All about Firefox 3.5, available now

After slightly more than a year in development, Firefox 3.5 is finally here. As planned, it is an evolutionary update that builds on the significant performance enhancements and features introduced in Firefox 3.0, to deliver a still more responsive experience, more private, and extending the possibilities of the web by supporting a new set of powerful web standards.

Let’s take a look at what’s new in Firefox 3.5.

A new icon

Firefox 3.5 introduces an updated Firefox icon, that aims to reflect the evolution Firefox has gone through in the last three releases since the last update for Firefox 1.5. The new icon features a stronger 3D look with deeper shadows over the globe, and flames actually surrounding the globe. It also adds detail to the hand and snout and furrier snout and ears.

In low resolutions like Windows and Linux taskbar icons, the changes will go almost unnoticeable but for a slight change in colors and saturation.

Privacy

A new private mode is now available from the Tools menu. Whatever you visit, search, or download is cleared as soon as you return to normal mode or exit Firefox, including cookies, passwords, and web forms. At this time the only hint you get while in private mode is some text added to the title bar. Future versions of Firefox may revisit the user interface for a better way to let you know you’re in private mode while not letting others which would be counterproductive.

What happens when you forgot to enter private mode before entering a site you want to keep for yourself? You have two options. One, tell Firefox to forget about that site: open the Library (Bookmarks/Organize Bookmarks…) look for any page in the site in your History, right click on it, and select Forget About This Site.

Option 2, tell Firefox to forget about the last few hours, the day or everything. In the Tools menu, select Clear Recent History…, the amount of time, the specific elements you want to discard, and you are done.

The Privacy options page has been updated with a dramatically streamlined interface where you can opt for Firefox defaults which remembers your browsing and allows cookies (like Firefox 3), set it to always run in private mode, or customize for something in between. You can also exclude history and bookmarks from the location bar suggestions in a new separate option.

Tabbed Browsing

Tabbed browsing is now the default browsing mode as the tab bar is always visible. This is a setting many people has requested as default for years before and the decision was finally made. There are two direct consequences: the throbber (activity indicator) is gone from the menu bar since each tab already has sits own. While it may seem a great idea, it has the inconvenience of being a moving target, so if you want to know if the current page is loading you have to first locate the current tab’s place in the tab bar. Fortunately, it is still available in the Customize Toolbar dialog so you can add it back in a blink.

The other consequence, is that when only one tab remains open, it doesn’t have a close button; and, if you close it (with a keyboard shortcut or menu File/Close Tab) the whole window goes along.

The tab bar now sports a new tab button next to the last tab making it discoverable for new comers. Tabs can be dragged out of the current window into their own and dragged back if wanted. An option in the tab context menu allows to do the same thing.

A new option in the History menu now let you to restore recently closed windows and not only individual tabs as in previous versions.

Native <audio>/<video> support

As part of Mozilla’s commitment to web standards, Firefox 3.5 implements the <audio> and <video> tags defined in the HTML 5 specification, making the inclusion of video and audio content on web pages as easy as images. But, most importantly, to help make the web an open environment, it bundles Ogg Vorbis and Theora decoders so web content authors can publish their audio and video content in these formats knowing that (at least) Firefox users will be able to listen, watch, and save with no need for any additional plugin on Windows, Linux and Mac OS X, the supported platforms.

Conveniently, the tags specifications provide easy fallback options to other video formats like MP4 for Mac OS X users, or even to a Flash video if a codec is not available. This will help progressive transition for sites like Dailymotion, and more recently The Video Bay (from the makers of The Pirate Bay), which have started adopting the standard and tags.

Web standards

More support for web interface and language standards is a highlight of this release. Among the most relevant, the support for the @font-face CSS attribute which means web authors can now redistribute the fonts they need to make a web page look exactly as they imagined it to all users and not depend on what fonts are installed in your computer.

Web designers get powerful CSS media queries that improve developers customization options to deliver content appropriate for the user’s screen size, resolution and color capabilities. Support for color profiles introduced in Firefox 3 is now enabled by default.

Experimental support for CSS transformations and SVG effects for HTML elements dramatically expand the possibilities for web designers with options to rotate, scale, blur, or solarize web elements in a couple of lines.

Web developers get query selectors as a more effective way to access relative page elements with better applications performance. Cross-site XMLHttpRequests support is back in Firefox 3.5 (it was pulled back form 3.0) now that the specification is complete. It allows AJAX web applications to pull content from other web domains if the server allows it.

Native JSON support for easier and more secure data exchange between a web application and the server.

A standard way to declare, create and run web page background processes (like JavaScript code) called web workers, will enable web developers to create more responsive rich internet applications where complex scripts don’t put the whole interface on hold. HTML 5 drag and drop is also implemented, again for easier development, better performance, better user experience.

You can check these and more cool new web techniques at the highly recommended Mozilla Hacks.

Geolocation enables Firefox to pass the current user location to web sites that ask for it to provide customized content.

Usability

Support for recent MacBooks’ multitouch trackpads is also available, with gestures for navigating back and forward (three finger left or right swipe), move to the top or the bottom of the page (swipe up and down), zoom (pinch in or out), and swithc tabs (twist clockwise or counter clockwise). With Windows 7 expected to include support for multitouch interfaces sometime in 2010, good to know Firefox will be ready and awaiting.

Gestures can be customized via about:config:

Links to external resources such as JavaScript files or CSS files are now clickable when viewing a page source code.

A new session restore dialog now lets you select what windows and tabs you want to restore after a crash helping isolate the problematic tab or plugin and prevent. As a side benefit you can always can always enter about:sessionrestore in the location bar to check what tabs you had in your previous session

Library management gets a tad easier with the ability to edit several bookmarks at a time. Tagging can be faster now with tag autocomplete for bookmarks and history.

The themes have been very slightly updated this time with new tab buttons and new full screen icons on Windows XP and Vista, a removed back/forward keyhole etch on Mac OS X, and a new blocked plugin icon on Linux.

You can restrict suggestion in the location bar to history, bookmarks or tags only, enter ^, * or + respectively somewhere between your terms. To include titles or addresses only, you enter # or @, and you can combine them with the previous operators to refine your suggestions.

Firefox update dialog windows are now more informative and show how long it will take. Add-on updates (specially large ones) also benefit of this enhancement.

Performance

Performance-wise, this release is significantly faster that Firefox 3 running web applications, thanks to the introduction of TraceMonkey, a technology that allows just in time JavaScript compilation for faster execution. Despite these improvements however, Chrome currently holds the crown for speed with better results in the main JavaScript performance tests, thanks in part to its V8 JavaScript engine.

Places, the history+bookmarks database is now significantly faster due to several improvement to the querying. Web feeds refresh has also been optimized so it won’t hang Firefox if updating several feeds at the same time.

More coolness

In the accessibility front, text formatting such as alignment and font weight, as well as the new audio and video play controls are exposed to assistive technologies via AT-SPI and IAccessible2 attributes properties which are well interpreted by popular screen readers Orca, NVDA, and JAWS. Text formatting even works in rich text areas like Gmail compose area, easing the task for people with visual disabilities.

Firefox 3.5 is available now in 68 locales for Mac OS X, Windows and Linux platforms, making it the current web browser available in most languages at this time.

According to the last Mozilla Add-ons report, over 80% of add-ons are already compatible with Firefox 3.5, an important achievement and good news for users who may be too attached to their favorite extensions and themes to leave them behind.

Conclusion

Firefox 3.1 was originally planned as a completion release to get in some features that didn’t make it for Firefox 3 like new tab switching, private mode and video, but in the end it took a purpose of its own, prompting a version push to Firefox 3.5 and extending the originally targeted last year’s end release to mid-2009. But I find it completely worth it. I’ve been using 3.5 since the betas as my main browser (about 8 months now) and have to say I just don’t remember when was the last time it crashed.

Firefox 3 retirement starts today at update number 11 (3.0.11), and according to Mozilla policies it will go out of support six months from now, on December 31, 2009. But with 80% of add-ons ready and a very nice set of new features and performance gains it’s hard to justify not upgrading now.

 

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