Firefox 3 Alpha 8 review

As planned, milestone number eight in Firefox 3 development has been reached around mid-September. Not surprisingly, it is not a beta but another alpha which is really a good thing since there are a lot of new features and improvements that need very extensive testing.

Download Manager

The download manager has received a lot of attention lately. Most notable is a comprehensive face lift that added action buttons for pausing, resuming and canceling a download, as well as an info button that provides details of the download. These replace the previous text links for a more consistent and intuitive look. A search bar has also been added and completed downloads are automatically moved to the bottom, leaving active downloads at the top for a quicker view of what’s going on. There’s also an option to copy the download source address in download items’ context menu.

Also, now downloads are automatically passed to the installed antivirus (on Windows) adding a new line of defense. It also honors Windows Vista parental controls, a welcomed addition for parents and anyone sharing his computer to prevent the installation of malicious software.

But without a doubt, the most dramatic improvement is the added ability to pause and resume downloads across sessions: you start a large download and then you have to turn your computer off. Fear not. When you restart Firefox it will resume the download where it was left provided that the server supports the feature, which is currently a large majority.

Download resuming was backed out recently due to some bugs. However I tested an experimental build with the feature enabled and even hooked up to the new download manager interface and it worked like a charm. So it should have no problem making it for the next milestone.

Places

Places is the new integrated bookmarks and history management system, one of the most expected features coming new. Where Alpha 7 delivered the complete back end it needs, Alpha 8 starts pouring on the user interface elements needed to access it.

Most significant is the addition of starring and tagging capabilities. Click the new start icon next to the location bar and the page is saved to your bookmarks. Click again and you can save the bookmark to a specific folder including the special bookmarks toolbar and the new bookmarks menu folder. Or you can add or reuse some tags to describe the web page in your own terms.

Tagging is in large part the foundation of the personal web concept: a subset of the WWW made of what you have visited, what you liked, organized and presented the way you want.

The presented the way you want part of the equation is brought by the new Places Organizer that replaces the previous Bookmarks organizer to better. So far the only change is the replacement of the menu and main toolbars with a single slicker toolbar that includes the places search bar

Organization is improved with the addition of search or smart folders: search for your bookmarks and save the search to get a dynamic list that updates as you browse, add and delete bookmarks. Or you can use one of the planned default searches: most visited, most recently added, most recently visited, and a few more.

User interface is not ready for this as it isn’t for a large part of the expected Places functionality and the main reason I believe there will still be a ninth alpha to be released later this month.

A new new Import and Backup menu has been added to the Places Manager. I may not be following this correctly but I think the import/export options somehow overlap with the import/export functionality as the backup files are similar HTML files. A nice addition is that the automatic backups Firefox runs (you know about them, right?) are conveniently available in a Restore submenu. This will certainly help support people who may have accidentally deleted some bookmarks.

There are some minor improvements to the Bookmarks menu behavior as well. First and most welcomed, it now remains open after deleting a bookmark, reloading a live bookmark, adding a separator or sorting a bookmark folder. Second, the Open All in Tabs option available for bookmark folders, now opens the bookmark items replacing the currently opened items to avoid the clutter but at the same time allows to press the back button in tabs which content was replaced to prevent any data loss. Neat, though I miss an option to recover all tab contents at a time.

Finally an option to open the actual web site that serves the subscribed web feed is now available just before the Open All in Tabs menu for live bookmarks folders.

Overall user interface enhancements

Local folders and FTP listings and Gopher (gasp!) got a new prettier style. In the case of FTP and local folders it is also more functional: click on the name, size or date column headers and the contents are alternatively sorted in ascending and descending order.

Firefox is somewhat scary on its first run: it warns you about sending unencrypted information through the web, or when leaving an unencrypted site or other conditions that just can’t be avoided the majority of the time. It has been limited to cases when a weak encryption is being used or an encrypted page includes unencrypted content which may or may not be associated with phishing or cross site scripting attacks but are certainly more relevant.

A toolbar resizer has been added to the customize toolbar palette, so now you can set the search and location bars to whatever suits your needs. It’s ugly in the outside now but think about its inner beauty.

Tabs got a couple of new tricks: the cursor now changes to a hand when moving over the favicon to show that it can be dragged. And tabs scroll very smoothly now as opposed to the previous rough tab stepping.

Firefox in Windows Vista now features native menus for a better, fancier look.

Firefox now prompts to remember a password after a logon attempt so you can decide whether to save it or not and avoid cluttering the autocomplete menus.


Location Bar

The location bar has become more informative as it now displays the star icon to easily know if it is bookmarked. Most interestingly, it searches for whatever you start entering in the location bar anywhere in the visited web addresses, their titles and tags so you are more likely and faster to reach that page you visited.

As an anti-phishing measure, by default, the location bar can’t be hidden by web sites that prompt dialogs an popups.
Add-ons

Main change: a Plugin Manager has beed added to the Add-ons Manager making it easy to enable and disable plugins.


In the security front, extensions are now required to update through a secure connection. This comes in response to a vulnerability disclosed back in May that could allow an attacker to impersonate an add-on update site through an insecure connection to deliver malware at will.

Addons Manager can now be reached from the Options window. When I learned this was coming I really thought they would integrate the Add-ons manager with the Options windows as it was in Firefox long ago. This would have saved me the many times I’ve mistakenly opened the Options window to reach an extension preference. But it’s not the case. It’s just a button at the bottom of the Main page that takes you to the Add-ons Manager. I guess this is aimed for new users as a way to introduce them to add-ons or a way to centralize preferences. In my use case I will save a couple of clicks every time I make a mistake, but I still don’t see much benefit.

Web content handling

Another significant change is the removal of the Feeds page from the Options window, or more precisely its extension. It is now called Applications and does for every content type what it did for web feeds: the ability to associate them with a web service. As of Firefox 2, you can set it to open web feeds with an online fed reader such as Netvibes, Page Flakes or Googe Reader, and you can even add more online web feed aggregators. With Firefox 3 you will be able to do the same thing with any content type.
Application page in Options

Anti-malware

The user interface for malware alerts has also landed. The next time you visit a web site that is suspect of serving malware, Firefox will raise an alert overlay (test site shown below). Initially, the list of malware site will be provided by Google but Mozilla is in conversations with Stop Badware, an independent malware tracking site backed by Harvard and Oxford universities, Google, Lenovo, Sun and Consumer Reports. If an agreement is reached Firefox could use Stop Badware’s lists. I am not sure if it would be as an alternative or exclusively but this should help avoid privacy concerns like those raised last year with Firefox’s live anti-phishing feature that uses Google provided lists.

Back end changes are sparse at this stage but there was still room for another notable addition: color management, which means Firefox can use special color profiles some digital cameras embed in digital pictures to tell the software how to render the colors properly to better replicate the conditions in which it was take.

As things are today I am starting to doubt about a December release. As said before, I think there’s still some heavy features to land including download resuming backend (again) and UI, the microformats support backend and a lot of Places UI.

I think Save as PDF could still make it for this releases but I’ve heard very little about its progress. Same goes for . I know it works, but I’m not sure if it’s ready for landing. I really hope both of them get in on time.

According to the original schedule we should be at beta 2 which I think is at least a couple of months away. Add a month for release candidates and we’re too close to the holidays which could send Firefox 3 forward to the future in 2008.

Personally, I am more than willing to wait for a high quality release. Have fun!

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