What do you want to see when you open a new tab?

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I’ve been thinking about browsers’ new tab pages recently. My default browser is Google Chrome so I’ll largely be focusing on that in this post.

By default, certainly on the version that I have installed (I’m on the Dev channel which allows me to see up-and-coming features—and bugs—before they are available on the stable channel) I get two options:

  • Apps
  • Most visited pages

Most visited pages

The most visited pages feature is the sort of thing that many browsers do now. Opera does it; I’ve a vague notion that they were the first with their speed dial page:

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The Apple Safari one is really attractive, almost cinematic.

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Even Internet Explorer 9 does it.

Most visited doesn’t mean favourite

The thing is, when I open a new tab in my browser, as you would expect, it’s usually because I want to open a new page, visit another web site, or open a new web application. But I am finding that I rarely, if ever, use these most popular/most visited pages for a number of reasons.

First, I don’t find their design particularly helpful.

Chrome, Safari and Opera all show a resized screenshot of the website. But there is too much detail in a screenshot, that when it gets squeezed down to 205 x 128 pixels it loses its immediacy and usefulness.

Usually, it’s not immediately obvious what the site is from a tiny screenshot, so I find that I waste a lot of time trying to determine whether these are the links I need or not. Also, depending on your browser’s theme, the text beneath the screenshot isn’t always obvious either.

Some browsers will also update the screenshot if you’ve not visited the site in a while, or have cleared your browser’s cache so the page may actually look completely different from the last time you visited (remember) it.

It doesn’t pass the Steve Krug Don’t make me think! test.

Internet Explorer 9, on the other hand, takes a different approach. IE shows white boxes containing the site’s favicon and a bar, which indicates how often you’ve visited the site (e.g. “Very active”, “Active”, etc.).

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As you can see from the screenshot above, though, is that 4/10 sites there don’t have icons, or they’ve not been downloaded for some reason.

So the horizontal bar then becomes the most obvious feature of each box; given that we lazy humans will tend to pay attention to pictures and coloured shapes before we attempt to read anything, because that uses energy!

There are blue, green and purple bars. But what do the colours represent? It’s not obvious. It turns out that IE rather cleverly draws the colour from the favicon.

It’s better, but it’s still not perfect. What if the sites listed aren’t actually the sites that I want to visit most frequently?

Second, most visited doesn’t necessarily mean favourite.

IE tells me that these sites are my “most popular sites”, Chrome that they are my “most visited”, Safari that they are simply, and rather neutrally, “top sites”. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are my favourite.

Because I visit a particular location many times doesn’t immediately make it one of my favourite locations.

In St Andrews I generally park on Langlands Road. That makes it one of my most visited streets. But it’s not my favourite location in St Andrews; St Mary’s quad is.

Because I’m involved in Web design I generally find myself flipping between different browsers frequently, in order to test pages. So my “most visited” sites quickly fill up with screenshots of test pages. And different browsers may require more testing than others.

That’s not useful.

Third, I clear my cache a lot, also for testing purposes. And every time I clear my cache it resets my “most visited” sites counter too. So any useful sites that I’ve accrued over the last week or so also get wiped.

Why not use favourites?

The browser that I think has got it closest is Opera.

Opera allows you to choose which sites are displayed on your Speed Dial/new tab page.

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It also doesn’t use the entire screenshot, but a cropped portion, which tends to include the site name. I can quickly, and easily see what these sites are. It passes the “Don’t make me think!” test. I also find that I use this feature a lot in Opera Mobile on my HTC HD2.

This makes much more sense to me: show me the sites that I want to visit most often, or the resources that I find most helpful, even if I don’t visit them every day.

Google Chrome’s apps screen also comes close to what I would find useful:

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Now, this is getting somewhere. The icons are simple and recognisable, even though the text labels aren’t easy to read against the grass background.

The only problem is that I’m now dependent on developers creating a Google Chrome  shortcut app to the site that I want to visit. In my own Web development I use four sites frequently:

  • Heart Internet control panel
  • Pivotal Tracker
  • Assembla SVN
  • Deploy

As you can see from the screenshot above only 2/4 of those sites have shortcut apps. If I want to include them on my apps pages then I’ll need to create them myself. Which is fine for me as a Web developer, but a it of a pain for most other Web users.

My faves

I came across myfav.es today which is designed to easily allow you to choose your favourite sites and then set that page as your browser’s homepage.

This is mine:

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As you can see some of the shortcuts use built-in, default application icons such as Google, Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and YouTube.

The more generic icons (heart, notepad, cloud, download, ‘B’) are non-standard links that I’ve entered manually. There are loads of icons to choose from, and you can specify what colour they should be.

It’s very clear, and highly customizable. That’s exactly what I want when I open a new tab. Something like this would be really useful, as a built-in feature, to browsers. Particularly as user-interfaces, like Windows Phone/Windows 8 Metro UI become more popular.

There are a couple of Chrome extensions that replace the default new tab page:

  • myfav.es New Tab page
  • myfav.es Fast New Tab Replacement Page

But both also remove the cursor from the address bar when you open a new tab, which means if you want to start typing a new URL or a search query you have to manually select the address bar (“omnibox”) either with your mouse or a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl+D on Windows).

I’ve now simply set this as my homepage in all my browsers. And so far it’s proving very useful, and consistent.

Collage from the Potting Shed–My Web

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According to Mozilla the above collage represents my Web.

What does it all mean?!

Here’s what the objects are supposed to represent:

  1. Car Magazine—You are the Gear Head — mark of those who know their limited-slip differential from their throttle body. You get all revved up at the sound of a big V8, and the smell of burning rubber brings a wistful tear to your eye.
  2. Puppet—Everything’s better with a monkey in it. Monkeys are fun, smart, and optimistic. You got this crafty monkey because it reflects your own delightful optimism and playfulness. Or maybe you like bananas?
  3. Crayons—The symbol of unpretentious creativity and art. You are almost certainly imbued with a child-like curiosity and an unfettered imagination, enjoy self expression and bright colours. You are child-like, or may actually be a child.
  4. Statue of Liberty—Quick: look out your window. Any purple mountains’ majesty? Amber waves of grain? We wouldn’t be surprised, because you’re in the U-S-A! [Erm… I’m not, I’m in S-C-O-T-L-A-N-D!]
  5. Comb—You’ve earned The Comb! A mark of neatness that exemplifies your dedication to presenting a pleasing visage to the world. You’ve got style, and substance too.
  6. Friendship Pin—The Friendship Pin — an unbreakable bond between you and your BFF. It shows you are loyal, willing to wear your love on your sleeve (or sneaker).
  7. Friendship Bracelet—Your buddies will be overjoyed to learn that you’ve drawn the Friendship Bracelet. It stands for sociability and your talent for making each friend, online and off, feel special. So very special.
  8. USB Drive—Technology lives to serve, and you like your information portable, pocketable and sharable. That’s how data becomes action, and gadgets become essential.
  9. Name Tag—Who are you, really? That’s something you can decide, and decide again, and again. Create a persona for each world you live in. Just don’t get confused, or they’ll make a movie about you.
  10. Wrench—Wield the tools to make it yours, for you are unique — and your browser can reflect that.
  11. Mystic Crystals—When was the last time you aligned your chakras? You’re supposed to do it every 3,000 miles.
  12. Rocket—Eat my dust! I’m bumping up my browsing into hyperdrive and leaving lesser browsers behind..
  13. Disguise Mask—Internet Ninja! You leave no trace of your travels, online or off.
  14. Android Smartphone—For you, the Internet cannot be contained to a desk or a cafe. You carry it with you, not a place you go, but a tool you use. This is your Swiss Army Knife™.

My Opera 11 and Opera Dragonfly 1.0 challenge

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I spotted on Twitter the other day that Opera have updated their web debugging application Dragonfly to version 1.0. Dragonfly is to Opera what Firebug is to Mozilla Firefox.

I’ve always been very impressed with Opera, as far back as Opera 3. I used to use Opera 5 on my Psion 5mx and I still use Opera Mobile on my HTC HD2 (Windows Mobile 6.5).

So to check it out and put it through its paces I’ve decided to use both Opera and Dragonfly exclusively for the next month in place of Google Chrome (browsing) and Firefox/Firebug (debugging).

Dragonfly is now built-into Opera. Just download Opera 11.10 and to open Dragonfly press Ctrl+Shift+I (Windows) / ⌘+⌥+I (Mac) or right-click and select “Inspect” from the context menu.

I’ll report back here, but I’ll also be blogged about it on My Opera blog.

Who wants to join me?

Google Chrome and Flash

On Monday I blogged about Shockwave Flash crashing in Google Chrome 10.

Reassuringly/disappointingly I wasn’t the only person to experience this annoyance. PC Pro published an article on Tuesday: Chrome update takes out Flash. The article highlighted a couple of things that I hadn’t realised:

  1. Google was now ‘sandboxing’ Flash; in other words, any issues experienced with a particular website that uses Flash (e.g. malware) doesn’t spread beyond the tab that is running it.
  2. The Adobe Flash plugin was crashing when there were multiple instances of Flash on a page.

The Google Chrome support forum has been a busy place of late, and I’ve been keeping a close eye on the thread entitled Chrome 10 – Flash Crashes.

Google Chrome channels

One piece of advise was to try the developer channel of Google Chrome.

Google run three release channels of Chrome:

  1. Stable
  2. Beta
  3. Developer

I generally run the Beta channel as it tends to receive the latest features a couple of weeks before Stable does.

And sure enough, now that I’m running the dev channel version of Chrome the issue with Flash has gone.

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Above: Google Chrome 10.0.648.134 beta which I’ve been having problems with.

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Above: Google Chrome 11.0.696.12 dev which I’ve so far had no Flash crashes with.

I really love that the image on the About Google Chrome screen on the dev channel shows that it’s not quite as polished and shiny a version as beta. Nice touch.