One reason why I prefer browser windows to browser tabs

June 17, 2010

I recently read about a study of tabbed browsing, and it inspired some reflective thoughts. I am well out on the 'many things open at once' curve of browser users, but unlike almost everyone in the study, I do almost all of it in separate windows instead of in tabs. I've touched on this before, but I feel like taking another shot at one specific aspect of it, which is how one deals with inactive browser sessions.

(By 'browser session' here I mean one window-or-tab object. This is more than just a single web page; I often care about things like the history of how I got to the page.)

At any given time, most of my browser sessions are inactive (I'm not paying any attention to them). In my current window manager environment, I deal with inactive sessions by iconifying the browser window and spatially organizing the icons to keep track of them. I have a good enough spatial memory that I'm pretty good at remembering both where a particular iconified browser window is and what the iconified browser window in a particular place is.

(And unsurprisingly, I've developed habits around all of this; there are certain browser windows that I always iconify to the same places and so on.)

As far as I know, there is no similar method of shelving inactive tabs; they will clutter up the tab bar even if I'm not interested in them right now. Space on the tab bar is a much more limited resource than usable free space on my desktop for icons, so putting any decent amount of inactive sessions into tabs creates mess quite fast. Also, you rapidly get into a situation where it is hard to actually find things in your tabs short of manually searching through them all.

(There seem to be some Firefox extensions that try to deal with this.)

This advantage of browser windows is clearly an artifact of my rather odd window manager environment. Iconification is vastly out of style; common window managers these days put all windows (iconified or not) into a taskbar area, which gets cluttered even faster than the tab bar and is probably harder to manage. At least with Firefox's tab bar, things stay in order and you can shuffle that order around.

(Thinking about all of this makes me want a hopelessly geeky extension to session saving such that you could save and restore groups of windows separately from each other. Or just a good 'park this somewhere so I can come back and read it later' feature of some sort; I have a lot of browser windows that are for things I am going to read someday, honest.)

Comments on this page:

By rdump at 2010-06-20 23:02:58:

The problem of saving state in a visible/memorable manner is what drives me to use OmniWeb (I already run Mac OS X, so I have the option). OmniWeb has multiple workspaces available by default ("sessions" in Firefox parlance). Each workspace is composed of multiple windows. Each window can have multiple tabs (plus the tab tray opens to the side, with pictures instead of just words). I use the tabs for background information pages relevant to the first page in any given window. I use the workspaces to segregate information for a given named task from other tasks.

Given the modern lack of iconification (which my poor memory for icons and positions renders moot), I partially tile the windows in each workspace so that the content fragments on display act as reminders and click targets.

One downside to this is it can lead to tiresomely repetitive interaction with slapdash and lazy web designers. If I'm feeling patient, I politely explain that, no, I cannot just expand my browser window to take up my full screen so that their content will display properly, as there are other things on my screen as well, and I need to see those other things with a rather high priority. When I begin to feel impatient, I then add something to the effect that the web is not a print magazine, so part of competent web design involves working creatively and well with a variable width "canvas".

Another downside is that certain slapdash and lazy web designers or vendors attempt to tell me that my browser is not "supported." If I'm feeling patient, I politely explain that my browser does HTML just fine. Particularly ironic are those who complain that I should use Apple's Safari, as it is "supported." They usually fail to be moved by the knowledge that OmniWeb uses Apple's Webkit too.

Problems with slipshod web design aside, as a sysadmin I live in a high-interrupt environment. I must have a way of preserving state and history for various interrupted tasks. And I need the reminders visible. Anything less than multiple windows with side-mounted tab trays displayed at will in multiple workspaces results in increased job stress, and a greater incidence of missed deadlines.

OmniWeb pretty much saves most of my days, meaning I don't have to figure out the extras to add to Firefox to get close to what I need.

From at 2010-06-24 13:48:42:

I also use OmniWeb (I even paid for it, back when it cost money), and I'd be very unhappy if I had to switch.

One additional awesome feature of OW is that it has per-site settings, so that you can, for example, tell a particular site that you're really running Safari, or IE, or FireFox, or whatever. You can also block images of various types on a per-site basis (including many ads).

Unless you have crazy-wide tab drawers, it's still hard to see what's in each window at a glance (unless the site has a distinctive appearance that you can recognize in a thumbnail), but if you bring up the Workspaces window you get a list of your workspaces (as mentioned) but also a list of the windows within each workspace and the titles of the tabs in each window, which makes it a bit easier to find things again when you've got too many tabs and too many windows. (I filed a bug asking for a search within open tabs function, but I'm not holding my breath.)

The big downside is that OW really does encourage you to have lots and lots and lots of windows and tabs. It does a good job of keeping track of them, too, which means that if you quit and restart, or change workspaces (or crash, if you're running a sneaky peek like I do), it will take a while before you get all those tabs reloaded, especially if you're on a slow connection. It's also very easy to shoot yourself in the foot by deleting your current workspace, which throws away all the state information. The last time I did that (Control-Command-W) it didn't pop up a confirmation dialog. On the positive side, that's one way of dealing with all those old tabs you probably weren't ever going to get around to reading anyway....


By cks at 2010-07-23 16:16:59:

Today's relevant link (partly so I can find this later) is Aza Raskin on Tab Candy, Firefox's attempt to deal with these tab usability problems. I'm amused to see that it has most of my geeky features in some form.

Written on 17 June 2010.
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