In addition to Jeff Carlson’s review of the Stump iPad stand, we look at three major products this week, none of which is entirely successful. Glenn Fleishman leads off with coverage of Amazon’s rather limited Cloud Drive online storage service and Cloud Player online music player. Then guest contributor Lukas Mathis delves into what’s wrong with Skype 5, a major upgrade from the previous Skype 2.8 for the Mac that has caused much consternation among users. And finally, Adam reviews Firefox 4, a fine upgrade to the popular Web browser that is nonetheless unlikely to attract users of other browsers. Notable software releases this week include Dropbox 1.0.28, Mac OS X v10.6.7 Supplemental Update for 13-inch MacBook Air (Late 2010), and GarageBand 6.0.2.

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Stump Your iPad

  by Jeff Carlson <jeffc@tidbits.com>

One of the perks of being a speaker at Macworld Expo — a few notches down from being included among such great company — is the “speaker bag.” Presenters are not paid to speak at the event, so one way IDG World Expo offers compensation is by putting together a collection of products, demos, software licenses, and special deals from vendors at the show, which every speaker receives in a large duffel bag. Not only does it feel like a way to repay speakers for what ends up being a lot of hard work, the speaker bag is a savvy move by the organizers to get products in front of a group of influential writers, editors, and industry insiders.

This year, nestled among a couple of iPad cases, was a slightly heavy, circular lump of rubberized plastic with an angled top and a vertical wedge cut from the middle. I initially dismissed it as a lame business card holder or something, but it has turned out to be the speaker bag item I use the most.

That lump, which looks like a mutant hockey puck, is called the Stump Stand, and it’s designed to hold an iPad in one of three positions. Lay the iPad down against the angled top to type on the onscreen keyboard at a 45-degree angle. Or, set one of the iPad’s edges into the vertical notch to prop it upright (such as for watching movies). The cutout has two steps, so the iPad in the upright position can also be leaned back at more of an angle by shifting the iPad slightly. A cutout at the front of the Stump Stand makes the iPad’s Home button accessible when the iPad is mounted upright in its portrait orientation.

When I started using my original iPad last year, I had difficulty finding a good resting place for it while working. The iPad Dock supports only the iPad’s portrait orientation, and removing the device from the dock connector meant pulling the two apart with both hands. I ended up propping the iPad on a wooden book holder my sister made for me back in junior high school.

After I outfitted the iPad with Apple’s black iPad Case, the iPad Dock was knocked permanently out of commission, since there’s not enough clearance in the dock to hold a covered iPad. The Stump Stand, by contrast, accommodates the original iPad while still enclosed in its Apple case (with the flap open). Better yet, I can prop it in portrait or landscape orientation, and easily lift it from the Stump when I need to pick it up. The weighted base (8.5 oz, 241 g) keeps the Stump from shifting around on the desk.

The Stump Stand works with the iPad 2, even with a Smart Cover folded flat against the iPad’s back, although the fully upright position doesn’t quite fit with a leather Smart Cover; the polyurethane version fits snugly with a small amount of force. The slightly angled “lean” position, however, works fine with either cover. (And, of course, because the Smart Cover’s magnetic latch pulls off easily, it’s no big deal to set the cover aside.) In fact, the Stump isn’t limited to the iPad. It will prop all sorts of devices, from the iPhone and iPod touch to the Kindle, that fit within the wedge.

I’ve spent the last six weeks working on several iPad projects: my new “Take Control of Media on the iPad, Second Edition” and “Meet the iPad 2,” the first ebook about the iPad 2 at the iBookstore (both now available); and my upcoming print and ebook title, “The iPad 2 Pocket Guide,” which will be available within the next couple of weeks. During that time, I’ve needed to lift, rest, sync, and type on as many as three iPads at any given time. Although I own just the one Stump Stand, it’s been great to test something on an iPad quickly, set it down in the stand while I write on my Mac, and lift it again when I need to do more testing.

My Stump Stand is black (with a little Macworld 2011 logo on the back, showing off the company’s capability to custom-brand it), but it’s also available in red, pink, green, blue, or light gray (the latter two colors appear to be sold out as I write this). The Stump costs $22; the company is currently running a special on two black units for $40.

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Amazon Puts Your Music in the Cloud

  by Glenn Fleishman <glenn@tidbits.com>

A long-awaited cloud-based music storage service has launched — but it’s not from Apple or Google. Amazon.com has beaten both companies to the punch with Cloud Drive and Cloud Player. Cloud Drive offers online storage accessible anywhere, much like a simple version of Dropbox or SugarSync. Cloud Player lets you listen to music you’ve stored in your Cloud Drive through a Web app or Android app, as long as the audio is encoded as unprotected AAC or MP3 files.

Cloud Drive and Cloud Player won’t have a huge impact immediately. There’s no iOS app for either, and the method of moving files and music in and out is extremely irritating. Amazon will improve on all this, no doubt, but for now it has achieved the first-mover advantage on Apple and Google: Amazon wants to lock people into uploading massive amounts of music and files, forcing a subsequent competitor to overcome the burden of convincing users to transfer and manage files on yet another service.

The fundamental flaw with cloud-based streaming music services is metered mobile broadband. If you can’t store music on your phone or tablet, and you must stream it — even from your own collection — you could wind up paying tens of dollars extra per month for something that’s free today when you store the music you want on your mobile device.

Cloud Drive Compared -- Cloud Drive includes a free 5 GB of storage for Amazon account holders; accounts are free to set up if you are in the statistically unlikely position of using the Internet and not having an Amazon account. If you purchase at least one MP3 album from Amazon, the company bumps your storage to 20 GB for a year at no extra cost. You can also purchase higher amounts of storage, ranging from 20 to 1,000 GB, for $1 per gigabyte per year.

This is cheaper than the retail price for Amazon’s Simple Storage Service (S3), which charges $0.14 per month ($1.68 per year) for each gigabyte stored up to 1 TB, and which lacks its own friendly front end. (You can use Transmit, Cyberduck, Interarchy, and other file transfer tools to manage S3 storage as though it were an FTP server.) S3 also levies fees for moving data around: $0.10 per gigabyte uploaded and $0.15 per gigabyte downloaded (after 1 GB free each month).

In contrast, Google charges $0.25 per year per gigabyte for storage added to any of its app services, with no transfer fees. With some third-party software help, you can use Google Apps storage just like other storage offerings. Dropbox’s standard storage plans offer 50 GB for $10 per month or 100 GB for $20 per month, which works out to $2.40 per gigabyte per year. Dropbox also include desktop synchronization, of course, which isn’t part of Amazon Cloud Drive. (Dropbox relies on Amazon S3, as do many of the online storage firms.)

Currently, you upload files to Cloud Drive via a file dialog in a Web browser, which is an awful interface. Downloads are also done via a Web browser, which is only slightly better. I suspect, as with the Kindle ecosystem, we will see Amazon producing native apps for Windows, Mac OS X, iOS, Android, and other platforms to make file transfer and sync easier, and it’s also likely that it will open the service to existing file transfer tools. Amazon could wind up competing directly against Dropbox et al., but I doubt it will go after these services in terms of features. Amazon’s consumer-facing interests lie in the media arena, not in computer services.

Several colleagues noted wryly on Twitter that Amazon has two wonderfully dissonant statements on the reliability of storage. On the Cloud Drive: Learn More page, the company enthuses:

Store files in your Cloud Drive and never worry about losing them if your computer crashes, or is lost or stolen.

But if you read the Terms of Use agreement, Amazon’s legal beagles say:

5.3 Security. We do not guarantee that Your Files will not be subject to misappropriation, loss or damage and we will not be liable if they are. You’re responsible for maintaining appropriate security, protection and backup of Your Files.

The fine print is there to protect Amazon from undue penalties in an extreme case. Amazon’s S3 storage system has a high level of built-in redundancy for all data stored, both within a single data center and across its many data centers. Cloud Drive is likely reliable to an obscene numbers of nines — Amazon claims 99.999999999 percent for S3 “durability” — but that last 0.000000001 is a financial killer for your company if you promise 100 percent, and are sued as a result of lost data. More likely than hardware failure would be damage or theft due to attackers; we have to assume that Amazon is becoming an increasingly large target.

Cloud Player -- As with the interface problems with Cloud Drive, the limits on Cloud Player are currently severe. You must download the Amazon MP3 Uploader — an Adobe AIR application — to handle uploading music, and that experience, as with most with AIR apps, is horrible. The non-native interface, non-intuitive behavior, sluggishness, and mysterious errors (like a timeout 90 percent of the way through scanning my library) are all frustrating.

Despite the well-established dominance of iTunes, and Amazon MP3 Uploader automatically finding the iTunes music folder, the app doesn’t scan the folder and use metadata to reassemble album and artist information. Instead, it relies on the folder structure to present upload choices. I have thousands of music files, and the iTunes internal folder structure isn’t a sensible way to sort through them. A separate downloader app lets you transfer items from the library directly into iTunes or Windows Media Player. You can also download files via a Web browser.

Amazon cheaped out by going the AIR route instead of building native apps. That’s likely due to deadlines: You can prototype and deploy a cross-platform service with AIR far faster than separate native apps.

Cloud Player’s only supported file formats are AAC and MP3. The files must be unprotected — that is, not wrapped with digital rights management (DRM) encryption. Amazon launched its MP3 store without DRM, and Apple was able to shed its DRM in April 2009. Nearly all music sold as downloadable files in the United States and most other countries is DRM-free. (Older DRM-protected music from iTunes can be upgraded for 30 cents a pop to strip the DRM.)

Amazon doesn’t make previous Amazon MP3 purchases appear in Cloud Drive, but purchases made after installation show up there automatically.

Playing back music is a much better experience, so long as you are using a desktop browser or an Android app. Metadata is used here, and artists and albums are organized appropriately. I tried to use the Web app in iOS, and after being told that I had an incompatible browser, the Web app appeared but was unable to play music on my phone. Being unprepared to use iOS devices at launch seems like a silly oversight.

Cloudy with a Chance of Apple -- Of course, there have long been streaming-music subscription services that store all the music remotely and play what you want on demand from a library of millions of songs. The first iteration of such services downloaded songs on demand, stored them in an encrypted format, and you didn’t need an Internet connection to play those files. The songs were deleted if and when your subscription ended or if storage needed to be freed up. This was a necessity for music players with no network connection. (Several of these services also included credit to download up to 10 tracks per month permanently for a $10 to $15 per month unlimited play subscription.)

The shift to on-demand streaming emerged from the growth of smartphones and 3G networks, as well as Wi-Fi hotspots. If you have Internet access wherever you are, why mess about with syncing music before you go or worrying about how much storage you have? Instead, you start streaming the music wherever you are, whenever you want it, dealing only with the time it takes to buffer the start of a song. These new services include Last.fm, Rdio, Spotify (outside the United States), and Pandora. All have free and premium flavors.

This makes you reliant on Internet service, though. If you’re out of range of a cell network or near the limit of your monthly tiered data plan, and you can’t find some handy Wi-Fi, you’re out of luck. With tiered data plans in the United States including as little as 200 or 250 MB of usage, it would be easy to run through that with frequent music playback over a cell network, and face overage fees.

Apple has so far firmly resisted this trend, relying on downloadable quanta: individual songs purchased individually or in a “bundle” of an album. Apple has said many times that people want to “own” their music, by which the firm means not that you have the rights associated with true ownership, but rather that you’re given a limited license to play the music forever on devices under your direct control. To listen to your music, you have to be at a computer or have remembered to sync songs to a mobile device. However, Apple watchers have been expecting a shift for years.

In late 2009, Apple bought Lala, a streaming-music service, and shut it down months later. The suspicion was that Lala would merge into something Apple was already building. Perhaps all iTunes songs you ever purchased would miraculously also be available for listening to over the Internet? Or Apple would launch some unique combination of subscription, streaming, and cloud storage?

Apple also has an enormous data center in North Carolina that can house hundreds of thousands of servers and has been rumored to be the ultimate home of either a streaming or cloud-hosted music service. Right now, it’s probably handling the relatively modest load of MobileMe, which comes with 20 GB of storage at a hefty annual fee (along with services like mail and sync), but doesn’t provide any way to play music directly. (Apple said at its last shareholders meeting that the facility would come online “this spring” and support MobileMe and iTunes operations.)

For now, we can only wait to see what, if anything, Apple releases, and, if it happens, how it stacks up against the current competition.

No Harm in Trying -- I have three conclusions about Amazon’s new Cloud Drive and Cloud Player services. First, there’s no harm trying them. They’re free. Second, they’re a shot across the bow of competitors, likely to produce better products for mobile music access by everyone in the music arena. Third, they will get better, as all Amazon products have.

Amazon has raised the bar. The question is whether Apple leaps over it with breathtaking indifference or limbos under it with something that doesn’t live up to the bookseller’s first pass.

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Skype 5 for Mac: A Huge Step Backward

  by Lukas Mathis <LKM@lkmc.ch>

A while back, when Skype’s group video chat feature was still free, a friend of mine sent me a Skype message asking whether it was possible to do video chat with more than one person in Skype. “Sure,” I replied, “you can do that, but you need to install the new Skype 5 beta.” I sent her the link. A few minutes later, she went offline, and came back shortly thereafter, apparently having updated to Skype 5. The first message she sent was:

What the hell happened to Skype? Is this some kind of joke?

Apparently, it is not.

At work, we use Skype to communicate. A lot of the people here use Windows computers. More than once, a Windows user has walked by my Mac, seen my version of Skype, and said something to the effect of “Wow, this looks so much better than the horrible mess we have on Windows!” It seems Skype has noticed that there is a discrepancy in quality between the two versions, and has decided to make the two versions more similar. Unfortunately, instead of making the Windows version of Skype better, they’ve decided to fix the discrepancy by making the Mac version of Skype more like the Windows version.

Now, I have to point out that Skype undoubtedly has constraints I do not know about. Maybe Skype had to do this. Maybe there was some serious problem with the previous version of Skype. When Twitter initially added the quick bar to its iOS client, they didn’t do it because they wanted to mess with their users; they did it because they had to find a way to make money. Similarly, Skype probably has good reasons for why Skype 5 looks the way it does.

Having said that, I really don’t like Skype 5. [Editor’s note: And neither do we at TidBITS, which is why we’re republishing Lukas’s article. We were planning to write something very much along these lines, but he did such a good job that we didn’t see any reason to pile on independently. -Adam]

The previous version of Skype was a very good piece of user interface design. In its initial state, it was extremely basic. This is what Skype used to look like:


It had a simple window showing a search field, a counter for unread notifications, and a list of your friends, with the ones who were currently online at the top. It was easy to understand, didn’t take much space so I could always keep it visible, and it showed me all the information I needed to know. Who’s online? Did I miss something? Is it okay to contact a friend, or does he not want to be disturbed?

With an active chat, Skype used to look like this:

Again, simple and easy to understand, but still giving me everything I might need. I could add more people to the conversation, go back to earlier messages, or call people.

But the previous version of Skype wasn’t just simple; it was also flexible enough for advanced users. At work, my Skype needs are quite different from most people’s. I talk with eight people all the time. I often refer back to earlier conversations. I often chat with more than one person at the same time. To make all of this as efficient as possible, I’ve dedicated a full virtual desktop to Skype. Here’s what it looks like:

Merely by switching to this virtual desktop in Spaces, I can immediately contact the most important people, and at a single glance, I can see who has written to me, and what they have written (which is important: to avoid being constantly interrupted, I sometimes turn off notifications while I’m working).

This is a far cry from how most people use Skype, but my point is that Skype used to support both kinds of users. If you were a casual user, Skype was simple and easy to understand. If you had more demanding needs, Skype could grow with your needs.

Let’s fast-forward to Skype 5. This is what it looks like:

The sidebar on the left has a Contacts item and then a list of your chats. Clicking Contacts shows all your contacts in the main pane; clicking a past chat shows information about the chat (start and end time, and any text messages that went back and forth). Clicking a live chat shows the participants and any text or video associated with the chat.

Immediately, there are problems with this. And not just problems for advanced users, but also problems for casual users.

It’s Too Complicated for Casual Users -- The window no longer looks simple. Instead, it’s overwhelming. On the plus side, it’s now easier to add a new contact (not something you do that often), and I can decide whether to call somebody or start a chat by hovering over a contact.

On the minus side… everything else. Since every Skype feature is crammed into a single window, that window feels overloaded. No longer do I see a simple list of contacts. Instead, I have a complex multi-paned window whose main pane shows entirely different things, depending on the application’s mode.

No longer can I easily see who’s online. Instead, I probably see only the people I’ve talked to most recently, regardless of whether they’re online. More than once, I’ve waited for a friend to show up in the sidebar, expecting it to work like the old buddy list. It doesn’t. Unless you switch to the Contacts screen, which then causes Skype to show two lists of contacts next to each other (the past chat contacts in the sidebar and the Address Book contacts in the main pane), you don’t actually see who’s online. And those two lists behave entirely differently.

There’s too much extraneous stuff in the main window. For example, right next to the important Add Contact button, there’s a button that allows you to see the pictures of the people in your address book in a Cover Flow view. What is this good for? Why would anyone ever want to do that? Making this view even more useless are both the inscrutable avatar pictures many people use and the generic icons Skype inserts for those who lack pictures.

Something I’ve noticed even casual Skype users do is to send URLs by text chat during a video chat. How do you do that in Skype 5? If a video call is active, it occupies the main pane, which is also where the text chat would be; so you can’t do both at the same time. Actually, there is a way, but it’s not obvious. During an active call, if you move your mouse over the main pane (but not the sidebar), you’ll see a bunch of tiny icons pop up at the bottom.

Clicking the second one splits the window horizontally, and adds a chat view below the call view. Which, on a modern screen with a wide aspect ratio, is usually not where you want it. So the feature is hidden, and poorly implemented, but at least Skype allows you to type chat messages during a call if you can figure out how.

Also troublesome is how Skype changed group calls. Before, you saw a list of people, one per line, with green equalizer-like lights that lit up when that person was talking. It was great for conference calls where you didn’t know each person’s voice, and it wasn’t distracting or obtrusive. Skype 5, in contrast, shows the avatars of two people enlarged in the upper part of the main pane, and then a horizontal list of the avatars of the rest of the people below. When someone is speaking, Skype moves that person’s avatar into one or the other of the top two spots, and pulses a gray outline in sync with the audio. The constant shuffling of avatars is distracting at best, and annoying at worst.

It’s Not Flexible Enough for Advanced Users -- Skype 5 isn’t just harder to use for casual users, it’s also less flexible for advanced users. Earlier versions of Skype were simple to understand and easy to use, but they allowed users to grow. As users learned more, they were able to make use of Skype’s advanced features. Skype 5, on the other hand, is a shallow app that doesn’t give its users room to grow.

With Skype 5, I can’t see two chats at the same time. At first, I thought that I must be missing something. Surely, chatting with two people at the same time is a common use case. I can’t be the only person who does that, can I? Skype seems to think I am. There’s no way to see two or more chats next to each other.

The default window is too large, and it can’t be made small without destroying functionality. I like to keep Skype running all the time. The older version’s window was small enough that I could fit it at the edge of the screen; if I need to know if somebody is online, I can see that at a glance. Skype 5’s window is way too big. Even if I don’t hide the app intentionally, it eventually gets covered by other windows.

I can’t see who’s online when a chat is active, unless I open a second window with a list of users. Now I’m duplicating functionality across two windows; I end up with three different user lists in two different windows that all behave in slightly different ways. I guess it’s good to have the option, but why replace something that works perfectly well with something that doesn’t work particularly well, and then, to cover the fact that the new version of your feature doesn’t work well, also re-introduce the earlier version?

Public Response -- When Skype launched the new user interface, response from users was overwhelmingly negative. Now, new software versions always get negative responses. People don’t like change, even if it’s for the better. But I can’t remember any other case where people responded negatively to a new software release in such numbers and with such consistency.

Maybe Skype made the Mac version look more like the Windows version because a lot of people use both; if the two look the same, users only have to learn how to use Skype once, and can then apply their knowledge to both platform versions. However, I don’t buy that explanation. The two versions look more similar, but they still behave differently. As a result, making them look similar is actually confusing, since it creates the expectation that they will behave the same when they don’t.

Skype is a tool used both by casual users and by experienced users who use it every day in a professional context. It’s incredibly hard to get this kind of user interface right. The old version did an admirable, elegant job serving both audiences. The new version, unfortunately, is a huge step backwards.

I have to repeat what I wrote earlier: Skype undoubtedly has constraints I do not know about. I’m sure there are good reasons Skype 5 works the way it does. Maybe Skype even plans to fix the issues I mentioned, but simply hasn’t gotten around to it yet (in fact, Skype 5.1 did a bit of that, bringing back active speaker focus, which had been lost entirely in the 5.0 release). Unfortunately, none of this makes Skype 5 work better for me. On the plus side, Skype 2.8 still works — at least for the time being — and you can still download it, if you need to downgrade from Skype 5.

Although I’m certainly not in a position to change Skype’s interface, I did want to offer some constructive suggestions; see “Skype 5 Ideas” on my blog, and check out Matthias Kampitsch’s design suggestions as well. Also, although it doesn’t address Skype 5’s overall interface, Skype is having a competition for how text chats are displayed in the application and has promised larger changes as well.

[Lukas Mathis studied Computer Science/Software Engineering and Ergonomics/Usability at ETH Zürich and works as a software engineer and user interface designer for a Swiss software company creating workflow management software. His first computer was a Performa 450, his first programming language was HyperTalk, his first electric guitar was a cheap Peavey, his first video game was a VCS 2600 and his current snowboard is from Lib Tech. He lives in a small cottage in a remote part of the Swiss Alps. You can follow him on Twitter.]

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Firefox 4 Improves, But Not Radically

  by Adam C. Engst <ace@tidbits.com>

In the epic battle among browsers, the latest flanking maneuver comes from the Mozilla Foundation, in the form of Firefox 4 for Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux. As with recent releases of Safari, Google Chrome, and others, most of the notable changes are foundational, where they support Firefox’s role as a platform for Web sites and applications. The changes are almost entirely welcome, and improve on the experience for existing Firefox users, though I doubt they’re significant enough to attract users of other browsers to switch.

First, a quick note about system requirements. Firefox 4 now requires Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard or 10.6 Snow Leopard running on an Intel-based Mac. That’s a major change from Firefox 3.6, which worked on 10.4 Tiger and later on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs; so if you have a PowerPC-based Mac, you’ll want to stick with Firefox 3.6.16, which remains available. Or, since Firefox 4 is open source, you can try a Tiger-compatible branched version called TenFourFox; I haven’t tried it.

Refining Firefox’s Interface -- Remember when a beta of Safari 4 moved the browser’s tabs above the address bar? It was an unpopular move, so much so that Apple moved the tabs back underneath the address bar in the release version. That hasn’t stopped Chrome, and now Firefox 4, from moving the tabs up to the top (albeit slightly differently from Chrome). While it’s different from Firefox 3 and from Safari 5, the tabs on top haven’t made any significant usability difference in my experience, and if you don’t like the feature, you can turn it off by choosing View > Toolbars > Tabs on Top.

Firefox 4 also introduces several other tab-related interface innovations.

Of these changes, app tabs are welcome (though not as much with Web apps that create multiple tabs), as is the capability to switch to a tab by typing in the location bar. Less immediately successful is Panorama view, which I can’t quite envision using, since I leave tabs open as a reminder that I want to read them, or as a reminder to do something else. While seeing visual representations of tabs isn’t unwelcome, the idea of organizing them is a bit like rearranging one’s Post-It notes.

Other interface changes include the merging of the Stop and Reload buttons at the right edge of the address bar (reasonably enough; there’s no reason why you’d ever want to use both simultaneously) and a new design for the Add-ons Manager.

Firefox 4 does take one significant step back from Firefox 3.6. In that older version, when you typed gmail into the location bar, Firefox would instantly load the Gmail Web site, even if you hadn’t visited it before or created a bookmark. The same was true of apple (which would load www.apple.com), white house (which loaded www.whitehouse.gov), and so on. For keyboard-centric people like me, this guessing (via Google’s “Browse By Name” feature) was a huge win, and if Firefox guessed wrong, which it did very infrequently, you could use the search bar instead. In Firefox 4, the location bar can only perform a Google search by default, forcing you to load another page and click another link to get to the right site. That’s still better than Safari, which will error out if you type something in the location bar that isn’t a domain name, and equivalent to Chrome, which also searches Google.

Luckily, you can bring this behavior back to Firefox 4, either by using the Browse By Name add-on, or by following these simple steps:

  1. In the location bar, type about:config and click “I’ll be careful, I promise!”

  2. Search for keyword in the Filter field.

  3. Double-click the keyword.URL line.

  4. In the dialog that appears, paste this text (as a single line) and click OK.


Faster Performance -- As with all Web browser updates, Firefox 4 promises significant speed increases. Given the ever-increasing importance of JavaScript in Web apps, Mozilla makes a big deal of how Firefox 4’s new JägerMonkey JavaScript engine runs up to six times faster than Firefox 3.6’s TraceMonkey engine.

(As an aside, you have to appreciate the names given to JavaScript engines: Firefox’s SpiderMonkey, TraceMonkey, and JägerMonkey; Safari’s SquirrelFish, SquirrelFish Extreme and Nitro; Chrome’s V8, Opera’s Futhark and Carakan; and Internet Explorer 9’s Chakra.)

Other changes that will improve performance in Firefox 4 on the Mac include:

Unfortunately, there’s a known issue with Firefox 4.0 on all platforms that can cause scrolling in the main Gmail window to be slower than usual; expect that bug to be fixed in 4.0.1.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m all for faster Web browsers, and I truly do appreciate all the work the browser development teams do to increase performance. But realistically, Web pages and Web apps are simply slower than desktop applications because there’s almost always some communication over the inescapable bottleneck of the Internet connection.

As a result, my experience is that I can use a new, faster Web browser and simply incorporate its improvements into my assumptions of how quickly I should be able to perform certain tasks on Web sites without actually feeling that it’s running any faster. So Firefox 4 may benchmark faster than Firefox 3.6, and it may or may not out-benchmark Chrome and Safari, but I can’t say that I’ve really noticed any improvement in my real-world usage. It’s just not like switching your Mac from a hard disk to an SSD, where some previously sluggish activities become lightning fast.

Better Standards Support -- Here’s another area where the tremendous efforts of browser developers aren’t generally appreciated by end users: support for new Internet standards. Users just want to look at Web pages, and Web developers want to make pages that everyone can view and interact with correctly, regardless of what old browser may still be in use (may you forever fail to render a complex page in Hades, Internet Explorer 6!). So there’s a constant tension between relying on new standards and supporting old browsers. Nonetheless, support for new standards in browsers is the first step in widespread adoption, so it’s great to see it happening.

Firefox 4’s nods to new Internet standards include the following HTML5-related changes:

Although it’s unclear if the test reflects real-world capabilities, Firefox 4 now scores significantly higher on the HTML5 test site. For comparison, here’s how the major Mac-compatible browsers stack up, with 400 being the maximum:

As long as we’re on the topic of tests that may or may not reflect real-world usage, Firefox 4’s new Gecko 2 engine also does a better job on the Acid3 test, scoring 97 out of 100, up from Firefox 3.6’s 94 points, but still behind the perfect 100 out of 100 enjoyed by all the WebKit-based browsers, including Safari, Chrome, Opera, and OmniWeb.

Other standards-based improvements include:

Other Improvements -- There are three additional improvements in Firefox 4 that are worth noting, and one problem that I hope will be resolved soon.

First, Firefox Sync is now available by default (it’s an add-on for Firefox 3.6), and enables you to sync your Firefox history, bookmarks, tabs, and passwords across all instances of Firefox, most notably the mobile version of Firefox for Android (and Maemo running on the Nokia N900). There’s also Firefox Home for iOS, a free app that provides access to your Firefox history, bookmarks, and open tabs via Firefox Sync. In either case, you need to set up a Sync account before anything will happen (such as syncing your home browsing history to your work computer where the IT department could look at it, which might not be desirable).

I haven’t tested Firefox Sync because I find the combination of LastPass and Xmarks to be more useful, synchronizing as they do among all the browsers I use (see “LastPass Acquires Xmarks,” 13 December 2010).

Second, if there’s a crash in the Flash, QuickTime, or Silverlight plug-ins, Firefox 4 now isolates that from the browser as a whole, requiring only that you reload the page to recover from the crashed plug-in.

Third, Firefox changes the way CSS :visited selectors work to block malicious Web sites from being able to read your browsing history. This security hole has existed in most, if not all, browsers for many years, and put simply, enables an attacker to walk through your history and see where you’ve been.

Finally, although many Firefox add-ons either work with Firefox 4 in general or have been updated to work with it, there’s one notable exception, the PDF Plugin for Firefox on Mac OS X. As a result, Firefox 4 cannot display PDFs inline, as Firefox 3.6 could with the plug-in (but see this article’s comments for a link to a pre-release version of the PDF Plugin that works with Firefox 4 in 32-bit mode). There’s also Schubert|it’s PDF Browser Plugin, but it hasn’t worked well for me. I don’t always want to view PDFs in the browser, but I like the option.

In the end, Firefox has long been my default browser, though I also run Safari and Chrome at all times and use them for particular Web sites, either because they work better (as Google Docs does in Chrome) or just to separate different Web site logins. Although I was initially distressed by Firefox 4, due to its loss of Google’s Browse By Name searching, once I figured out how to restore that functionality, Firefox 4 took over fine from Firefox 3.6 and has been working well.

But here’s the thing. While I was figuring out how to restore Browse By Name functionality to Firefox 4, I also figured out how to add it to Google Chrome, and it was the main reason I preferred Firefox over Chrome (and the lack of Browse By Name in the address bar is the main reason I dislike using Safari). Since Xmarks ensures that I have exactly the same bookmarks in all my browsers, I’m now planning to switch back and forth between Firefox 4 and Chrome to see which I prefer now that I can make them work in very similar ways. More when I’ve formed an opinion.

Should you switch to Firefox 4? If you’re using Firefox 3.6 on an Intel-based Mac, yes, you should, so you can take advantage of its performance and standards improvements (though I recommend re-enabling the Browse By Name feature immediately so Firefox 4 works the way you expect). But if you’re happy with Safari or Chrome, I don’t see the changes in Firefox 4 making such a difference that you’ll feel compelled to switch. That said, there’s nothing wrong with downloading a copy and checking it out; if nothing else, it can be helpful to have a different browser around in case you have trouble with a particular site. And who knows, perhaps you’ll find that Firefox 4 fits your needs perfectly.

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TidBITS Watchlist: Notable Software Updates for 4 April 2011

  by TidBITS Staff <editors@tidbits.com>

Dropbox 1.0.28 -- Perennial TidBITS favorite Dropbox has been updated to version 1.0.28. The minor release fixes a rare crash and includes a few other unspecified small tweaks. We tend to find that Dropbox fails to auto-update itself as it should, and indeed, it didn’t do so for me, so I downloaded and installed manually. You can check which version of Dropbox you’re running by hovering your mouse pointer over the Dropbox menu bar icon, or by clicking the icon, choosing Preferences, and then checking the Account tab. (Free, 21.6 MB)

Read/post comments about Dropbox 1.0.28.

Mac OS X v10.6.7 Supplemental Update for 13-inch MacBook Air -- Apple has released a rare Supplemental Update for Mac OS X 10.6.7, exclusively for the most recent edition of the 13-inch MacBook Air. The update addresses an issue that makes the system unresponsive when using iTunes, and Apple recommends it for all applicable MacBook Air users. The Supplemental Update is available via Software Update, or directly from Apple’s Web site. (Free update, 461 KB)

Read/post comments about Mac OS X v10.6.7 Supplemental Update for 13-inch MacBook Air (Late 2010).

GarageBand 6.0.2 -- Apple has released a minor update to the Mac version of GarageBand. Version 6.0.2 reportedly improves overall stability, but most notably it introduces support for opening projects created in the iPad version of GarageBand (see “GarageBand for iPad and Mac Not Yet Ready to Play Together,” 11 March 2011). When you first open an iPad project after installing this update, GarageBand on your Mac will need to download an additional update that’s just shy of 200 MB. Note also that when you open iPad GarageBand projects, you’ll immediately be prompted to save them under a new name. That’s because once you’ve modified a project in the desktop edition, it can no longer be opened by GarageBand for iPad. ($14.99 new on the Mac App Store, free update, 47.44 MB)

Read/post comments about GarageBand 6.0.2.

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