Mozilla has just released the second alpha of upcoming Firefox 2, code named Bon Echo (after Bon Echo public park following a Firefox development tradition). Scheduled for sometime this winter (or summer in the North Hemisphere), this version brings a number of enhancements. Let’s start the review.
At first sight, you will noticed that as promised, close buttons have been added to each tab for a more natural, intuitive handling. It may take a while to adapt for long time Firefox users but new comers should find this new placement more logical. Background tabs close buttons are hidden only for space saving, when it’s not an issue it’s displayed for all the tabs.
The search box now resizes automatically according to the window size and has been enhanced with the name of the search engine displayed in the search box along with the search engine icon. The text disappears when the focus is on it so it provides an unobtrusive aid to easily know which one we are using. Also, when searching for a selected text in the current web page, it will use the currenlty selected search engine instead of a different preference (for which there was no user interface other than about:config).
Plus, suggestions offered while entering a search term by some search engines (such as Google Suggest or Yahoo!) are now supported.
Even more welcome is the addition of a dialog window for managing the installed search engines. From here you can reorder and remove search engines. A link to Firefox Add-ons Search Engine site is also provided. Unfortunately this still doesn’t provide the whole offering Mycroft (http://mycroft.mozdev.org/) does. We can only hope this happens before Firefox 2 release since it would be a boost for many users.
Search plugins are now based on Amazon A9’s OpenSearch format rather than previous Apple’s Sherlock (though it’s still supported and automatically converted to OpenSearch). OpenSearch is a more flexible and comprehensive standard for defining access to a search engine, so new and more powerful search options may be expected.
Another improvement has happened with themes and extensions management. To begin, they have been merged in a single window accessible from from the Tools/Add-ons menu.
The new Add-ons window manages both Extensions and Themes (and I believe it should also do search engines), and brings previously somewhat hidden options such as disable or uninstall a specific extension to the front by adding dedicated buttons for the selected extension. Extensions and themes installation is handled in a new temporary tab rather than a separate dialog as before.
Web feeds (RSS/Atom) handling has also been improved. A new setting in the General page in the Options window allows to specify how web feed subscriptions should be handled.
Options are to subscribe using a third party application such as Thunderbird, NewsGator, RSS Reader and others; a web feed aggregation service such as Bloglines, Google Reader, My Yahoo or NetVibes or just let Firefox handle your subscription as Live Bookmarks.
Feed handling has been improved by displaying a nicely formatted web feed instead of the raw code (RSS/Atom) shown before when you clicked on an RSS/Atom web feed link. Above the contents, options to subscribe to the displayed feed are presented.
Tab options have been simplified with a single setting to specify how requests for new windows are handled no matter they come from external applications or a web page link.
A new spell-checking feature has been added. Text entered in multiline text boxes is automatically checked for mistyped words, for single line text boxes, you must ask for it (right-click, Spell check this field). Words not found in the dictionary are marked with a red underline. Right-click a marked word and Firefox offers a best guess of what you were trying to type, along with an option to add the word to your personal dictionary, bypass spell checking for this field or switch to another language. User interface to add more dictionaries is not ready yet but they are the same Thunderbird uses and there are more than 40 of them available already. Dictionaries are installed just like extensions so it is a real breeze to have for example Spanish and English on hand and use them accordingly.
Session restore. When you start Bon Echo after an unexpected closing such as killing it after a hang up (and it took quite a while to rey this considering it is just an alpha release) it will ask if you would like to restore your previous session. Accept and all the tabs you may have had opened will be restored.
Microsummaries, are small pieces of information about a specific web page provided (ideally) by a generator served by the web site or a third party. Then when you bookmark a web page that matches the generator criteria, its description will be updated by it. For example, after I added a generator for eBay, I then bookmarked an auction item and asked for a specific summary.
Added the bookmark to my bookmarks toolbar and then I have live information about the auction progress. I did the same for a stock quote (provide by Yahoo! Finance) and Merriam-Webster’s word of the day using generators provided by microsummaries creator, Myk Melez. You can see the results below.
In the future, as web sites operators get into this capability, you should be able to have current weather of a bookmarked ZIP code or city, traffic status, just released movies, new email notifications and so on.
One of the most notable features missing in Alpha 2 is Places, the new personal web directory system that integrates bookmarks and history in a single interface. Due to its complexity it has been phased out for Firefox 3. Another one, Safe Browsing, a feature that will warn users when visitting a suspicious web site has just been delayed and will come with the third (feature complete) alpha release later this month.
This will most likely delay Firefox 2 release to late September or early October, since a couple of betas and release candidates are expected before we see the final release.
Betas will bring some cosmetic retouches to the user interface (like more polished icons and new icons for the new features), as well as tab overflow (like when you have 30+ tabs) handling, tab close undo and the regular dose of bug fixes.
Firefox 18.104.22.168 should be out really soon (probably next week) with more bug fixes and security enhancement for the 1.5 branch. Firefox 3 (code name Minefield) is already in the works and expected for the first quarter next year.