Cognitive Daily

A few days ago after downloading the latest beta version of the FireFox web browser, I posted what I thought was an innocuous complaint on Twitter: The software assumes you will always have multiple web pages open. Even if you’re only reading one web page, the browser puts it in a tab, thus taking up valuable screen real estate.

Immediately I started getting replies: “how can you work with just one tab? I’ve got 37 open now!” “Does anyone not use tabs anymore?” Actually, it’s not that I never use tabs, it’s that sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. But perhaps I’m the only one.

But still, it got me to thinking — is there a certain type of person who uses a lot of tabs? Does it have to do with how busy you are? Or maybe some other factor is involved. This week’s Casual Fridays study seeks to find out. We’ll ask you about tabs, some other online habits, and a bit about yourself. Maybe we’ll find out who uses the most tabs, and why.

Click here to participate

As usual, the survey is brief, with fewer than 20 questions. It should take just a 3-4 minutes to complete. You have until Thursday, December 18 to participate. There is no limit on the number of respondents. Then, don’t forget to come back next Friday for the results!


  1. #1 OmegaMom
    December 12, 2008

    I was totally befuddled by the “washing dishes” question and the list of people you recognize by name…

  2. #2 Chris Grimes
    December 12, 2008

    I feel my results might be a little off, because some of the answers largely depended on how long I’d been at the computer. Typically, the number of tabs builds up as I forget to close things, until finally I do a little housekeeping and close lots of things. At this time, however, I had just started the computer and this happened to be the first thing I read in Google Reader.

    Also, the question about “Did you open a tab to do this survey” is kind of moot because it opens in a new window, and I have firefox set to open new windows in tabs instead of new windows.

  3. #3 Ryan Fox
    December 12, 2008

    It sounds like you have the “Always show tab bar” option selected. If you deselect that, the tab bar should go away when you only have one tab open.

  4. #4 Andrew Watts
    December 12, 2008

    I didn’t want to answer Other on one of the questions, but I use a potentially equal mix of command-tab, Exposé, and Dock clicking to switch windows on a Mac. It depends on my mood, where the mouse is on the screen, where the windows are on the screen, etc.

    @Chris Grimes
    I’m using Firefox and it opened in a tab for me.

  5. #5 dave
    December 12, 2008

    “How much time do you spend online” is always a hard question to answer, since I spend a lot more time at an internet-connected computer than I spend actually *using* the internet connection.
    Also, if I have a browser window that has a dozen tabs open displaying documentation that’s stored locally, does that count as “tabs open while online”? (I didn’t count it.) What about the one with two dozen tabs of problems to look at eventually, that I occasionally update while online but only actually use while offline? (Didn’t count those either.)
    As far as actual active web browsing, my usual habits are to open a bunch of tabs grouped approximately by theme into two or three windows, then to close them as I read them (which often, but not always, happens when I’m not currently connected to a network, and almost always happens after I’ve stopped actively using the network connection).

  6. #6 6EQUJ5
    December 12, 2008

    The number of tabs for me varies from one to many, depending on how I opened them. Under the menu item ‘news’, I can open all of them in tabs by selecting ‘Open in Tabs’ at the bottom of the menu (in Safari), which is what I usually do. Then I go through the tabs, closing them as I finish with each.

  7. #7 Dave Munger
    December 12, 2008

    Ryan Fox:

    Maybe I’m just a dimwit, but I’m not seeing that option in Firefox 3.1 b2

    Omegamom: I do hope you’re joking, at least about the dishes.

    Chris Grimes/Ryan/Dave: Hopefully your individual variations should even out over hundreds of responses. For everyone who has fewer tabs open than usual, there should be someone else with more tabs than usual, etc.

  8. #8 MP
    December 12, 2008

    Are you sure you can’t make the tab bar hide when only one window is open? I don’t think I have the latest beta version, but in the version I do have (3.0.4 for Mac) you can go to preferences > tabs and uncheck “always show the tab bar” and that takes care of it. If that option is gone in the latest beta version, I agree with you that it should be reinstated.

  9. #9 Freiddie
    December 12, 2008

    I have a lot of things to do online, so I always have lots of tabs (but not as many as the “hardcore” tabbers). I also use tabs to keep track of things that are updated frequently (e.g. websites for homework; blogs; feed readers; twitter; calendars, etc.) or things that I need to attend to (e.g. CogDaily articles, Universe Today articles etc.). Therefore, I simply can’t live without tabs.

  10. #10 Rob W
    December 12, 2008

    @Dave: the option you’re looking for is in Option, “Tabs” section, second-to-last checkbox. I’m using b2 as well — this is the first version where that’s checked by default, though I hadn’t noticed it yet (and I’m not sure why they would change that… maybe just for interface consistency?).

    I also always have at least *some* tabs open, because it’s like a “to-read” list in my “reading” browser window. For example, in the morning I’ll open up the scienceblogs recent posts page, slashdot, NY Times, etc., and quickly pop open into new tabs the articles that look interesting. Then I read them on and off during the day (when I’m not working) and close them as I’m done — or leave them open if I’m following a comment thread… so some tabs stay open for days.

    Likewise with work-related tabs — like a to-do list, and I may have a reference open for a few days until I’ve completed that task that uses it; many tabs also act like reminders.

    These are relatively-recent, Firefox dependent habits — once they made the browser crash-proof (i.e., tabs and often form contents are rescued if the browser crashes upon relaunch) and gave me the option of reopening the same tabs when I restart in the morning, I’ve been doing it this way.

  11. #11 Dave Munger
    December 12, 2008

    MP/Rob W/Ryan: You’re right, I’m an idiot. How did I not notice that preference pane?

  12. #12 Matthew Platte
    December 12, 2008

    Uh, recognizing at least one of those names may be due one’s willingness to learn the name in order to avoid all future contact. Much like Poison Ivy.

  13. #13 Richard Fall
    December 12, 2008

    Whether I use tabs or not depends on what I’m doing at the time. If I’m on for a quick Google search, a single window will do, and tabs just take up screen real estate.

    If I’m on for hours, going back and forth between sites, I will use tabs like a fiend, since, IMHO, they’re easier to navigate with.

    For these reasons, I prefer a browser (unlike IE), which doesn’t show tabs if only one window is open with one URL entered. Like Safari and FireFox.

    Keeping track of tabs is just oh such much easier than trying to find that one window, hidden somewhere back there, that has the page I’m looking for.

  14. #14 Lambert
    December 12, 2008

    If your really want all the real estate you can get, regardless of how many tabs you have open just press F11 for the full screen mode – not sure if this applies to Macs too, but I can check.

  15. #15 Steve
    December 12, 2008

    I open the most tabs when reading news. News reading is something I do every day, and I don’t like to waste much time on it. So I go to the one or two online newspapers I read daily, and scroll through the main page, and open up each story that I want to skim in a new tab. Once I have all the stories I want to read in tabs (maybe up to 15) then I go through them one by one and read. Some I won’t get much beyond the first paragraph, others I’ll read the whole thing carefully. Most are somewhere in between these extremes. I close each tab as I read the story.

    I also use tabs for google searches. Each search item that I want to inspect gets opened in a new tab.

    I use Chrome or Firefox – IE lost me when they took too long to get tabbed browsing.

  16. #16 Adrian Morgan
    December 12, 2008

    The survey asks for more quantitative data than I am willing or able to provide, but I am willing to describe my habits qualitatively.

    For most links, I do not start a new tab. I start a new tab only when I have not finished with the previous page. I close tabs when I have finished with them.

    When I read Scienceblogs, I typically starting a new tab for each Scienceblog I wish to read, and then go through the tabs from left and right and close the ones that don’t have anything new and shiny. For each Scienceblog that’s still open, I may or may not open a new tab for each new post, depending.

    So the number of tabs I have open at any given time is usually low (let’s say 1-4) but with high peaks (but not as high as 37, unless perhaps I’m trying to choose my favourite image from a gallery or something).

  17. #17 Ed Zwart
    December 12, 2008

    Rob and Steve both describe my most common method of opening a lot of tabs: as a todo or to-read list.

    Browsers now prompt you (unless you tell them not to) when you close them, asking if you want to save your current set of open tabs. I rely on this a lot, since I often have stuff “in the queue” still when I need to shut down.

  18. #18 Craig Overend
    December 12, 2008

    I just opened this in a tab from my news reader so as not to interrupt the flow or suffer the delay of having to reload it. I middle-button click everything to open in the background (not having to wait for them to load) and also close tabs with the middle-button. When reading news I usually have more tabs open than firefox lets me see, so I change the minimum tab width default to see more, often relying on the favicon to know what the tab is about. I then systematically go through the tabs and close them after I’ve been through a news folder.
    To get extra screen real estate I install the tinymenu extenstion and then customize everything to one toolbar, moving the search box, URL, navigation buttons, bookmarks (a folder with no name), all next to the now, tiny menu. Then I hide the bookmarks and navigation toolbar and get extra space!
    I also use the faviconize tab addon for sites I want to check back on the next day, so in the mean time they don’t take up too much space.
    Sometimes I think I’m trying to do to much. 🙂

  19. #19 Donna B.
    December 13, 2008

    I solved my screen real estate problem with a 2nd monitor. I am totally addicted to it. I answered the question as if I only had one monitor, choosing the larger of the two. If I’d added them together, it would have been the “larger than that” question.

  20. #20 John Morales
    December 13, 2008

    I just took that survey, but it seems to assume I have a mobile phone. I don’t.

  21. #21 Dave Munger
    December 13, 2008

    John Morales: We’re usually pretty careful about that sort of thing. I looked over the survey again and it is possible to answer all the questions if you don’t have a mobile phone. You would just say “never” to questions like “indicate how frequently you drive while talking on the phone.” We’re very interested in your demographic, actually — unfortunately it’s shrinking quite fast. Even Greta finally broke down and got a mobile phone a few months ago (although she rarely carries it with her).

  22. #22 Ayshela
    December 13, 2008

    One question which *wasn’t* asked was “how many browsers do you (usually) have open?”
    I often have both firefox and IE open, usually open to the same site checking how pages load in both. I KNOW I’m not the only one who does that, though maybe that’s a question for a future casual friday? =)

    “How many tabs” varies widely for me, also. And like most of the commenters, I use tabs to open a link I want to follow without losing the page I’m on that I’m not done with yet. Generally the last link I want to follow opens in the current tab, unless I need to do something else right then so THAT gets opened in the current tab. I don’t usually have more than twelve open at a time, though, because several of them tend to be quick-check jobs, then closed.

    Personally, tabs were one of the few additions to browsers to seriously make my life easier. I hated having a dozen different browser windows open, with all the memory usage that entailed. Tabs are faster and far more efficient.

  23. #23 Promet
    December 13, 2008

    Like our friend Lambert there, I wholeheartedly suggest the “F11” key for switching back and forth between fullscreen and standard view.

    My name is promet, and I’m a Tab junky. I’ll be under the impression that I’m being tab frugal, then look up after a furious bout of surfing and find I’ve effortlessly generated 10 – 20 tabs without even noticing.

    But…the F11 key allows you to instantly capitalize on your current tab with max real estate and the switch is nearly instant on my Firefox install (Ubuntu 8.10), so I am a happy Tab-Camper…

  24. #24 Steve
    December 13, 2008

    Craig pointed out the other really good reason to use tabs – you can open a bunch of stuff up, so that you are loading pages while reading other pages, and never waiting on a page.

    And this is counter-intuitively an advantage for fast connections as much as slow connections. If you have a fast connection, then you have very high expectations. And so it is frustrating when a webpage doesn’t load instantly, which it often doesn’t because of proxy servers (such as the dodgy one my ISP uses) taking their time, or else the source site is busily fielding other requests so it takes a moment or two to load up for you.

    I’m so accustomed to speed that I consider it an advantage to not have the minor annoyance of waiting 4 seconds for a page to load … because i am loading it in a tab while reading something else.

  25. #25 Stentor
    December 13, 2008

    The questions were a little inconsistent between asking what I’m doing right now (at work, Safari on a Mac) and what I usually do (at home, Firefox on a PC).

    I’m a big tab luddite. I spend a lot of time switching between applications using the task bar, so I like to have all my web pages (2-6 at a time) open in separate windows so I can easily jump straight to the one I want. The only time I ever use tabs is when I’m opening a huge number of similar pages that would seriously clutter my task bar.

  26. #26 JM
    December 15, 2008

    Multiple Browsers?

    I was surprised there wasn’t a question about multiple browsers on there.

    Typically I have three browsers open at a time, with multiple tabs in each. IE, Chrome, & Firefox.

    IE is required by several sites we use at the office, I typically have 2-3 tabs open there with these sites open.

    I use Chrome primarily for my general browsing because it’s just so damn fast.

    And I use Frefox for sites that either don’t work quite right in Chrome, or have way too many ads for my liking.
    And also just end up generally browsing in Firefox & Chrome and having piles of tabs open in each.

  27. #27 JIA
    December 15, 2008

    I’m not in the “no mobile phone” category, but close: I do most of my Internet use at work, where we are still using IE 6, which doesn’t allow tabbed browsing. (And needless to say, we’re not allowed to install any software ourselves.) I didn’t feel that the survey really took that scenario into account, so I didn’t fill it out. I certainly use tabs at home, where I have Firefox installed.

  28. #28 fivekitten
    December 16, 2008

    I am a tab addict. I do freelance writing and usually have a zillion tabs open at a time for research. The only reason I have only five open now is because my coffee hasn’t gone through my body and I’m not awake yet.

    Another tab hogging activity that I participate in frequently is loading educational games for my daughter (she’s homeschooled) – I open a lot of tabs so one can load while the other is being used, and so she can hop from game to game. Opening another window annoys me. But sometimes I have one window open for personal stuff, and another for work.

    Then there’s loading videos – I’m on satellite so I have to basically wait until a video “downloads” then watch it. So if we’re on YouTube I’ll open different tabs so one video can download and we can watch a different one.

    But here’s a major question –

    WHY ISN’T OPERA IN THE LIST OF BROWSERS???? I love Opera – and it’s a heck of a lot faster than Firefox or Chrome. I would think it’s popular enough to put on the list. Sniff. Sniff. I feel so neglected.

  29. #29 marilove
    December 17, 2008

    I’m at work, which uses an older version of IE that does not have tabs (and I cannot install Firefox on this machine, sadly), so I answered the questions pretending I was at home, where I use FireFox and would likely have at least half a dozen tabs ore more open.

    I used to use IE to watch NetFlix movies, but no longer! Netflix now works on Firefox woot!

  30. #30 Joomlatka
    December 24, 2008

    I also use tabs for google searches, too. Each search item that I want to inspect gets opened in a new tab.

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