuration settings suggested by the Firefox elite over the years, but it avoids that manual configuration process, which is time-consuming and can do more harm than good if your concentration lapses or your finger slips.

FireTune comes complete with a profile backup function, and it’s recommended you use this as a matter of course; indeed, it’s one of those ‘additional uses’ I mentioned earlier. I fire it up and back up my profile before adding any extension at all, in the knowledge that I’ll always have a working (and as I want it) configuration profile to fall back on if things should go pear-shaped.

All that’s left for you to do is choose a setup that most closely matches yours, and even if that’s the ‘fast computer/fast connection’ one it’s still worth tuning Firefox, as performance increases are noticeable even on top-end systems. Make sure Firefox isn’t running, hit the Tune it button, restart Firefox and watch the difference. I use the shortcut to a faster-loading version of Firefox, just because I’m a speed freak and proud of it. I recommend you benchmark Firefox before you tune it and then again afterwards, so you can measure any improvement. Create whatever method you like for doing this, but I find that the loading time for the Firefox executable itself, then the loading time for either the Microsoft website or some specific Google search are enough. (The Google search option has the advantage of letting them do the timing for you, of course.)

To get an idea of how well FireTune works, here are the average results across three machines of differing power at the happygeek offices. Start-up time from cold, before tuning, 12.8 seconds; after, 7.4 seconds. Meanwhile, the Microsoft loading test showed an improvement from 4.7 seconds to 2.9 seconds. Okay, you may smirk at me getting excited about shaving a second or two off my web page loading times, but this isn’t a ‘just because I can’ exercise – it’s a real-world saving that has a real-world impact on your Internet usage. While those seconds saved don’t sound much, in practice they add up to a much more efficient web-browsing experience.

While on the subject of broadband users who want to speed up Firefox, I uncovered this interesting ‘hands dirty’ hack recently, and I can confirm that it does work. Back up your profile first, and remember this one is only for broadband users. Type in ‘about:config’ and enter network.http into the filter bar, then locate the entries for ‘network.http.pipelining’, ‘network.http.proxy.pipelining’ and ‘network.http.pipelining.maxrequests’. Set the first and second of these to ‘true’ and change the maxrequests value to something a little higher than the default. I’ve found that 25 strikes a good balance here, although your mileage may vary. By default, Firefox only makes a single request to any web page at one time, but enabling pipelining and increasing the maxrequests value forces it to make multiple simultaneous requests, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out the speed increase that can bring.

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