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Scott's Column
Firefox & HD DVR Part II

January 1, 2005
By Scott Lewis

This month I want to take a look at Firefox. I also have some new information on the HD DVR (that provides my HDTV) from last month. Since I have a lot to tell you about Firefox I will start with the update on my HD DVR (Scientific Atlanta's Explorer 8000HD). 

HD DVR Part II

A couple of days after posting last month's article on the bastard box (read last month's article to know why I call it the bastard box) the box froze up. I had seen this a couple of times before, so I predicted a reboot was about to happen. Sure enough while my son and I were watching a show the bastard box did not let me down. It reboot. I figured we would be able to go back to the show we were watching in a minute or two.

Alas, something different happened. The bastard box started downloading a software update. It said it would take several minutes. So we started watching a DVD. About 10 minutes later the box was done doing its update. We switch back to the bastard box and finished watching our show without any issues.

However, I noticed a new option when we came to the end of watching a previously recorded show. The normal options are to play from the beginning, erase, skip to end, etc. The new item to note was an option to "Copy to VCR." I don't know how it would copy the show to a VCR except to play it while a VCR is connected. Since I don't have a VCR connected to the bastard box I didn't give it another thought.

I did, however, want to see if there was a new option for recording shows. As you will recall from last month my biggest gripe is that I can't select a show to record every week at the same time. I picked a show at random from the guide and selected it. I went to the screen to select whether to record "One Episode" or "All Episodes." Nothing new. I guess they didn't add a "weekly" recording.

I did come across one new feature that I complained about last month. The bastard box finally shows how much space is left on its hard drive to record shows. This is extremely important so you know to clear programs before the box gets full.

Then the box died. Yes, died. I don't know why, but two days after it updated itself it just turned itself off and would not even power on. I had to take it back to Time Warner for a replacement. This is one of those times when I am glad I am paying for the service to provide a cable box. If this was a purchased box and out of warrantee I would be up the creek without a paddle. At least Time Warner is nice about swapping out equipment. I just hope this is not a trend to have to replace the bastard box every month or so.

New HD DVR

They gave me a newer model. I now have the Explorer 8300HD, which has a 160 GB hard drive, twice what the 8000HD had. When I plugged it in I pulled out my spreadsheet with all the shows I watch. I am now very glad I keep this spreadsheet. (As you may know from last month I maintain a spreadsheet with all the shows I regularly record, because the bastard box does not allow weekly programming.)

I added a few programs to the schedule and all was as expected. However, some times I was thrown out of the guide when I confirmed the recording. I was always returned to the guide in the past. I also noticed that the "click sequence" had changed. I HAD to use the A button to confirm a one time recording. I did not need to do this on the previous box unless I went into the options for recording.

When I came to the first show that I normally set to record "All Episodes" I saw something new. After I confirmed I wanted to record "Joey" for All Episodes I was shown a new screen with two options. The first option was to record every instance at every time, and the second was to record every instance at this time slot.

Hallelujah, I can record shows weekly. I went into the guide and started looking for the shows that I already put in so I could change them. I "edited" a show to change it from a One Episode recording to an All Episode recording with the new weekly option. After making the final choice to record the show every week I was thrown out of the guide... again. Next, I tried canceling the recording of shows, so I could start over. Nope, canceling the recording of a show also throws you out of the guide. This is annoying when you have to keep navigating the guide to program shows.

Eventually I was able to determine a pattern. Editing or canceling a show you have previously set to record throws you out of the guide. Also, if you choose the option to record All Episodes AND follow through with the option to record every instance at any time you will also leave the guide... without warning. The bastard.

So... the bastard box has taken care of two of my biggest gripes. 1) Weekly recording. Thank heavens! 2) Space left for recording new shows. All is not golden, as after a few weeks of using this box I have discovered that when you tell it to record all episodes at this time slot, that does not take days into account. So, Teen Titans still records seven days a week. Oops, not perfect, but I can live with it.

The downside is that the interface is a little worse than before. However, since I don't have to keep using the guide every week to record the same shows over and over I will have to spend far less time with the bad interface. I can live with it.

Now if they could just put some kind of search feature in that I could criticize.

Firefox

I have been patiently waiting for the arrival of Firefox, the official 1.0 release of the open source web browser. I have read a lot of information that says you should switch... if for security reason alone. But I wanted to wait until the final release. I didn't want my opinion tainted because of small bugs in the pre-release versions.

I am only writing about it now because I wanted to spend some time with it. I downloaded it and have been using it side-by-side with Internet Explorer for an entire month. I can tell you that it is reasonable to switch and use Firefox as your default browser. That means that it is good enough that even though it has some quirks (or differences from IE, depending on how you look at it) it is just as good or better than IE.

I will save the "which is better" answer for the end. In the mean time I will list all the "issues" I have with Firefox.

The Bad

Actually a few of the items listed here have good points, it is just that to get the bad you have to read it all.

  • When I installed Firefox I let it import all my Favorites and all the other baggage from IE. This worked excellent for web sites that I have passwords with. I didn't have to re-enter any information on any sites. However, when I tried to organize my bookmarks like I do in IE, by dragging them around in the list, I could not. I was forced to go into the Manage Bookmarks utility just to arrange the order they would appear. Also, bookmarks do not have an equivalent to IE's "Personalized Favorites Menu." This will let IE hide web sites you have not visited in a while similar to the way Word and Excel hide menu options you don't use much. I really like this feature of IE. Sorry Firefox.
  • When I viewed my own site it was identical in appearance between the two browsers. However, when I visited Byte's web site the body text was smaller than in IE. In fact it was too small to read comfortably. I had to increase the font size to read the page. Since this is a global setting all other sites became too large. I don't know what it is about Byte that Firefox doesn't like. I have to remember to reset the size when I leave Byte. This is mildly annoying. On the flip side, you can shrink or grow text to sizes that are ridiculously small or large. IE only has 5 sizes. Maybe I shouldn't complain. And I just stopped subscribing to Byte, so maybe this is a moot point.
  • When mousing over the back and forward buttons it does not highlight the arrow buttons. These are the little buttons with arrows that when clicked show you a small history of pages you can choose to go back to (or forward as the case may be). Firefox only highlights the main button, IE highlights the main button and its arrow together with a line between them so it is clear where to click if you want the list. Yea, I known... I am really nit-picking on this one. On the plus side, Firefox displays up to 15 items in the "back list" as opposed to IE's 9. Maybe this is a tie.
  • An internal web page we use at work to send pages (beepers) to each other in IT does not work with Firefox. This is more a problem of building a web page that must be IE specific than anything else, but it does count slightly against Firefox.
  • I visited my own web site the day after I uploaded the December changes. Firefox displayed the November pages for a couple of my columns. I thought that I didn't check the upload from the night before. However, I found that if I refreshed the pages the December pages would display. I don't like this. I am all for caching pages and page elements to speed browsing, but not if it is going to miss changes to the pages. I tried looking for a setting in its options to adjust when it will or will not refer to the cache for pages. But there wasn't an option except to try setting the cache to a size of 0 (zero). Sorry, this one goes to Microsoft and Internet Explorer.
  • When I look at Collector Car Trader I don't like the jumpy way it draws the pages. I believe it is doing it faster than IE, but when I hit the back button from looking at a detail page the listing page starts off showing the top of the listing page, and then drops me where I was when the page is completely drawn. This is much smoother in IE, even if IE is not as fast. This has become a large problem. I am finding this method of drawing complicated screens to be too frustrating with slow sights, or pages that are very complex. If I can't see the page properly, though in pieces, I would rather wait and see it later. This may actually become a deal breaker for me.
  • Saving pictures brings up a download manager thing. A minor point, but it seems odd that it would think that saving a picture from a web page counts as a download. This too is becoming an annoying "feature" that I don't like.
  • When visiting Gentle Touch Motor Cars they have pages for the cars. If you click on the main picture to enlarge it Firefox wants to launch it as an application. IE just launches the picture. Oops. I think this is because the link does not have an extension, and this confuses Firefox.

The Good

  • There is a Google search box right in the main address/toolbar. Since I use Google as my search engine of choice this is an excellent feature. I am sure that Google's toobar for IE will do this, but the fact that it is so nicely integrated in Firefox is a plus.
  • Tabbed Browsing. I remember trying this a long time ago with Opera and did not like it. I actually preferred the separate Windows of IE. I found it easier to navigate around using the task bar to go from IE window to IE window. However, Firefox seems to make tabbed browsing easier. It has been too long since I tried Opera (many years) that I can't say why I like it now, but the tabbed windows in Firefox work great. I also like that you are never tied to it. Anytime you right-click on a link you can choose to open it in a new window or a new tab. Of course, left clicking just opens it in the current tab or window. This is smooth and excellent. I like it so much that I usually put my own links page in a tab right away and leave it there for quick(er) reference. It is even better than having it in my favorites, since it is loaded all the time.
  • Overall Firefox seems a good deal faster than IE. If I am visiting a site that is speedy, it is even more so with Firefox. However, slow sites (like Forbes.com) are still slow. A browser can't change that. Pages scroll more quickly in Firefox than IE when I use my scroll wheel. And by faster... it is easier to follow with the eye as well as faster in motion. It is not jumpy, just faster. I like it a lot, especially on older computers computers.
  • It seems that Firefox does a better job of displaying a page a little at a time. If a page has a lot of objects, it seems to start displaying stuff sooner than in IE. However, this is a double edge sword, because of the problem above with displaying pages in an awkward way.
  • When saving pictures from the web Firefox defaults to saving to the last directory you saved a picture too. This is wonderful. IE defaults to its own lame directory every time you restart IE. With the amount of picture saving I do this is a huge improvement in usability, even if it does keep popping up a download manager thing.

Overall

Speed goes to Firefox... hands down. It is leaner than IE. It seems to load faster than IE, and displays many pages quicker. I like it.

The big question is whether I would switch to it permanently. Alas, I cannot not use it exclusively as I have found some web pages that it does not work with. So I can't give it a complete recommendation to make the switch. However, I think it is feasible to make it your default browser. Just keep IE around for when you need it. Hopefully that will be less of an issue as more and more web sites figure out that they don't work with Firefox.

As a final note, I really like the simple look of Firefox. I remember downloading earlier versions of Mozilla, when it looked like Netscape. I hated it. It was too busy looking. Firefox is very simple looking and easy to use. It is better than IE in this regard. I used to like that IE was easier than Netscape/Mozilla, but Firefox did it right.

Conclusion

Firefox is a winner, but you need to keep IE around just in case.

Until next time...

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