Why Firefox 3 matters

Posted by Christian Zibreg

Review – According to Mozilla, Firefox 3 final is just days away from its release and there is every indication that the RC2 released today may actually represent the final version of the browser. That was reason enough for us to give Firefox 3 RC2 a thorough test drive and single out the most important  improvements you can expect over Firefox 2.0.x.

Firefox 3 is a massive upgrade over Firefox 2 with more than 14,000 changes over the 2.0 generation that was released in October of 2006. The great majority of those changes happened under the hood and aren’t immediately visible to, but there are enough user-centric improvements to make this new version a worthwhile update.    

If you expect Firefox 3 to be drastically different in appearance, features and UI philosophy than what the previous version offered, then you will be disappointed up to the fact when you may wonder if this new browser should have been an incremental and minor upgrade instead. For instance, when you first fire up Firefox 3, you will hardly notice any visible difference to the previous version. However, there was nothing really wrong with the previous interface anyway and we are just fine with an evolutionary modification.

There are many minor tweaks subtle enhancements that you may be noticing only over days of regular usage. To us, the interface looks like an intelligently, thoroughly improved product that offers much more fluid browsing experience than the previous version. As the time goes by, you really begin noticing that Mozilla dramatically improved the browser code, mostly evident in visible speed improvements. Here is a low-down of the most important Firefox 3 improvements.

Speedier, more reliable performance

Firefox 3 sports an overhauled Gecko rendering engine, now in version 1.9, which delivers significant performance improvements. This directly translates to a visibly speedier performance of the web browser in general, especially through with faster page loading times. The run-time performance is notably accelerated over Firefox 2, especially with multiple tabs open at once. Even with 30 tabs open, Firefox 3 remained much more responsive than Firefox 2, which had a tendency to slow down your PC.

The JavaScript engine, a critical browser component powering web applications such as Gmail, Google Docs, Yahoo Mail, Zoho Office etc., has been optimized, leading to an increased UI responsiveness and faster performance in web applications. Mozilla claims sites such as Gmail will run twice as fast in Firefox 3. At least the web applications I am using on a daily basis felt, subjectively, faster and more responsive.

Better memory handling

Widely reported memory leaking bugs in Firefox 2 often lead to system memory fragmentation as the browser fails to return allocated chunks of memory when exiting. This problem has been addressed in an apparently proper way. We were not able to detect any memory leaks in Firefox 3. The browser has a slightly larger memory footprint (33.5 MB compared to Firefox 2's 26 MB), while both browsers seem to use an equal amount of memory when opening multiple tabs. 30 TG Daily tabs resulted 84.5 MB of allocated memory in Firefox 3, while Firefox 2 ended up at 79 MB.

Protection against phishing sites

Phishing refers to a malicious cheating technique that involves pixel-perfect clones of established sites, such as PayPal, to fool users into providing critical data such as login credentials or credit card information. Microsoft’s Internet Explorer comes with a built-in security certificate called Extended Validation (EV) SSL, which is a set of rigorous security checks of the operator of a website. EV certificates promise that a website you are visiting is genuine. IE indicates this by changing address bar background to green while you visit a site with EV certificate. Firefox, however, lacked EV support by default and was available in version only through a third-party add-on.

Firefox 3 now supports EV certificate by default. If you visit PayPal, the site's icon is prominently displayed as a green button in the Firefox 3 address bar, which you can click to get the details of the site's certificate, check the owner of the site and see if the connection between Firefox 3 and the site is protected from eavesdropping. This can mean a world of difference to less experienced users. So, if you visit PayPal to login into your account, check for the green bar first. If it's not there, think twice before using your login credentials and check the website address again.

Improved malware protection and notification

Firefox 3 includes improved protection against sites known to distribute harmful code, such as spyware, trojans, viruses, etc. Firefox 2 had basic protection against such sites by checking the website against Google's database of harmful sites or a publicly available database, based on your preference. Firefox 3 also tweaks web forgery protection by not showing the content of pages suspected as forgeries. Firefox 3 no longer has the preference option to choose between Google and the Mozilla database, but offers users an option options to activate malware and web forgery protection.

When Firefox 3 encounters an invalid SSL certificate, it now shows a more detailed error page. Whenever you start the browser, it checks your add-ons and plug-in versions to disable incompatible software, reducing the chances of browser instability due to incompatible add-ons or plug-ins. Firefox 3 is now integrated with your anti-virus software in a way that it automatically notifies the anti-virus application whenever it starts downloading an executable file. If you set Vista Parental Controls to disable file downloads for a certain user account, Firefox 3 will respect this setting and not allow downloads.

 

Read on the next page, Bookmarks, offline support, tweaks and conclusion


 

 

Bookmark management

All browsers suffer from old-school bookmark management based on an idea of separating bookmarks into categories. However, over past few years we've grown accustomed to tags, often used in many web sites. Firefox 3 finally introduces tags to allow you to associate bookmarks with keywords in order to sort content by topic. For example, you can tag the TG Daily site with "IT", "News" and "Technology" instead of setting a bookmark simply in the News category.

When you want to bookmark a site, you can click on a star icon placed on the right part of the address bar. One click adds a bookmark, another click opens a small menu where you can file the bookmark into a folder and apply one or more tags. It turns out to be a huge time-saver, which could make you actually want to use the bookmark feature, instead of resorting to an online bookmarking service.

The new smart bookmarks automatically organize sites according to certain criteria. The three default smart bookmarks offer one-click access to your recently bookmarked and tagged pages, as well as most visited sites. If you place the “Most Visited” smart bookmark on a bookmark bar, a click is all it takes to get a drop-down menu with an automatically updated list of the sites you visit most often.

The interface for organizing all your bookmarks, tags and browsing history (Places Organizer) has been revamped in Firefox 3. Besides a cleaner UI layout and improved speed, the new interface makes it easy to create and restore a full backup of all your bookmarks, tag and browsing history, with multiple view and sorting options. I particularly like the option to store the frequent searches I perform on Google which I can later access through the address bar. I found the Places Organizer to be a very convenient way to manage my bookmarks. I've actually started using it on an everyday basis, unlike bookmarking features in Firefox 2. which I've never used.

Other minor under-the-hood tweaks

Firefox 3 sports several minor tweaks and under the hood improvements that may not be apparent to everyone. The list of tweaks is too long to mention here, but here are the most important tweaks that we believe will make a difference.

First, you will notice that auto-complete in the address bar now works much better. You can type in part of the site's title, tag or URL to see list of matches from your browsing history or bookmarks. Each entry (site) in the list is presented with two lines, the first line showing a site icon and title and the other showing the URL, making it easier to quickly locate the destination you are looking for. Also, it appears that these entries are sorted in a much more relevant way than in Firefox 2.

All of your bookmarks, history, cookies and preference settings are stored in a transitionally secure database format that will prevent data loss even if your system crashes.

If you open lots of tabs, Firefox 3 shows a new tab scrolling feature and quickmenu options to help locating the tab you are looking for. Firefox 3 now will also ask you to save tabs before exiting. The “Open in Tabs” option, which opens a folder of bookmarks in tabs, will appends new tabs rather than overwrite existing ones.

The Add-ons manager (Tolls > Add-ons) offers a way to directly search, browse and install browser extensions, themes and plug-ins from within the Add-ons interface. You can also disable individual plug-ins from within Add-ons manager.

Improved protocol handlers (components that determine how to handle certain file and link types in a browser) make it possible to use, for example, web-based mail applications such as Gmail to handle email links on other sites. Web applications will have to first enable this feature by registering as handlers with Firefox. The new Applications tab in Firefox 3 preferences (Tools > Options) sports an enhanced UI for configuring handlers for file types and protocol schemes.

The Download Manager is Firefox 3 is revised and finally makes it possible to resume canceled downloads, even after restarting the browser. The new UI makes it easier to locate downloaded files and actually displays the name of the website where a file came from. The browser status bar now always shows the total and remaining download time.

Besides more attractive icons, Firefox 3 for Windows finally uses OS interface elements to render web forms. The browser still doesn't use native Mac OS X UI elements, but it fools you into thinking you are running a native OS X application by using a custom-theme that imitates OS X. Firefox 3 uses OS X widgets and supports Growl for notifications of completed downloads and available updates.

Zooming web pages works much betters as well. Unlike Firefox 2, which increases only text size, Firefox 3 now can scale the entire page layout, including images (the browser smoothes images during zooming). The result is true zooming, with the whole page growing bigger while you zoom in. Zoom settings are remembered for each site and will be used whenever you return to the site. You can still choose to zoom only text, if you like.

Hidden killer feature: Offline support

Well, it's actually not a hidden but a developer feature, which won't be visible to you until web sites have updated their code for Firefox 3. But Firefox 3 now includes its own transactional database and offline support that enables web applications to provide offline functionality, similar to Google Gears. In theory, this means that you will be able to access your Facebook friends list and read or write your messages while you are offline. Or, you could be reading and writing email messages in Gmail while offline. The browser would keep the code and content written in its own secure database and will automatically sync the changes when you are back online.

Conclusion

You may be arguing whether Firefox 3 is really a necessary update over Firefox 2 and the answer will depend on your preferences. Firefox 2 already has been a very solid browser. However, what convinced us was the dramatic and very apparent speed improvement, which justifies the download of this 7.1 MB package all by itself.

Expect the final version to be released by mid-June.