Pentadactyl: A Fox on Fire

Screenshot of Pentadactyl

Pentadactyl. It's the only Firefox add-on you’ll ever need, and I'll be poking it with my spotlight in upcoming writings. "Then why haven’t I heard about it," you ask. "What does it do?"

The word “pentadactyl” refers to a limb having five fingers or toes, and it turns out it's a very suitable name (however frustrating to type). By bringing features and flexibility of Vim into Firefox, the add-on injects great power into the tips of such fingers.

It turns your keyboard into an enraged Superman; the mouse is the villain finally hanging by its tail, beaten and squeaking for mercy. Multi-touch trackpads enjoy the suspense from a safe distance, but the popcorn always runs out eventually, and they'll quietly wonder: "is this it—are we next?"

Doing a great job at this (which Pentadactyl does) has two particular side-effects originating in Vim. The first is a version of the interesting first-time experience. That lump of dislike and misunderstanding in your stomach. It has a hint of anger to it that may even cloud your judgement initially, making you prematurely disregard it.

It goes something like this.

First Encounters

It looks simple and innocuous. Trivial, even. You wonder why so many love it religiously, and why just as many consider it a compiled manifestation of Satan, but shrug this off as “one of those things”—like those people on GitHub who rather waterboard you over comma placement than thank you for a contribution.

You take it for a spin, and there’s a reaction. “What the flying fuck … what is this crap?! What did I just do? How do I make it stop? Please make it go away before I have a seizure!” You’re terrified. But you’re curious. And when you finally take the time to understand it, you realize why Gandalf wrote Vim.

That’s the gist of it, and my subtle heads up. Pentadactyl is much more forgiving than Vim, though. It’s also possible I exaggerated and it’s not that bad at all—I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Read the description. Try it for a week. Keep in mind that it’s extremely configurable (e.g., if it hides the URL bar, you can show it again with :set guioptions+=T). When you return here afterwards, I bet you’ll find a few Pentadactyl tips.

It takes a while to get used to this way of browsing, but it's worth it. These are a few everyday things it simplifies for my cat, Jackie, who loves how it lets him do everything from the keyboard.

Everyday Pentadactyl

Pentadactyl is not about simple keyboard shortcuts, but about modal browsing. In input mode, j and k prints letters, but in normal mode, they scroll up and down. We use h, j, k, and l for both scrolling, navigating history, and switching tabs.

We hit f to follow any link with a couple of keystrokes. The extended hint mode at ; lets us copy link text, add bookmarks, view source, and more. We use y to copy (yank) the current URL, and p to open (paste) from clipboard. ]] is a badass: it hunts down and follows "next page" links, and it's all configurable.

External Editing

Any input can be done in an external editor (useful for longer writing, or when Enter behaves like it's had too many beers), and it actually works. We often hit gF to view source in Vim, although Firefox does have a great built-in editor based on CodeMirror.

Running JavaScript

Pentadactyl has a fantastic :js (and :echo) command for executing JS, with full tab completion showing the results of function calls as you type. It's a great complement to Scratchpad for development, and (along with the dactyl global) makes it easy to compose plugins and commands.

Conclusion

Thanks to Pentadactyl, Jackie can now shorten and tweet the URL of every tab, run system commands, and restart his favorite browser—quickly with one paw.

Here it is. Here are the nighly builds. And here is an online version of its massive :help pages (with a great quickstart tutorial).

Now, are you wondering what the second side-effect is? You’ll notice. It’ll get more obvious with each year.

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