Firefox 3 Beta 5 is here, and reviewed

Firefox 3 Beta 5, Gran Paradiso’s milestone #13 is here and the list of features and improvement it brings along is pretty long so let’s get started.

Oh, for those following Firefox 3 development you may want to jump to the sections marked in green for what’s new in Beta 5.

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 in a large number of web pages but it’s also what makes Firefox UI work.

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, create a new one (new in Beta 5) and add tags you can later search on.

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.

 

It features adaptive learning so after a few repetitions Firefox will learn what letter combinations you use for what site and will provide better suggestions. This should address the case where frecency (a combined frequency and recency index) didn’t provide the best results.

You can also perform multiword searches, so for example “firefox downloads” filters address, titles and tags containing both words but not necessarily in that order.

For Beta 5, the colors and font sizes have been reviewed and the number of suggestions reduced to six making the menu less obtrusive.

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 5 brings a rounded left cap to the location bar that echoes the keyhole, a slightly modified reload icon (again with a solid end, *sigh*) and to many’s contempt the home button is back to the navigation bar and out of the Bookmarks toolbar.

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.

There’s an invisible splitter between the location and search bars that you can use to set their width when they are placed next to each other.

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.

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 smoothly.

You can duplicate and move tabs (including its history and current status). To clone, press Ctrl while dragging a tab, or just drag them across windows to move. 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.

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

In Beta 5, the whitelist of sites authorized to move or resize windows (below) introduced in Beta 4, has been removed.

Instead the option to allow third party cookies has been restored as it was in Firefox 1.5 and previous.

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 that you can search on file name, size and download date.

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.

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.

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).

Security

In 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.


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 Beta 5, Firefox 3 scores 71/100 in the Acid3 test, behind Opera and WebKit (Safari engine) development releases which achieved both 100% last week. While the value of the Acid3 test was questioned recently by Mozilla’s Mike Shaver, in practice, Firefox is just too close to release to focus on Acid3 compatibility right now.

Firefox 3 supports 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: full page zoom can optionally magnify the complete page or just the text, as in previous versions. This is a much requested feature and a must for Mozilla plans for a Mobile Firefox.

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.

For JavaScript developers, some interesting tricks: the ability to load local files for local use, 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.

Cross site AJAX (XMLHttpRequest) support has been removed in Beta 5 because the specifications changed in the process and Mozilla prefers to avoid an incompatible implementation.

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

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

Real full screen is now available in beta 5. In the past, the full screen mode left the navigation and tab bars visible at all times. Now they are displayed for just a second before sliding under the top edge.

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

Users can see their submitted crashes entering about:crashes in the location bar.

Final Lap

No more betas. Next release will be a release candidate, which is basically a final version without that label and still for testing purposes. If everything goes OK, it is just renamed as final and goes live.

What is left? From a user perspective I would say almost nothing besides some retouches here and there to the user interface. Behind the scenes, however, work never ends: performance improvements, web standards compliance and edge cases are still being ironed.

A few issues are not in Mozilla’s hands: for example there’s a problem with Gmail contacts not being displayed because of a Gmail bug. Annoying as hell but out of control. We also have to wait to see if Google and Microsoft make the necessary changes to enable their email services as handlers for mailto: links.

The Extend Firefox 3 contest (now with a music category) should give add-ons Firefox 3 compatibility a boost so they can be ready for users to upgrade to Firefox 3 final, now expected for June.

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