Thoughts on the Firefox AwesomeBar

Published on January 28, 2010

In my recent post on gripes I have with Firefox 3.6, I mentioned in passing that I detest (and disable) the AwesomeBar. I had a recent lunch-time discussion with Dustin about this very topic, and Michael asked about it in a recent comment, so I thought I’d post a few thoughts on why I dislike the AwesomeBar as a whole.

For the uninitiated, the AwesomeBar is simply the address bar in Firefox 3.0 and later. Prior to version 3, the Firefox address bar was a simple edit box with an associated drop down menu. URLs that you manually entered into this box were saved in the URL history (the drop down menu), and would be auto-completed in future accesses to the URL bar. When Firefox 3.0 was released, Mozilla changed the behavior of the URL bar considerably. Instead of being a repository for typed URLs, the address bar became a “one-stop shop” allowing users to search through bookmarks, history, and previously typed URLs.

So what do I dislike about it?

Performance, Performance, Performance
Without a doubt, this is my number one complaint with the AwesomeBar (and, these days, Firefox in general). When the AwesomeBar made its debut, its performance was terrible. It was so slow, in fact, that as I typed into the URL bar, I would lose key strokes as Firefox struggled to keep up with potential suggestions. For example, as I typed a URL like https://borngeek.com/, I would end up with something like http://wweek.com/ (note the loss of the w.borng characters). Behavior like this is completely unacceptable, but was, for me, the norm for a long time. I’m not sure if Firefox still suffers from this issue because I never use it!
Results Ordering
When the AwesomeBar was first introduced, there was no way to specify what it should suggest as you search. As a result, there was much debate about which results should appear higher in the results list: should history take precedence over bookmarks, or vice-versa? In my experience, search results were never what I wanted them to be. Often, my target search would be the third or fourth result from the top, requiring me to use the arrow keys to select it. Poorly sorted suggestions essentially forced me to scan the results list for each query, wasting my time in the process. I know that Firefox has improved this greatly (you can now specify what kind of results are returned), so this is an admitted non-issue today.
Why Do I Need This?
My last complaint is simply, why is the AwesomeBar something I need? Unlike many computer users, I have very few actual bookmarks; instead, I maintain a static-HTML page of links I frequently visit. Because my bookmark count is so low, I never have a need to search my bookmarks; I already know what is or is not there, as well as how to get to it. Similarly, it’s not often that I need to search my browsing history. When I need to do so, I simply open the history sidebar (Ctrl + H) and search there. What was the AwesomeBar giving me that wasn’t already available in the browser? I’m not sure the answer to that is very substantial.

I think I would have more respect for the AwesomeBar if it came disabled by default. Shipping Firefox 3.0 with this enabled radically changed the behavior of a key UI element, something that seems pretty dangerous to do from a “keep the end user happy” standpoint. Mozilla enjoys screwing around with the default settings, however, so I’ve since come to expect this kind of thing from them. For now, the AwesomeBar is disabled in my browser. Until I see a good reason to do otherwise, it will stay in its upright and locked position.

One Comment

kip

Just a few comments, as a fan of the awesome bar:

* Performance has never been a problem for me, and I keep my history at the default 90 days (I think I even went longer on my home PC).
* The thing about losing keystrokes is a little weird. Sometimes if my system is busy, it will hold the keystrokes in a buffer while it is busy thinking, then suddenly 5 keystrokes appear at once. But I’ve never seen it just lose the keystrokes entirely. (In any application, really.)
* I use the Tab key to navigate the list of suggestions when the one I want isn’t at the top. It’s a lot easier than arrow keys. This has been a pain point for me when using Chrome, actually, since tab there actually moves the focus onto the page.
* My understanding of the sort is that it uses some kind of “frecency” formula that factors in both frequency and recency. I’m not sure how bookmarks are factored into that.

Of course, if it’s not solving any problem for you then by all means disable it. For me it’s really great that it searches for substrings in both the URL and the page title, which makes it easy to find something that I remember reading recently but can’t remember where.

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