First Look: Mozilla quietly posts Firefox 3.1 beta 2

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First Look: Mozilla quietly posts Firefox 3.1 beta 2

Review – It is almost showtime: Mozilla quietly released Firefox 3.1 beta 2 over the weekend. Strangely enough, the software has not been announced and does not include release notes, implying that it should be seen as a small code refresh towards the third and final beta. However, during our first full day of testing, we spotted several new additions, including a much-improved crash recovery, a redesigned privacy mode page and new options to delete portions of the browsing history.

We recently reported on a release candidate of Firefox 3.1 beta 2 on Mozilla’s servers and it has not taken long for the “final” beta to surface. Mozilla posted the software on its FTP servers this past weekend, but the installation file is dated December 5 and left us scratching our heads: Although it definitely brings the updated code compared to the recent beta 2 release candidate, it appears that the software did not bring all end-user features of the shipping version. Mozilla originally said that beta 2 will be feature complete. Since it tweaked the development schedule with a third beta, we now believe that there will be a few more features in beta 3.

The base of the browser remains the updated Gecko 1.9.1 rendering platform and an optimized TraceMonkey JavaScript interpreter that is turned on by the default (previous versions required a manual tweak to activate Tracemonkey.) The updated software also shows improved results in Acid3 test that measure how well a browser conforms to web standards. The new build scored 93/100 on our test machine, while the Beta 1 scored 89/100. Beta versions of Opera 10 and Safari 4 score 100/100, which makes them the two most web standards-compliant browsers on the market.

Crash recovery, privacy mode icon, granularity of history deletion

Beta 2 added a new privacy icon, more granular options for the removal of the browsing history and a much-improved crash recovery system. The icon shows on a blank page when Private Browsing mode is invoked to illustrates what this option does. Mozilla clearly opted for something the press would not be able to dub anymore as “porn mode.” When you first enter the Privacy Browsing mode, the page conveniently offers the option to clear the recent browsing history before you start surfing, which comes in handy if you want to completely or selectively remove certain pieces of information from your browsing history before you start surfing anonymously.

The Clear Recent History option can also be accessed anytime through the Tools menu. It opens up a dialogue where you can opt to remove visited pages, the history of downloads, cookies, saved forms and past searches, active logins, cache of web files, saved passwords and offline data saved by web applications that support the new offline mode introduced in Firefox 3.1. The dialogue now contains a new drop-down list, which enables users to remove the entire browsing history, or just files that were accumulated over the last hour, the last 2 hours, the last 4 hours or the current day.

Unfortunately, users cannot choose to remove the browsing that is older than one day, unlike Chrome which lets users delete the browsing history of the past week, two weeks or four weeks but lacks Firefox 3.1’s granular options for removing the daily history. What we would like to see is the combination of the two, with options for a detailed daily history removal, in addition to the weekly and monthly history deletion.

The much-improved crash recovery feature that shows up when users restart the browser after a crash now offers to select tabs and windows you would like to restore, enabling you to leave out those that might have caused the crash. The browser should now also support so-called web workers that move the JavaScript thread to the background process, resulting in smoother tab switching, a more responsive user interface and snappier performance, especially on multi-core machines. Web workers are part of the HTML 5 specification and Firefox 3.1 Beta 2 is one of the few browsers to support them.

Existing features

The final candidate build of Beta 2 also contains all the features introduced in previous betas, like the new Private Browsing mode that ensures that no cookies, forms, URLs and pages are stored during the private browsing session, an optimized JavaScript engine dubbed Tracemonkey that delivers dramatic speed increases in JavaScript-heavy web applications like Gmail or Facebook and subtle tweaks.

Also present is the CTRL+TAB (with SHIFT modifier) shortcut that cycles forward and backward through open tabs, support for more CSS 3 properties and HTML

Features still missing

There are some promised features that are, however, missing from the beta 2 are an Opera-like Speed Dial feature that shows a grid of thumbnails of favorite sites when a new tab is created, a 3D preview during tab switching and built-in geolocation features, in addition to minor tweaks like a new tabs preview pane and tab searching field as well as an enhanced address bar.

We are also keeping our fingers crossed for whispered nice-to-haves that were dropped from the current Firefox release due to time constraints such as a download history in the Library, smart folders of downloaded files, additional control and privacy options for the URL bar, a new interface for multiple criteria queries, tag auto-complete, bulk tag bookmarks, and a drop-down menu with context-sensitive options for content zooming.

It turns out that Mozilla has shifted feature lock-down to the newly added beta 3 milestone, which should explain why the list of new features includes only web workers, an improved crash recovery, a privacy mode windows redesign and a more granular history deletion. This release is more significant for add-on developers who will use it as a stable base to test their add-ons code.

With several features in the pipeline, we need to wait for beta 3 that will obviously become the feature-complete release we have been waiting for. At that time, we will know how good Firefox 3.1 will be. That said, beta 2 is already a fantastic browser.  

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