Firefox 3 Beta 4 review

Firefox 3 Beta 4 is about to be released (later today or tomorrow), as the twelfth milestone, in what already is the longest development time for a Firefox version since the initial Firefox 1.0 back in 2004.

Fortunately, Mozilla has not been shy to set as many milestones as needed, and given the many new features and tweaks Firefox 3 introduces, it seems anything but sensible, specially considering it’s not only about Firefox but Gecko, the web page rendering engine and the Mozilla platform as a whole which affects the many products based on it.

Performance

Firefox 3 gets several performance improvement gains. Among them, profile guided optimizations (PGO) provides an optimized Firefox build based on the way it internally works. So far it is only available for Windows. Linux should follow shortly and Mac OS X could also make it before final release.

A very noticeable gain can be seen in JavaScript: it is about three times faster than Firefox 2 implementation. JavaScript is twice as important for Firefox since it is not only used for millions of web pages that use it but Firefox manages the UI through JavaScript code.

Memory wise, a much needed memory cycle collector is now in place to take care of freeing memory no longer used by modules that requested it but failed to release it properly. This and other memory oriented tweaks, seem to have paid off so far: a set of tests I recently ran suggests a noticeable increase in memory management efficiency with more memory freed as tabs and windows are closed and no mysterious memory eat up when Firefox is idle as it has been reported several times in the past for Firefox 2.

Places

A much announced and expected feature is Places, the integrated history and bookmarks manager interface powered by SQLite, a small open source database engine that provides much more robust querying capabilities.

With Places you are able to search your history, tags and bookmarks with a fully fledged search interface. You can select where to search (History, Bookmarks Menu, Bookmarks Toolbar, All Bookmarks or the selected folder), what to search (visited date, web address or title), combine criteria and then save the search as a Smart Bookmark that updates as your personal web grows and changes.

The Library, Places manager, also adds backup and restore UI so it is easier to recover a damaged file or incorrectly deleted bookmark.

Tagging is a new Firefox feature tightly related with Places and some of the changes to the location bar: click on an empty star icon in the location bar to save the current page as a bookmark. Click it again and you can specify a folder to save the bookmark to and add tags which you can later use to perform searches.

The Location Bar

The autocomplete list that appears when you start entering letters in the location bar is no longer restricted to web addresses but also looks into bookmark and history page titles and tags which make it more comprehensive.

Suggestions are shown in two different lines and colors for page titles and addresses, which according to studies on human cognition, makes it easier for us to focus on what we are looking for. So, if the user knows she is entering part of a web address or a page title it will be easier for her to find what she’s looking for. Highlighting the match result also helps to direct the user’s attention.

New in Beta 4 is adaptive learning: Firefox will keep an eye of what you type and what you select. After a few repetitions Firefox will understand what you’re trying to do and provide better suggestions. This should address the case where frecency (a combined frequency and recency index) didn’t provide the best results.

Beta 4 also brings support for multiword search so “firefox downloads” filters address, titles and tags containing both words but not necessarily in that order.

I believe this feature alone is the best Firefox 3 has to offer, justifies Places large resources investment and will become a landmark in Firefox and web browsers in general development. Once you get used to it, there is no turning back.

Visual Refresh

One of the most visible changes are the theme updates in all platforms. On Windows XP and Vista, a large part of the planned new XP icons has been added to the main toolbar, the Options window, the Download Manager, here and there. Beta 4 introduces some minor changes to the back and forward buttons with arrow styles that better blend with the other main stop and reload icons.

The Options window on Windows XP with the new icons.

Mac OS X users get Proto, a new Safari-like theme introduced with Beta 2. Linux users also get a very well integrated theme that uses native icons.

The back and forward buttons have been combined in a single keyhole-shaped widget featuring a single history menu and is now featured in all platforms except Linux.

According to the new guidelines, consistency across platforms is obtained through icons shape while OS integration is provided by texture. In Linux case, it’s very hard to set one due to the many available distributions and their particular themes.
For those who prefer the old back/forward buttons style, an option to split them is being considered. There could also be a revised throbber (the connection activity indicator) coming soon.

The Home button has been moved to the Bookmarks toolbar by default but can be easily moved back: Select Toolbars and then Customize… from the View menu. Drag the home button to the navigation bar.

An invisible splitter is added between the location and search bars when they are placed next to each other. It lets you customize their width.

Developers are aiming to deliver better operating system integration in Firefox 3. This will be most notable for Mac OS X and Linux users who will now get native widgets like text boxes, menus, check boxes, icons, button order and orientation following each OS guidelines.

Mac OS X users get integration with Growl, a popular centralized notification system, while Windows Vista gets native looking menus and blue icons that blend better with overall Vista look.

See more Windows XP, Vista and Linux screenshots in this recent post.

The Page Information dialog has been reviewed to become more organized and informative and allows to set all site specific preference from a single location.

Tabbed Browsing

On tabbed browsing, Firefox will not only warn you when closing several tabs and windows at once but will prompt if you want to save the currently open tab set: a good catch and a good way to introduce this helpful feature to new users.

Tabs now scroll with a smoothly. You can also duplicate tabs when you press Ctrl while dragging a tab and move them across windows by dragging them. Unlike previous betas, you get actual duplicates including the complete tab’s history. A very helpful addition!

Web experience

Firefox can save site specific preferences. For example you could allow just some pages to use AJAX, set a specific spell checker language, images, etc. Firefox 3 will remember the zoom level you have applied for a certain site and will zoom automatically the next time you visit it.

Net protocols (like irc, news, webcal and mailto) and certain documents handling can be passed to web services. For example, Yahoo Mail or Gmail may become your default application for mailto: links. For this, the previous web feeds page has been extended to the Options window for all content and protocols. Firefox 3 recognizes podcasts and video podcast feeds from regular ones so you can specify a different application for each.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 options application

Media feeds are displayed with a link to the media file in feed preview mode.

By default, web sites can’t move or resize Firefox via JavaScript. A list of authorized web sites can be maintained through Advanced JavaScript Settings in the Content page in Options.

Search engines

The search engine manager lets you set and change keywords for search engines. With keywords, if you associate the w keyword with Wikipedia (now a default search engine), you could enter w hawaii in the locationbar and search Wikipedia for Hawaii.

Downloads

One of the most requested features: downloads can be paused and resumed across sessions, limited only by the server capabilities. Also, on Windows, downloaded files are automatically passed to the installed anti-virus if present and Windows Vista parental controls are honored.

As seen in previous betas, the Download Manager has received a serious face lift as an easier to track download list with search capabilities. Beta 4 introduces the ability to search the file size and download date in addition to the file name.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 download manager

A status bar notification provides summarized status of current downloads. You can click it to open the Download Manager.

Add-ons

The Add-ons Manager has been integrated with Mozilla Add-ons, Mozilla’s official extensions and themes repository, providing recommendations, search, rating and add-ons install without leaving Firefox.

And a new Plugins page (identified with a neat Lego brick icon) allows easy plugin enabling and disabling, making the Add-ons Manager a powerful control panel for Firefox enhancements.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 add-ons manager

When installing, updating, disabling or enabling back an add-on, an information bar is displayed to remind a restart is needed for changes to apply, and a restart button.

Plus, just installed themes are automatically selected so Firefox uses it after the next restart.

Firefox 3 Beta 3 add-ons restart

Among other minor tweaks: FTP and gopher listings get a better styled and functional page where the list can be sorted by name, size and date by clicking the appropriate header, and a warning is displayed when accessing advanced preferences (about:config).

SecurityIn the security front, Firefox will check visited sites with a list of known malware sites -provided by stopbadware.org and served by Google- to prevent spyware, rootkits, viruses, dialers and other kinds of malware from even being offered to you.

A rewritten password manager now unobtrusively prompts to store an entered password in the information bar and after trying a logon so you know if it is the correct one or not and avoid cluttering autocomplete lists.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 remember password

Identifying authentic sites and avoiding fake ones is now easier with the addition of the site button which provides details about the identity of the current web site. While the largest part of the web has no verified identity, financial institutions and similar usually do and it makes the site button in the location bar to change color and size so you can know with a glimpse.

As great as add-ons are they are also a liability and have proved they can become an attack vector. Firefox 3 requires add-ons updates to happen over an encrypted connection (to block malicious sites purporting the update site) or the add-on developer to sign it with a digital signature so updates can be verified to be from the same source. This will prevent middle-man attacks where bad guys could fake an update site address to serve malicious software.

Invalid or expired web site certificates now get an unfriendly treatment that requires adding the site to a white list. This should encourage web site owners to keep their certificates up to date so they can effectively ensure their visitors a more secure experience.

Under the hood

The list of changes for Gecko is not short either and benefit not only Firefox but all “powered by Mozilla” products including Thunderbird, Flock, SeaMonkey, Joost, Miro, Songbird and more.

Since Alpha 1, Firefox 3 passes the Acid2 test, a popular test of a browser styling standard compatibility. As of this Beta 4, Firefox 3 scores 67/100 in the Acid3 test. Not that bad for a test just released a few weeks ago.

Firefox support color profiles embedded on pictures and images to better replicate the original environment conditions as light and focus, thanks to new color management.

Discontinuous selections of text and images are now possible for better control of what you copy or print from a web page.

A biggie: page zoom magnifies the complete page and not only text. This is a much requested feature and a must for Mozilla plans for a Mobile Firefox. Beta 4 adds an option to choose whether you want to zoom the whole pager just text.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 optional zoom

Web developers can mark certain web page components such as images and scripts to be available while offline. In practice you could be able to compose emails or write documents though a web service while disconnected from the Internet.

Some interesting tricks that will please JavaScript developers: the ability to load local files for local use, cross site AJAX (XMLHttpRequest), native JSON support and most notably, FUEL, a library of Firefox programming interfaces that will ease the development of new extensions and ensure better practices (such as memory management) for common Firefox tasks.

Support for editable content, so a user can change portions of a web page marked by the author.

The MySpell spell-checking engine has been replaced with Hunspell which does a better job handling complex languages including Asian, Hungarian, Basque, etc.

For Gecko 1.9, Mozilla switched to open source Cairo rendering engine for better rendering performance. The change also enables easy PDF printing capabilities but it is only possible through an extension right now though.

More beautiful animated images are possible with animated PNGs (APNG): a full 16 million color palette and partial transparency will hopefully sweep GIF images in the future. While APNG was rejected as a standard PNG extension last year, Opera has announced it will support the format in future versions.

Proprietary Talk Back, the tool for reporting crashes to Mozilla included with Firefox and Thunderbird, has been replaced with open source Breakpad (formerly Airbag).

Socorro, is a server crash reporting tool that will help developers track the most recurring crashes and identify stability and performance bugs. Users can see their submitted crashes entering about:crashes in the location bar.

Beta 5

There will be a fifth beta and it is expected quite soon. Probably by March’s end.

At this stage, not much is left:  more retouches to the themes (like rounded caps for the location bar on Windows), Places, and several other areas, some of them already available in the latest night-lies that followed Beta 4 freeze.

According to the latest meeting minutes, the revamped location bar’s autocomplete font size and colors could be reviewed to address some common complaints about it being too obtrusive. In the meantime you can use this tip to customize the font colors and sizes.

Some advanced search options may be added to the location bar to search only bookmarks, history or tags using a special character or force exact matches with double quotes (“).

Having your favorite add-ons ready for Firefox 3 is something that makes nervous many Firefox user. So far a significant amount of add-ons has been updated and Mozilla is giving out exclusive Firefox 3 add-ons T-shirts to developers who do it soon soon. A Firefox 3 add-ons contest is expected to be announced soon too.

Updated: A  Duplicated tabs and moved across windows keep the original history. Thanks eyaler for the catch!

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