Sunday, July 11, 2010

Firefox 4 beta 1

Image representing Firefox as depicted in Crun...

The just-released first beta of Firefox 4 takes some smart design ideas from Chrome, mixes in a few of its own and throws in a few new features and snappier performance. Add these benefits to Firefox's existing world-class library of add-ons, and Firefox just might leapfrog other browsers and become the best of the bunch -- if the beta keeps progressing along its current positive path.
Firefox 4 enters the modern age
Of late, Firefox's interface has begun to look long in the tooth compared to more modern-looking browsers like Chrome and Safari. This beta changes all that.
The biggest change to Firefox is immediately noticeable -- as with Chrome, the tabs range along the top of the browser, rather than appearing below the address bar, which Mozilla calls the "Awesome Bar."
(This new design shows up only in Windows 7 and Vista, not in Windows 2000 or XP. It's also not in the Mac OS X and Linux betas, although Mozilla says it will be at some time in the future.)
The space allotted to the Awesome Bar and navigation buttons has also been reduced, giving content on Web pages more real estate and making it easier to see the titles of all pages on your open tabs. The navigation buttons themselves also been given a softer look, with rounded rather than straight edges. The overall effect is to give Firefox a more modern, more pleasing look.
The navigation buttons have also been simplified. No longer are there separate Reload and Stop buttons. Instead, they have been combined into a single button, which changes its appearance and purpose depending on whether a page is loading or has already loaded.
The tabs themselves have also been given a minor makeover. Go to a site, and a clock-like icon appears on the tab as the page loads, indicating the speed of the page being downloaded and how much has been downloaded. It's a nice little feature for those who can't abide delays and would like to have some sense of how long the page will take to load.
Like Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer, Firefox has also finally given up menus. To get at the features that were previously available on menus, click the orange Firefox button on the upper-left part of the screen, and a drop-down menu appears.
The button itself is not particularly attractive, and its bright orange color is somewhat jarring. Don't be surprised if its design changes in the future. Still, with the menus gone, Firefox has a simpler, sleeker look.
I especially welcome a small addition: a star button on the right-hand side, next to the search box, that lets you browse through your bookmarks. It's there in place of the Bookmarks menu that used to be at the top of the screen.
"Switch to tab" -- good idea, bad implementation
Firefox 4 includes a very nifty feature that unfortunately still seems only half-baked. Type text in the Awesome Bar and it searches not just your history, previous searches and sites you've bookmarked or tagged as it used to do, but also the titles of all your open tabs.
If it finds a matching result in another tab, it shows a "Switch to tab" icon. Click that icon to head to the tab. If you're the kind of person who often uses multiple tabs, you could find this feature to be a big timesaver.
Unfortunately, though, the feature leaves much to be desired and may not be of much practical use. The search results for open tabs are mixed in with your history list, previous searches, and so on. That means the open tabs often will be found very low down on the list of results -- so low that you may never see them.
Far better would be if you could tell Firefox you wanted to search across all tabs with your current search, and those results would show up at the top of the list. Another possibility would be allowing you to set options about which results show up at the top when you type text into the Awesome Bar. Perhaps we can hope for a feature like that in the next beta.
Add-Ons Manager
The Add-Ons Manager has been given a facelift, and it's a very useful one. The previous version opened in a small window that merely listed your add-ons, with options to enable, disable, uninstall or customize them if they allow for customization.
The new manager opens in a full window and gives you far more information about each add-on, including a rating taken from the Firefox add-ons Web site, the date the add-on was installed and a link to the add-on's home page.
It also is supposed to show the size of the add-on, although that doesn't appear to work in the beta, which was not able to display the size of any of mine.
When you remove an add-on, the listing for it disappears and a yellow bar appears, telling you that the add-on has been removed and asking if you want to undo the removal. To undo the removal, click the Undo button. In this beta, I was unable to get the Undo button to work; clicking it did nothing. As with the existing Add-Ons Manager, you can also find new add-ons, get themes and view and manage your plug-ins.
By the way, you'll likely find that although your currently installed add-ons are listed on the page, few if any of them will actually work with this Firefox beta. And when you click the Get Add-Ons tab in order to search for add-ons, you're brought to a page that tells you "Something good is coming!" So clearly Mozilla has plans for a new add-ons Web site that is not yet publicly available.
HTML 5
As with current versions of Chrome and Safari, and the upcoming Internet Explorer 9, Firefox 4 supports HTML 5 video, which lets you play high-definition video content directly in the browser itself, without having to use any additional applications such as Flash.
This beta supports HTML 5 video with a twist, however, by using the Google-backed video format called WebM, which uses the open-source VP8 code, rather than the H.264 codec used by competing browsers. (Oddly enough, even the latest official release of Chrome doesn't yet support WebM, although the version in the developer channel does.)
In my tests, the browser played the HTML 5 videos as promised. Given that there is not yet a great deal of video content that uses HTML 5, this is not particularly important right now, although an increasing number of YouTube videos are available via HTML 5.
Speedier performance
Betas are often notorious for laggard performance, but even in this first beta, Firefox 4 is faster than version 3.6, the current release. Web pages seem to load far more quickly, and tests bear that out. SunSpider JavaScript benchmark tests on my Windows Vista PC show that Firefox 4 is nearly 30% faster than version 3.6, but still lags significantly behind Opera 10.6, Chrome 5, and Safari 5.
I tested all five browsers, as well as Internet Explorer 8, running the test three times on each, and found that Opera finished in an average of 342 ms, Chrome in 361, Safari in 377, Firefox 4 in 651, Firefox 3.6 in 901, and Internet Explorer 8 in 5,035. (Computerworld reporter Gregg Keizer ran separate SunSpider tests and got similar results overall, although in his tests Safari edged out Opera for the lead.)
It's a big improvement over the existing version of Firefox, and subsequent betas may get faster. But it's unlikely that this version of Firefox will be improved so much that it rivals Opera, Chrome or Safari for speed.
Changes under the hood and what's next
In addition to what you see, Mozilla says that it's also made a number of changes under the hood, such as better crash protection. When a tab running an Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime or Microsoft Silverlight plug-in freezes or crashes, your other tabs will still work -- and the crashed tab can be reloaded to see if it will work this time around.
Mozilla also claims improvements in its handling of CSS that will make pages load faster and allow designers to build better-looking pages. It also touts its implementation of the WebSockets API, a tool for bi-directional, full-duplex communications between the browser and the server, to allow developers to better build real-time Web applications such as for gaming.
Mozilla also says that upcoming versions of Firefox 4 will allow settings, passwords, bookmarks, history and open tabs to be synchronized across multiple devices, including smartphones. There is an add-on from Mozilla called Firefox Sync that does this, but I was unable to get it to work properly with Firefox 4. Mozilla also promises that Firefox will be even faster, and that there will be new privacy controls.
The bottom line
This first beta of Firefox 4 is impressive, modernizing what was becoming a very dated-looking browser. The new interface tweaks make the browser sleeker and simpler to use. It's also good to see Firefox speed up, although it still lags behind Opera, Chrome and Safari.
But the browsing experience is about much more than speed. Let's not forget Firefox's vast library of useful extensions and other add-ons, which none of its competitors come close to. While many of these add-ons don't work with the current beta, most of them will by the time Firefox 4 ships, and that gives Firefox a huge advantage over other browsers.
I have used this beta without a glitch, although the usual caveats hold about not using beta software on a production machine. However, this beta is stable enough that if my favorite add-ons worked with this version of Firefox, I'd use it as my main browser today.
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