November 14th, 2009
I spend a lot of time dealing with problems users encounter when using Internet Explorer. As a result, when I write about add-ons, I’m usually talking about misbehaving code that is wrecking the browser. However, it’s not all doom-and-gloom out there, and I’m delighted to share my favorite browser add-on with you.
I first came across Ralph Hare’s work when perusing the IE add-on sample code at CodeProject. Ralph and I both liked mouse gestures and wished that Internet Explorer offered them. For those of you who have never used mouse gestures, basically, they allow you to trigger commands like back, forward, refresh, etc, without using the keyboard or clicking on toolbar buttons or menus. While not everyone wants to use mouse gestures, some of us find them incredibly compelling. This sweet spot makes gestures the sort of feature ripe for implementation as an add-on.
Fortunately for all of us, Ralph is a great developer and he put together a fantastic gestures add-on for IE which has evolved and improved a lot over the last six years. I’ve installed his add-on on every computer I’ve used since discovering it, and I now find it annoying to use browsers that don’t support gestures. It’s an ironic turn of events for me, since I’ve been a keyboard snob for over a decade. 🙂
What makes this add-on so great?
Respect for the User. The gestures add-on respects your existing browser settings, and does not attempt to change your default homepage, search provider, favorites, user-agent string, etc. There’s no junk (e.g. adware, unexpected toolbars, etc) bundled with it either.
Stability. I’ve tried out a lot of different add-ons over the years, but almost always end up uninstalling each after a few days because they’re unstable and result in occasional or frequent browser crashes. In contrast, Ralph has delivered a rock-solid implementation of gestures; the few bugs I’ve found have been fixed quickly and the updated versions are automatically offered using an automatic notification service.
Best Practices. Ralph’s code is compiled following best-practices for secure and stable add-ons, including linking with the /NXCOMPAT and /DYNAMICBASE flags to opt-in to DEP/NX and ASLR memory protections.
Performance. Many browser extensions are useful from time-to-time, but I’m not willing to suffer a performance penalty when not actively using an extension. For some types of extensions (menu extensions, toolbar buttons) this isn’t a problem, because the add-on code only loads when I actively use the add-on. However, an add-on like Mouse Gestures inherently needs to be available at all times, so high performance is an absolutely critical consideration.
Ralph’s Browser Helper Object (BHO) is written in native C++, and designed and coded for speed. After installing, check out the Load Time column inside the IE Tools > Manage Add-ons dialog:
As mentioned previously, the extension offers an auto-update mechanism, but Ralph ensures that this won’t hurt startup performance. He does so by running the check in a background thread, and waiting for about a minute after tab startup to kick off the webservice call. Ralph also sets the NoExplorer registry key to prevent his BHO from loading inside Windows Explorer.
Even the default configuration is optimized for performance: by default, mouse trails aren’t shown, and if a user wants them, they can choose between basic trails:
which work fine with all video cards, and the slightly fancier advanced trails:
which work best with higher-end hardware.
Cross-Version Support. Mouse Gestures is compiled in both 32-bit and 64-bit flavors (installed individually) making the gestures add-on one of the very few available for 64-bit IE. The add-on works in all versions of IE and I’ve personally used it on Windows XP, Server 2003, Vista, Server 2008, and Windows 7 without problems.
Ease-of-Installation. The 32bit and 64bit installers together weigh in just under 1 megabyte. The add-on is packaged using the same NSIS installer that I use to install Fiddler.
If you decide you don’t like the add-on, you can easily uninstall it using the Add/Remove Programs control panel.
Customizability and Power. You can customize its options using the Mouse Gestures… item added to the browser Tools menu. The configuration dialog allows you to assign gestures to built-in actions, define new gestures or actions, and change the appearance of mouse trails.
The most common gesture I use is Down,Right which by default is bound to the Close Tab action. I’ve also bound the Down,Up and Up,Down gestures to the Toggle FullScreen Mode action; this is slightly simpler than hunting for the F11 key on my small but beloved Lenovo X200.
If you’d like, you can bind any gesture to open any of your browser Favorites in the current tab, or a new foreground or background tab.
Price. Mouse Gestures add-on is clearly a labor of love, and Ralph makes it available for free. If you’d like, you can help defray his web hosting costs using the unobtrusive “Donate via Paypal” link buried at the bottom of his site.
If you’re willing to get hooked on a new way of interacting with your browser, give Ralph’s Mouse Gestures add-on a try, and join me in thanking Ralph Hare for his great work!