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How To Get Both Firefox and Chrome's Best Features in Your Browser

Like the age-old battle of cake versus pie, the great browser debate rages on. Fans of Chrome champion speed, while the Firefox faithful tout its extensibility — and even Internet Explorer fans have improvements of their own to be happy about these days.

But thanks to the magic of add-ons, extensions and browser tweaks, you don't have to settle for just one. In fact, it's possible to get some of Chrome and Firefox 4's best features, and bring them to your browser of choice — even if that browser is Internet Explorer. Here's how.

Turn the AwesomeBar into an Omnibar — with Instant (almost)!

We hinted at this in our last set of Firefox 4 tweak tips, but its worth mentioning again. For all the space Mozilla has saved in cleaning up their browser's user interface, it baffles us as to why a dedicated search bar is still included — especially when Firefox 4's AwesomeBar works just as nicely on its own. All it takes is a right-click on the toolbar — followed by a trip to the Customizemenu option — to drag away the search bar into oblivion.

Even more useful, however, is infusing the AwesomeBar with most of Chrome's Instant search goodness. This actually takes two steps, the first of which is installing Mozilla Labs' own Instant Preview add-on. Now, any highlighted result in Firefox 4's AwesomeBar drop-down dialog will load instantly, similar to Google Chrome. However, as anyone familiar with Firefox knows, this drop-down dialog will only show recently accessed or historical sites — and not actual search results from Google. Instead, you'll need to set up a bookmark shortcut to invoke a search from the AwesomeBar, accomplished by right-clicking on any Google search box and selecting "Add a Keyword for this Search." 

The result, of course, isn't perfect — you'll have to highlight your search term in the drop-down dialog first for it to actually load "instantly — but it's pretty damn close.

Feed Chrome some Tab Candy

There's no denying that Firefox 4's Tab Panorama feature is particularly awesome. Much like a virtual desktop, you can separate tabs into their own groups, allowing you to resize and organize those groups in a virtual space. It's sure to be a boon for obsessive organizational types — or those with an excess of tabs — but it's a feature sorely absent from Chrome.

Worry not, however: a handy extension called Tab Sugar is aiming to bring Tab Panorama to Chrome users too. Of course, this is still alpha code, so not everything works quite as you'd expect. Website previews in particular are absent, and there were a few graphical hiccups when moving tab groups around. Still, it's better that nothing, and should placate Chrome faithful who aren't quite ready to switch.

Invite IE9 to the WebM Party

After Google made the bold decision to axe support for the h.264 video codec in Chrome last year — the format in which much of the web's video is encoded — there was some uncertainty as to how competing browsers would react. The goal, after all, was to replace the royalty-encumbered h.264 codec with thefreely-licensed WebM standard. Luckily, both Firefox 4 and Safari now officially support the standard, leaving one notable exception — Internet Explorer 9.

For now, that's not a huge deal, as very little online content is primarily encoded using the codec. However, if you're looking to enjoy the latest and greatest that the HTML5-capable web has to offer, Google now offers an experimental WebM plug-in for IE9 users as well. You can even try YouTube's experimental HTML5 player to see the codec in action.

Teach Chrome to keep Tabs in sync

Browser sync is undeniably one of Chrome's best features, but there's one glaring omission — tabs. In this regard, Firefox 4's Sync feature clearly succeeds, but that doesn't mean all is lost for you Google faithful. All it takes is a small extension to get your pages synced between machines.

In fact, you have a few options. FreshStart relies upon Chrome's built-in browser sync to work its tab-based magic. The extension sits beside the Omnibar, and allows you to save or restore sessions when moving between machines. Sadly, the process isn't as automatic as the rest of Chrome's syncing features, but at least it works as advertised — assuming you remember to save your browser's state before moving to another machine. And of course, there's also our old favourite Xmarks, which not only syncs between multiple Chrome installs, but other browsers as well.

What iPhone's Location Tracking Means for You (and Howto Protect Yourself)

Like many of you, I woke up this morning to the news that my iPhone and 3G-enabled iPad have recorded every single location I’ve visited since last summer, when I installed iOS 4. If you’ve missed the story, Ars Technica has a typically thorough breakdown of the work done by a pair of security researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, and the implications of your iPhone recording your daily movements--or maybe just the cell towers your phone connects to as you move around.

Either way, the upshot is the same: all iPhones running iOS 4.0 or higher periodically record the time and general location of the device using cell towers as a point of reference. As far as anyone can tell, this info is only stored on the phone (and in the phone’s backup on your Mac or PC) and is never transmitted to anyone, including Apple.

At first glance, this is nothing new.

Wireless carriers track and record users location as a matter of course. Periodically your phone looks for new towers; when it finds one, it announces its presence so the cellular network knows where to route incoming calls or data requests. This happens constantly when the phone is on--if it didn’t, your cell phone simply wouldn’t work. However, there’s a good reason that people are upset about the iPhone automatically tracking your movements. Because Apple is storing the tracking info in unencrypted files on your phone and computer, they’re very easily accessed. While your angry ex-wife (or her private investigator) would need a court order to subpoena your phone records from AT&T, she just needs five minutes with your MacBook and a copy of iPhone Tracker.

 On January 5, I drove from San Francisco to Las Vegas. That sounds familiar.
On January 5, I drove from San Francisco to Las Vegas. That sounds familiar.
The bad news is that you can’t turn off tracking or delete the stored data from your phone--at least not today. Until Apple releases an iOS update that lets you prevent the iPhone from recording your location information, the only thing you can do to protect yourself is secure your phone (and its backup) better using the tools that are already available to you.

The first thing you need to do is encrypt the backups of your iOS devices on the computer you sync them with. Open iTunes, connect your iPhone or iPad to the computer, and click on the device when it pops up. Go to the Summary tab and make sure “Encrypt iPad Backup” is checked. Obviously, your encrypted backup will only be as secure as the password you choose, so follow a good password scheme. If you want to go a step further or are worried that Apple may not be encrypting your backup with strong enough encryption, you can use a third-party utility likeTrueCrypt to encrypt the backup folder (it’s in /Users//Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backups/).

Aside from the months that I carried an Android phone, this is everywhere I've gone in California since June 2010
Aside from the months that I carried an Android phone, this is everywhere I've gone in California since June 2010
The next thing you need to do is secure your phone. The good news is wiping your phone removes the offending data. If you're willing to wipe your phone and reconfigure it as if it were new, you can remove the location data that's already been collected from your phone. However, there are less drastic approaches. First, you should enable a secure passcode on your phone. This will prevent anyone who doesn't know the passcode from syncing the phone with a strange PC and backing up the location database. To turn a passcode on, open the Settings app, then go to General > Passcode Lock and tap Turn Passcode On. If you're especially paranoid, you can also turn on the "Erase Data" option in the same menu, which will erase everything on your phone after 10 failed login attempts. You may also want to enable Find My iPhone, which will let you wipe your phone remotely. We tested both phone wiping options, and both remove the offending information from your phone.

Once you’ve secured your phone and your computer, the only other thing to do is wait for Apple to patch iOS and either disable this functionality or give users the option to choose whether they want it on or not. While it probably isn’t illegal for Apple to store this information on the phone, they shouldn’t do it without the user’s consent, and they sure as hell shouldn’t do it in an unencrypted file that's easy for anyone with access to your computer to exploit.

How To Have Fun with Near Field Communication on Android

At this juncture, we're all familiar with wireless communication technologies like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. But one wireless tool that is just starting to roll out to the mainstream is near field communication, or NFC. The first Android phone with NFC was the Nexus S last December. If you pick up a Nexus S, Samsung Galaxy S II, or the Nexus S 4G on Sprint, you will have NFC capabilities in your phone.

But what is NFC, and what good is it? Stick around as we go over the technology, how it works on Android, and some fun do-it-yourself NFC projects.

What is NFC?

Near field communication is a specific set of wireless technologies that fall under the catch-all term RFID. NFC devices can only exchange information at a distance of less than 1.5 inches, or a little under 4cm (some specialized antennas can work up to 20cm away though). Data transfer speeds are a healthy 106 kbps to 848 kbps, depending on the device. For all intents and purposes, this is instantaneous tag reading and writing as NFC tags contain only a small amount of data.

You can use two phones, or other powered devices (sometimes called Active) to share NFC content provided both of them can read and write to NFC. What makes NFC truly interesting is that, like all RFID technologies, tags can be stored on un-powered chips. NFC works on the 13.56MHz frequency, and it is this radio frequency that makes passive tags possible.

When you hold an NFC capable device up to a passive, or un-powered tag, the RF field induces a current in the tag circuitry. That process generates power in the target, making it able to send and receive data. Pull the phone away, and the tag goes back to being an inert bit of copper.

What you can do with NFC

Passive NFC tag
Passive NFC tag
One of the most often cited uses of NFC technology is in mobile payment systems. In some countries this has already become the norm, but in the US we're just starting to get the industry up and running. A company called Isis haspartnered with several large mobile phone carriers to begin a trial of their mobile phone payments in the coming years. There are also indications that Google is planning a test run of their own NFC payment system.

Right now you can easily use NFC technology to share data with your friends. On the Nexus S with the Android 2.3.3 update, you can create a tag on the phone with the built in Tags app. The tag can be, among other things, a contact card. If you toggle tag broadcasting on in the Tags app, any NFC device you hold up to the phone will read the contact and be able to save it. If you've ever used the popular Bump app, it has a similar feel, but no extra software is needed. You just place the phones near one another and it happens.

You can also create a URL tag in Android. This will present another Android user with a direct link to the site you've entered when they scan your tag. You can also enter raw text to be passed over the NFC link. The Android Tags app lets you create multiple tags and choose which one you want to transmit.

If you want to create your own passive NFC tags to leave around, or stick to the fridge, all you need is the right hardware. We purchased these NFC-compatible tags for testing. These tagsfrom the same retailer should also work. If those are out of stock, all you need to do is make sure you can get 13.56MHz RFID tags that are not write-protected from a different seller.

When you hold a blank NFC tag up to a compatible Android phone, you will have the option to write a tag to it. We suggest using NXP TagWriter to create custom tags. It has a friendly interface and lets you protect content if you don't want a tag re-written (for example if you're placing it in a public space). Like the stock Tags app, it lets you browse your tag history, but you can also easily reuse tags if you want to write a new tag with previous data. You can even append data to it.

With all this in mind, we embarked on a little DIY project to make use of NFC technology.

Making a smart dock for the Nexus S

One thing we always loved about the Nexus One was the spiffy desktop dock that triggered the Android clock app among other things. The Nexus S does not have that functionality, sadly. But with the Android 2.3.3 update, a blank NFC tag, and an app called NFC Task Launcher you can make a generic phone dock trigger apps and setting changes on the phone.

First, pick up NFC Task Launcher from the Market. It will cost you $1.99, but we've found it to work very well. When you open the app, choose Create Task. Hit the Add New Action button and pick from the list of functions. You can have the app toggle radios, launch apps, alter sounds, and even turn on the Wi-Fi hotspot. You have to hit the '+' button to actually add the task to the tag. There is also an option to add Tasker tasks to the tag, which expands the capacities of the app as far as your imagination can go.

Once you've built a task profile, tap the write tag button and place the device near your intended NFC tag. The tag will be written with the special Task Launcher tag and that's it. From now on, whenever you place your phone on or near that tag, it will perform the intended action with the assistance of NFC Task Launcher.

Dock with NFC tag attached
Dock with NFC tag attached
We obtained a simple dock for the Nexus S and created an NFC tag with NFC Task Launcher that enabled the ringer, set the volume, launched the Clock app, and enabled Wi-Fi. With a bit of double-sided tape, the NFC tag was affixed to the back of the dock. So whenever the phone is dropped into said dock, it wakes up and performs the tasks laid out. The result is an experience that is much more like the Nexus One dock than a regular plastic dock.

NFC Task Launcher also has a profile option where you can write a tag that initiates certain settings when you first scan a tag, then a different set the next time. It's great for putting your phone into 'work' mode, then using the same tag when you clock out to set it back to 'normal' mode.