Firefox 3 RC 2 review

More than a year and a half in the making, at Release Candidate 2 stage, Firefox 3 is almost here and ready for the about 150 million current Firefox users and the millions to come, to lay their hands on its code and benefit of the dozens of new features and improvements aimed for a better web experience.

In fact, according to the latest Net Applications browsers utilization report, about 0.62% of web users are already using Firefox 3. Not surprisingly, here at Mozilla Links numbers are radically different with about 53% already surfing the web with some Firefox 3 release.

Let’s get started.

Perhaps the single most noticeable and welcomed Firefox 3 improvements are its several performance gains. On Windos, profile guided optimizations (PGO) provides an optimized Firefox build based on the way it internally works.

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 eaten up when Firefox is kept open and idle for several hours 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), 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 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.

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 with a strong emphasis in making Firefox feel as a native application on each operating system.

On Windows the theme is called Strata. Here’s how it looks on Vista.

And here is on Windows XP.

The Options window on Windows Vista with the new icons.

Mac OS X users get Firelight, a new Safari-like theme introduced with Beta 2, formerly known as Proto.

Linux users get Tango, a theme that blends with Gnome native icons.

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

According to the new guidelines, consistency across platforms is kept 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 more details on the Firefox 3 themes update, check out Alex Faaborg’s post.

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.

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 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.

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 location bar 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 by file name, size and download date. It’s also possible to select multiple items to open their containing folder, delete, cancel or retry them in a single click.

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.

When accessing advanced preferences (about:config), a warning is displayed.

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. The new site button, just next to the web address, 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 can also become a liability and an attack vector. To mitigate this, Firefox 3 requires add-ons updates to occur 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. In the Acid3 test Firefox 3 scores 71, behind Opera and WebKit (Safari engine) development releases which achieved both 100% a few weeks ago. While the value of the Acid3 test was questioned recently by Mozilla’s Mike Shaver, in practice, Firefox was just too close to release by the time the Acid3 test came out to aim to pass it.

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. It is however disabled by default to prevent unintended behaviors like background and foreground images not matching because color profiles were not considered.

It is possible to select discontinuous pieces of text and images 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. By default it will zoom the full page contents but it can be restricted to text only through the View menu.

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. You will have to authorize an application to save content to your computer and can also control how much space can offline applications use.

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 was 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 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 (1.6) 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.

about:crashes

The End

Until Firefox 3 final is released there is always a possibility that a third release candidate may be deemed necessary. QA has an RC2 test day scheduled for next Friday all users are more than welcomed to join, and the results of this and the following days will most likely answer whether RC2 will be just renamed or they will go squeeze a few more bugs.

According to the latest Mozilla’s Alex Polvi’s report “there are currently 800+ add-ons compatible with Firefox 3 (3.0+, not including betas) on Mozilla Add-ons. This accounts for roughly 60% of the total usage of add-ons.” With Firefox 3 final most likely to go out before this month’s end, the number seems low but there several popular extensions with some level of compatibility which may be waiting until the very last minute to polish all edges.

Firefox.next (most likely 3.1) is already targeted for late this year and will focus on adding what was left out for Firefox 3. This release would coincide with the debut of Firefox Mobile, Mozilla’s offering for mobile devices. The next major release would come late in 2009, when Firefox 4 will debut Mozilla 2, the overhauled Mozilla platform.

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