clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

I have 227 browser tabs open, and my computer runs fine. Here’s my secret.

A primitive browser.
A primitive browser.

Most people do not care much about web browsers. Most people aren't even aware they are using one. Whichever web browser happened to be installed on their computer when they got it is "the internet." They don't mess with the settings or customize it — at most, they bookmark a few pages.

For a small minority, however, browsers are everything. Take me (please). I spend something like 75 percent of my waking hours looking at a web browsers — for work, entertainment, shopping, planning — and over the years I've spent countless hours fiddling with them. More hours than is strictly healthy.

So many tabs

If you're a semi-professional web browser, you probably make heavy use of tabs. In my case, it's become something of a pathology. I currently have 227 tabs open. No, that's not a typo.

Most people never get near that level of crazy, but you don't have to have many tabs open before you start running into trouble: the browser starts eating up memory, everything slows down, tabs get so scrunched together you can't see them ... it's a mess. This is Google Chrome with 20 tabs open:

20 tabs open in Chrome.

It's difficult to locate anything in that logjam, at least with a quick visual scan. It usually involves an extra movement or click, which, when you do it dozens of times a day, adds up.

Browsers, as they come "out of the box," are not designed with heavy tab users in mind. So they must be customized.

The essential tweak: vertical tabs

One browser modification is critical for me. I couldn't do my job without it. I'm talking about vertical tabs.

Almost all computer monitors these days are widescreen. Vertical space is at a premium, while there are wide areas off to the side of your browser that go unused. So why not move the tabs over there?

You can fit far more tabs on the tab bar, you can read their titles clearly even when there's a lot of them, and you have more vertical space in the main browser window for reading. Here's how my browser, Mozilla Firefox, looks with the same 20 tabs open:

20 tabs open in Firefox.

The titles of all the tabs are clearly visible, and there's more vertical space in the main window to see #content. Win.

Here's the problem: vertical tabs are available only in Firefox.

In Chrome, Safari, and Internet Explorer, horizontal tabs are hard-coded. There's no API for programmers to change it. I've even appealed to Chrome developers directly and been told that they're not going to do it because heavy tab users are a tiny fraction of their user base. Hmph. (If anyone knows otherwise, let me know.)

The simplest implementation in Firefox is an extension called, appropriately enough, Vertical Tabs. (Warning: looks like it's not being actively developed anymore.) A more powerful and multifunctional version can be found in Tree-Style Tabs, which will display tabs in a vertical list that can be nested, like folders in Finder or Windows Explorer. I've been using it for over a decade.

Here's how Firefox looks with some of those 20 tabs nested:

20 tabs open in Firefox, some nested. (You can collapse those folder trees.)

For Firefox, I also use Tab Mix Plus, which adds a few features that Tree-Style Tabs doesn't, including little ones I've found indispensable — e.g., you can set it so that when you close a tab, you hop back automatically to the last tab you had in focus, no matter where it is on the tab bar.

With this combination of extensions you can color-code tabs, pin certain tabs to the bar so they're always open, group tabs by subject or frequency of use, and more, depending on your tolerance for fiddling.

Lesser alternatives for Chrome

OneTab with 20 tabs.

If you are attached to Chrome, there are some suboptimal alternatives. There's the popular OneTab, which will suck all your open tabs into a list displayed in a single tab. You can reopen some or all of them later. (It also unloads open tabs from memory — more on that later.)

There's Tab Outliner, which creates a separate sidebar window with a vertical (and nestable) tab list in it. There's Tab Manager, which does something similar to OneTab. And there are likely others.

None of these work for me, because I need everything visible at all times. If tabs are absent from my field of vision, they're gone from my memory banks. (My wife jokes that I lack object permanence.) That's why bookmarks and save-for-later services like Pocket don't work for me. I save stuff ... but I never go back to it. For better or worse, I need all my current research within eyesight. That's what vertical tabs give me. YMMV.

How to keep tabs from slowing down your browser

If you keep more than a few tabs open at the same time, it eats up your computer's memory and makes everything, especially the browser itself, run slower. Sometimes it will crash the browser.

To avoid this, you need some way of keeping tabs visible but unloading the ones you aren't using from active memory. Then, when you click on the tab, it reloads from scratch.

the great suspender
The Great Suspender, having suspended.

There are lots of extensions that will do this for you. In Firefox, I use BarTab Lite X. For Chrome, there's the Great Suspender. There are other options for both browsers, but you need one installed if you typically have more than five tabs open at a time.

One last trick: saving groups of tabs

Sometimes you've opened a bunch of tabs while researching a particular subject, and you want to save that particular group of tabs for future reference. You can do that in Firefox with Session Manager, which saves and manages groups of tabs. (There's also a Session Manager for Chrome.)

One side benefit of Session Manager is that it saves a list of your closed tabs, accessible via toolbar button, so if you close a tab accidentally you can recover it quickly.

Oh, Master, make me chaste and celibate — but not yet!

I often think of Augustine's famous prayer while browsing the web. The best solution to tab addiction is probably to tame it with tab discipline — to make a habit of closing tabs and find a better way to keep track of research. (The same is true of my everything-in-the-inbox-forever method of email management.)

It sounds good, but repeated efforts over the years have failed. At this point, I've been internet-ing for so long that my habits are set. It's tabs for me, for better or worse.

Might as well do it right.

Vox featured video: What I learned by befriending Iranians on Facebook