Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Perfect Ubuntu Setup - Instructions - 2

This is the second post in the series Perfect Ubuntu Setup - Instructions. This post details setting up Firefox; experimental or the default version, with all plugins necessary to handle the content on the web. We will also remove clutter, such as unused elements, on the user interface. Hint: All the tips that deal with Firefox add-ons and extensions also work in the Windows version of Firefox. Try them!

Vertical Space

To see how to Firefox can be made to use less vertical space, compare these two pictures:

When we remove the menu bar and bookmark bar, we reduce the vertical size taken up by the top part of Firefox to about half. This is more space for websites when You are browsing in a window, or in a maximized window with controls visible. Hint: You can also fullscreen firefox by pressing F11. This hides the bars to the top of the screen, you can show them again by moving the mouse to the top. Press F11 again to return to a window. Firefox allows you to search through your bookmarks by just typing words in the address bar, so bookmark folders and menu options are not usually necessary. There is also a small bookmark button you can put on the navigation bar. It allows accessing your bookmarks without adding extra permanent bars on your Firefox. To make these modifications, install the Firefox Personal Menu add-on. Then right-click near the address bar, and untick the Bookmarks Toolbar. You can also select Customize... to add or remove elements from the bars that you want to keep.

Ads were yesterday

Firefox's success as a web browser was originally sparked by its rendering speed and liberal license, compared to many competitors. Nowadays Firefox has become a slower monster. However, the latest development releases boast some speed improvements. However, a lot of people, including myself, use Firefox because of its extensibility. That the competitors are not essentially better, or available on my favourite platform, is another reason.

The Firefox extension called Adblock plus also available for some other browsers, is a big reason to use Firefox. Adblock plus, to put it simply, prevents Your browser from downloading unwanted advertisements. What is unwanted is determined by You. You can also subscribe to advertisement filter lists, which auto-block a large part of the advertisements online. With Adblock plus, You reclaim the web from advertisers, and see and download only what You want to. You can install Adblock plus from the page linked to in the beginning of this paragraph. After installation, restart Firefox, and configure your ad filters. You can get rid of ads that You do not like by right-clicking them and choosing Adblock item/image. Some flash videos, which do not allow a middle click, Adblock fixes by adding a small "Adblock" tag in their top corner. Clicking that gives you options on blocking the item.

Security with NoScript

A lot of web-browser exploits take advantage of the fact that any program code, or scripts embedded in a web page are run by Your web browser on entering a website. Poorly protected websites might use text provided to a webpage to generate content on the next page, without checking the text for malicious code. This allows what is known as a Cross Site Scripting (XSS) attack, where an attacker tricks a website into downloading a piece of malicious code, and the resulting malicious version of the web page is shown to the user. If the malicious code is for example a silent program that sends your keyboard strokes to a listener program, and the site is Your bank site, You can imagine what can happen. The Firefox NoScript add-on disables all scripts on all websites by default, and forces you to explicitly allow newly visited sites into a list of allowed scripting. It prevents XSS by default, simply by checking the address of scripts against the address of the current website. It also includes an unsafe mode where all scripting is allowed, which may for example be used to see if a non-functioning site was crippled by NoScript itself, for some reason.

Security and Perspectives

All sites that implement secure login use SSL these days. This means they use a certificate, issued by an authority that your web browser, or You, trust. These authorities do not give the certificates freely, but require fifty or more euros per year of certificate validity. This is why a lot of sites employ a self-signed certificate, which in effect says just that the site is certified by its author (and its author is not certified by anyone). While both officially certified and self-signed sites can be attacked with a man-in-the-middle attack, by a person showing you a non-secured, but secure-looking site, that is almost an exact replica of your bank site, social networking site, etc, there is one small difference: The attacker has not broken the original protection, he is just trying to trick you into not using it. The Firefox Perspectives add-on employs a bunch of computers storing a certificate history for a lot of websites. When You make a secure connection, Perspectives checks that the certificate has not been modified; that it is signed with a valid key. This helps in two ways:

1. You know that the site has not been tampered with
2. You don't get annoying warnings from sites signed with self-signed certificates, because perspectives remembers them.

The Perspectives add-on was developed by researches at the Carnegie Mellon University, and the download site also has a link to a white paper about it, if you are interested in its function.

Download Statusbar

If the separate download window ever annoyed You, this add-on is for You. The Download Statusbar Firefox add-on puts Your file downloads to the status bar, on the bottom of the Firefox window. No need to open a new window to see the downloads, they are shown in Your currently focused Firefox window.

Ubuntu Tweak

This should probably be in its own post, but I put it here for now. Ubuntu Tweak is a tool to automate adding the custom repositories and sofware to Ubuntu that make it surpass most Windows installations in Internet multimedia playing capabilities. Most of Windows users cannot play embedded MPEG or other movies/sounds on web sites, if they are a non-windows format. After Ubuntu Tweak, you will be able to play anything that Mplayer, Java and Adobe Flash can handle. With Wine and MozControl, you may be able to handle ActiveX / Windows only websites.

To start on the easy path to tweaking Ubuntu, download Ubuntu Tweak. Install it by double-clicking on the downloaded .deb. Then fire it up from Applications - System Tools - Ubuntu Tweak. Inside, you can click Applications to show a lot of extra applications to install. For playing all kinds of media such as movie files and dvds, click Third Party Sources, then Unlock (this may require your password) and Medibuntu, the last entry in the list. then click Refresh and click Add/Remove after the process is finished. Now, in Add/Remove, You should tick Ubuntu Restricted Extras for non-default media playing stuff, and Wine Microsoft Windows Compatibility Layer for Wine, the program that installs and runs Windows software (at least some of it). After clicking Apply, you should have flash video support with Flash 10 from Adobe, and be able to e.g., play Youtube videos. Java may not yet work at this point, so the Java test page may fail. If it does, we can set up Java by starting Synaptic from the System - Administration menu, and install the package called sun-java6-plugin. Then restart Firefox, and You should have Java. If You experience Java difficulties, try removing icedtea6-plugin with Synaptic. To finish up with Firefox media playing, install mozilla-mplayer from Synaptic, and restart Firefox. Here you can check the media player functionality.

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