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29Jun/110

Getting the most out of your browser

Have a look at your computer...

...and notice that the keyboard and mouse are not in the same place.

How you use your keyboard and mouse can have a big effect on how efficient your research is. During an average research session, you'll switch back and forth between the keyboard and the mouse literally hundreds of times. If it takes about a second for each transition, you're probably spending five to ten minutes of each session just moving your hands around. This effect is particularly noticeable when compiling citations. The delay caused by copying and pasting many small bits of text can be frustrating when you just want to get back to researching.

This post is basically a compilation of shortcuts and techniques to minimize unnecessary clicks, keypresses, and hand movements while researching - faster ways to do ordinary things.

I wrote this with Firefox in mind, but most of the tips will work with other browsers as well. (See my previous post, "Browser battle to the death", to see why I recommend Firefox.)

The Keyboard

Believe it or not, you can perform most common actions entirely from the keyboard, without ever touching the mouse. This can be handy when an operation requires a mixture of keyboard and mouse actions; if you can do it all from the keyboard, it will probably be faster than switching to the mouse and back several times.

Many common keyboard commands can be done with one hand without taking the other off the mouse. For example, to copy text, just use the Copy and Paste keyboard shortcuts with one hand, while selecting the text with the mouse. This is much faster than clicking through menus with the mouse alone.

Keyboard navigation

Navigating forms - Pressing the Tab key will select the next link or text field. This is especially useful for site logins. Just type your username, press Tab, and type your password; no need to switch to the mouse to click the next field. (You can also do this backwards by pressing Shift+Tab.)

Selecting text - Firefox includes a feature called "caret browsing", which puts a text cursor on the webpage so you can select text with the keyboard (just hold down Shift and move the cursor over the text.) Caret browsing can be turned on and off by pressing the F7 key; usually, selecting with the mouse is faster, so you'll probably want it off most of the time.

Scrolling - the Page Up and Page Down keys, as well as the Up and Down arrows, are often the fastest way to navigate a large webpage. This will work much better if caret browsing is turned off.

Menus - You can access the menus by pressing Alt. (Note that in Firefox 4 and above, the old menus are hidden; pressing Alt will show them again.) When the menus are active, you'll see little underlines; this indicates that you can type that letter to activate the menu option. For example, pressing Alt, F, E opens the Send Link menu option.

Useful keyboard shortcuts

Copy and paste - If you're right-handed, use Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V, respectively. (You can do this with your left hand without taking your right hand off the mouse.) If you're left-handed, consider using Ctrl+Insert and Shift+Insert instead - if you use the Ctrl and Shift keys on the right side of the keyboard, you can do this with just your right hand without taking your left hand off the mouse. It's closer than reaching over to the left hand side of the keyboard.

New tab - Ctrl+T. Opening a new tab will automatically put your cursor in the URL bar, so you can hit Ctrl+T and type in a Google search without ever touching the mouse.

Close the current tab - Ctrl+W.

Re-open the last tab you closed - Ctrl+Shift+T. This doesn't work in Safari.

Open the Find box - Ctrl+F. Since this puts your cursor in the Find box, you can start typing right away. Tip: Using the Find box is often much faster than scanning through the entire document to find the bit you want - just Ctrl+F and type in a related word. Pressing Enter will cycle through all occurrences of it (you don't have to click the Next button.)

Undo and Redo - Ctrl+Z and Ctrl+Y, respectively.

Reload and stop loading - F5 and Escape, respectively.

Back and Forward - Alt+Left and Alt+Right, respectively.

Focus the search bar - Ctrl+K.

URL autocomplete - Firefox and Chrome do this. When typing a URL, you can press Ctrl+Enter, Ctrl+Shift+Enter, or Shift+Enter to add .com, .org, and .net domains, respectively. For example, you can type google and press Ctrl+Enter, and it will autocomplete to http://www.google.com. This even works with subdomains and folders - for example, typing google/maps and pressing Ctrl+Enter will autocomplete to http://www.google.com/maps.

Add evidence in Factsmith - Ctrl+Alt+A. (Not a browser feature, but important to know.) This will bring up the floating Evidence Editor window on top of whatever application you're currently using. No need to switch to the Factsmith window before each new card.

The Mouse

Physical presence

If you're using a laptop, get a physical mouse to plug into it. Period. You can get them for a few bucks, and once you get up to speed, it's significantly faster than using a trackpad.

Things to look for:

  • A scroll wheel is essential.
  • Get an optical mouse, not a ball mouse; it's much better. Laser probably isn't necessary.
  • Wireless vs. direct-connection is entirely a personal preference; wireless mice don't really have any everyday speed advantage over regular mice.
  • Avoid trackballs like the plague. Some people prefer them just because they're used to them, but a good surface-mouse user will always be faster than a good trackball user.
Shortcuts

Obviously, if you have a scroll wheel, it's the fastest way to navigate a page. What you may not know is that the scroll wheel can also be used as a "middle" mouse button. If you middle-click a link, it will open in a new tab; if you middle-click an existing tab, it will close. (This is, by far, the fastest way to handle tabs. If you have a scroll wheel and you aren't using it, there is something wrong with you. ;-)) If you only have a laptop trackpad, you can get a similar effect by holding down Ctrl while you click.

Holding down Ctrl while rolling the wheel will zoom the current page in and out.

Mouse settings

There are a couple of mouse settings that can influence ease-of-use; play with them a bit until you get something you like:

Pointer speed: Set it as fast as you're comfortable with; you want to be able to travel all the way across the screen without sliding your wrist.

Enhance Pointer Precision: This is a Windows option that "ramps" the pointer speed, so slow movements are more precise and fast movements go further. This makes it dramatically easier to quickly flick to a button and click it. If it isn't already on, turn it on right now like seriously.

Double-click speed: If the double-click speed is set too slow, clicking on things twice can activate double-click when you don't want it to. Set it only as slow as you need it to be.

Snap to default button: Windows can automatically move the mouse to the default button in a window. I recommend keeping this off, because it makes keeping track of the mouse pointer more confusing, but it's a personal preference.

Mouse cursor theme: It does no good to have a cool animated horse for a mouse pointer if you can't see where you're clicking. Keep it simple.

Become ambimousetrous

If you're working on a laptop, learn how to use the trackpad and the mouse interchangeably.

The trackpad isn't usually faster than the physical mouse. It is, however, a lot closer than the mouse. If you're typing on the keyboard and need to perform a quick mouse action, just drop down two inches to the trackpad and do it there.

This can save a lot of time, so it's worthwhile getting good with both.

Mouse gestures

I talked about this in my previous post. This is primarily a feature in Opera, but you can also get it in Firefox by installing the FireGestures addon.

Mouse gestures are quick, easy mouse movements that you can perform instead of switching to the keyboard or moving the mouse across the screen to click a button. Generally, you hold down the right mouse button and move the mouse in a specific pattern:Once you get used to it, it's much faster than conventional shortcuts.

This actually exists

Button remapping

Most mice have two buttons (not counting the scroll wheel), but you can also get ones with more. You probably don't want quite as many buttons as the OpenOffice mouse on the right (understatement of the year), but a few extra buttons can be handy.

Programming extra buttons to perform common actions like Copy, Paste, Clear Formatting, New Tab, etc. can save a lot of time and keypresses. How this is done will vary by the mouse.

The Browser

Firefox includes a great time-saving feature called "smart keywords", which deserves its own section. Chrome and other browsers include similar features, but the operation is different and they sometimes require plugins, so I'll only cover the Firefox version here. See here for partial Chrome instructions.

Bookmark keywords

If you right-click a bookmark and click Properties, you'll get a box with a number of options. One of these is "Keyword". This defines a shortcut to the bookmark that you can type in the URL bar; for example, I can open a new tab and type in hsd, and it will take me to HomeSchoolDebate.com.

Search keywords

There's a slightly more advanced version of this that's even more useful: if you right-click any search box on a webpage and select "Add a Keyword for this Search...", you can create keywords for search engines. For example, to search Wikipedia for "mushrooms", I could simply open a new tab and type in wiki mushrooms.

This can be used for very advanced searches; for example, by setting various options before I saved the bookmark, I was able to set up a keyword that searches all Google News articles since 2004.

To install the Google News archive search on your own browser, drag this link to your bookmark toolbar and give it a keyword like "gnews" from Properties: Google News Search | Archives. (You may want to move it off the toolbar to the menus afterwards.)

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