Taming Tab Hell with Tabli

This article is a brief introduction to Tabli, a free tab manager extension for Google Chrome. In this article I use Coronavirus information as an example topic to illustrate Tabli’s features. My purpose in writing this now— and in using Coronavirus-related sites as an example — is to show researchers, journalists and others how Tabli can help with a challenge many of us are struggling with these days: staying focused, organized and productive while sifting through an overwhelming amount of new information available online.

The Problem: Tab Hell

If you use the Web regularly, and especially if you use the Web for research, you probably already use browser tabs as part of your workflow. Tabs are essential when doing research since they allow you to open a link with minimal disruption while reading something else. However, unless you have super-human self-discipline, the top of your web browser probably looks something like this:

Tab Hell

In this state, there are so many open tabs that you can no longer even read their titles. I call this “Tab Hell.”

Tab Hell arises in part because tabs are laid out horizontally, and in part because it’s easier to open a new tab than to decide whether to close an existing one.

Once you’re in Tab Hell, the situation quickly compounds itself. Even if you know that some site you want to visit is already open in your browser somewhere, it is usually quicker to just open another new tab, making Tab Hell slightly worse. And so on.

The Solution: Tabli

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To cope with Tab Hell, I created Tabli. I started development of Tabli in 2014 and have continued to maintain it as a labor-of-love hobby side project.

At its core, Tabli makes it easy see open windows and tabs and switch between them.

But Tabli is more than a simple tab switcher. Tabli is also my ongoing attempt to unify the concepts of bookmarks and tabs into a single user interface. Before Tabli, my bookmarks were largely a disorganized mess of links accumulated over decades for sites I no longer wanted to revisit. I wanted to make bookmarks a little less of a write-only medium, and connect them with browser windows when doing topic-oriented research. Saved tabs in Tabli serve a similar role to bookmarks, but are easier to organize, find, open and maintain.

Instructions on how to install Tabli are at the end of this article. If you are eager (or impatient) you can go ahead and install Tabli now by visiting the Tabli page on the Chrome Web Store.

Tabli Basics

Once added to Chrome, Tabli is accessed by clicking the Tabli icon on the Chrome toolbar. At its most basic, you can use Tabli to see all open tabs and switch between them using the mouse:

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Basic Tab Switching with Tabli

Getting the Most out of Tabli

Keyboard Shortcuts and Incremental Search

In addition to mouse navigation, almost all Tabli functionality can be accessed from the keyboard. The Tabli popup can be activated through a keyboard shortcut in Chrome. By default this is Ctrl+. (hold the control key and press the period key), but you can set this to whatever you like by opening the URL chrome://extensions/shortcuts.

Tabli supports a powerful incremental search capability, allowing you to search through open windows and tabs based on their titles and URLs. Usually typing just a few letters is sufficient to narrow your search to the tab you want.

Here is an example of using just keyboard navigation and incremental search to switch from the current tab to an open tab for the New York Times. The overlay shows the sequence of keys pressed:

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Keyboard Navigation and Incremental Search

The Tabli Popout Window

You can use Tabli within Chrome, or you can use the Tabli popout, which I personally find more useful. The Tabli popout is a standalone window on your desktop. The popout provides all of Tabli’s functionality, with details like window and tab titles updated in real-time as you browse. Here is an example showing how to open the Tabli popout and use it to perform a few actions:

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The Tabli Popout

Saved Windows and Tabs

One of Tabli’s most powerful features is saved windows, which allow you to save collections of tabs within a window and give them a meaningful name. To save a window, make sure the window has just the tabs you want to save, and click the checkbox next to the window title. For example, to start collecting research on Coronavirus, I started with a window with tabs from two reputable sources: The main pages on Coronavirus from the World Health Organization (WHO) and the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC):

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Saving Windows and Tabs

Saving and Unsaving Tabs

Once a window has been saved, you can add a tab to the set of saved tabs by clicking the checkbox next to it. Unsaving a tab works analogously: Remove a tab from the saved set by clicking the checkmark next to it.

Reverting Saved Windows

Tabli provides a revert button in each saved window header that lets you quickly close ephemeral (unsaved) tabs and restore a window to just its saved tabs.

This example shows saving a single tab and then using the revert button to discard all but the saved tabs in the window:

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Reverting a Saved Window

Restoring Saved Windows

As the name suggests, saved windows (and their tabs) persist even after a browser window is closed. After closing a saved window, it will appear in the “Saved Closed Windows” section in Tabli.

Saved windows can be restored by clicking on the window header in Tabli. However, Tabli has another feature that is helpful as the number of saved tabs in a saved window begins to grow: You can expand a closed, saved window in Tabli, and then select just a single tab to open when restoring the saved window:

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Closing a Saved Window and Restoring One Tab

In the above example, after the single tab from the saved window is restored, the two other saved tabs appear in the tab list with a grayed out appearance to indicate they are not currently open. They can be re-opened with a single click.

Saved Tabs are Bookmarks

You may have noticed that Tabli’s saved tabs are a lot like Chrome’s bookmarks. In fact, Tabli stores saved tabs as bookmarks, and saved windows as bookmark folders. These can be found in the “Tabli Saved Windows” folder under “Other Bookmarks” in Chrome’s bookmark manager:

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Tabli Saved Windows

A Saved Window Pro Tip

I use saved windows liberally. In addition to using saved windows for research topics, I also have a saved window with a single saved tab for my web-based email and for each social media site. This makes it fast and easy to close tabs that accumulate when browsing links from email or social media using Tabli’s revert feature.

Other Tabli Features

This article covered most of Tabli, but Tabli also has a few additional features worth mentioning briefly:

  • Tabli supports a limited form of tab deduplication. If you try to open two tabs with the same URL, it will automatically switch to the existing one. This can also be disabled.
  • When a tab is playing audio, Tabli displays an audio icon next to the title. The icon can be used to mute or unmute the tab.
  • Tabli automatically integrates with The Great Suspender, another excellent Chrome extension that puts tabs in a suspended state that saves memory and CPU when they haven’t been used in a while. Tabli shows the correct favicon and title of suspended tabs, and indicates tabs that have been suspended with a little 💤 emoji next to the tab title.
  • Tabli supports a Dark Mode theme.
  • You can copy a summary of open windows and tabs and paste them into a table in markdown format (through the menu item Copy Window Summary).
  • You can use drag-and-drop in the Tabli window to re-order tabs and move tabs between windows.

Many of the above are available via Preferences from the Tabli menu (☰).

Ready to Give Tabli a Try?

  1. Go to the Tabli page on the Chrome Web Store.
  2. Click the “Add to Chrome” button, and then click the “Add Extension” button to acknowledge the permissions dialog. Tabli needs the requested permissions — access to Chrome tabs, browsing history and bookmarks — to do its job. To address privacy concerns, Tabli adheres to a simple, strict, user-focused privacy policy: It runs entirely in your browser, and does not send any information whatsoever to any external application or web service. The source code is freely available on github, enabling any interested software developer to verify this claim.
  3. Once Tabli is installed, click the Tabli icon on your toolbar to see all your open windows and tabs and switch between them. The icon will appear on the right of the Omnibox (the input area where you type URLs or search terms.)

I hope Tabli helps people stay organized and focused when browsing the web, and I hope that it offers you some respite from your own struggles with Tab Hell.

I welcome feedback and bug reports on Tabli; please send them via email to tabli-feedback@gettabli.com. If you find Tabli useful, a kind review on the Chrome Web Store is always appreciated.

Thanks to Eirini Papastergiou, Varda Lazar, Elizabeth Drew and Michael Shilman for constructive feedback on earlier drafts of this article.

Written by

Computer Scientist / Software Developer

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