The new Minimap Sidebar extension for Firefox is, without a doubt, one of the coolest web browser extensions I’ve seen in a while. It’s probably not something you’ll use every day, or maybe every week, but after trying it out for a couple days, I have to admit it’s come in very handy a couple of times, and will definitely stay installed after I’m done reviewing it.
The Minimap Sidebar is a simple idea executed amazingly well. It also has a ton of features (more than I could hope to go over in a fairly short review like this), so if you want a full list, head to the extension’s entry on the Mozilla Add-ons page.
Once installed, the Minimap Sidebar places a new icon in your Firefox toolbar, just to the left of the URL. There are three options you can access by clicking on it, a sidebar, a map tab and a map preview overlay. The first, the sidebar, is according to the developers the “main” interface, and the most powerful of the three, and it’s hard to argue. You can access this via a keyboard shortcut, by clicking directly on the toolbar icon, or choosing it from the pop-up menu that appears when clicking the little upside-down triangle to the right of the icon.
When the sidebar is visible, you can drag any address you find on a website into the drop zone, and the Minimap Sidebar will automatically search for it and display a map of the address. Any address that is highlighted when the sidebar is activated will also be automatically found and mapped.
Beyond a simple map, with its zoom in or out features, Minimap Sidebar also includes some powerful viewing tools. You can use any one of a number of interfaces, from Google Maps (road, satellite, terrain and hybrid maps are all available), Google Earth, OpenStreetMap and OSMarender. There is also an option to overlay traffic info or to use Yahoo’s Fire Eagle location service. You can also perform Google searches right from the map, with results that are tailored to the area depicted in the map. And like most mapping utilities, you have the ability to get directions, using Google, Yahoo or Microsoft directions.
As you enter maps into the sidebar, you’ll notice they are saved, so any time you want to go back to a previously viewed map, the process is as simple as clicking a link in the list and the map will appear. No need to retype anything. In the preferences, you’ll find a couple other nice features as well, such as the ability to set your home location (both latitude/longitude coordinates as well as street address), plus the option to make visible (or invisible), Google Sightseeing markers, GeoDiscovery or a contextual menu. The contextual menu is nice as well, as you can now right-click an address on a website and see it mapped with just a click.
I mentioned at the top that there are three “interfaces” to the Minimap Sidebar. The sidebar is the first, with the map tab and preview overlay the other two. I won’t go into too much detail about the map tab, as in reality it is identical to the sidebar, except in size. Where the sidebar only takes up a small amount of screen real estate, the map tab will fill up the entire width of your web browser window, and is perfect for viewing larger maps, or for greater detail when zoomed all the way in.
The preview overlay is pretty nice as well. Simply choose that option from the toolbar icon’s menu and a little window pops up. Type or paste in an address, and hit the OK key. A translucent window will appear, with that address already mapped. You can view the address in Google, Yahoo or Microsoft Maps, or for more features have the address placed in the sidebar or a new map tab. Tagzania, Upcoming.org, Geody, Panoramio, GeoNames and Flick integration are also available, so you can see places, events and pictures taken at or near that address.
As I mentioned, there are a host of features and options I haven’t touched on, but suffice it to say, Minimap Sidebar is not lacking in tools. It’s great for getting a quick set of driving directions, or just seeing what all is nearby. It’s fast, easy to use, and as a sidebar, can easily be minimized so that it’s out of the way when you don’t want it. For such a new program, I’m completely impressed. If you have a need for the occasional map or directions, I’d highly recommend installing it.