Increasingly the Web browser of reference as Internet Explorer's dominance fades, the new Firefox for OS X gets an attractive new interface theme (finally!), the location bar gets tweaked, memory leaks have been plugged, session restore works beautifully, and beta or not Firefox 3 is a slick, stable and fast performer" />



Charles Moore Reviews The Firefox 3 Beta 3 Web Browser

13580 If we discount Microsoft's fading (91 percent market share in 2004 - down to about 75 percent today) Internet Explorer, Mozilla's Firefox is on its way to becoming the Internet browser standard of reference. Safari fans might argue the point, but Safari hasn't made much of an impression outside the Mac context, where of course it's the default OS X browser. Safari is now actually a very nice-performing browser, finally reaching maturity with the version 3 release in OS 10.5 Leopard and also the OS 10.4.11 update. However, in the broader Internet context, Firefox is the most prolific non-Microsoft browser by a wide margin. In January, the market research firm Net Applications reported that Firefox enjoys a nearly 17 percent market share, which someone who has crunched the numbers reports amounts to more than a 450 increase over a brief four year interval.

Given Firefox's category leader status (only the most hidebound Microsoft acolyte would claim innovation status for Internet Explorer), a new version is big news.

About three weeks ago, I posted a mini-review of Firefox 3 "Gran Paradiso" Beta 2, which I've been using for over a month now, and have found much about to like. It's very fast, and has for me been very reliable with minimal beta bugginess noted. Frankly, notwithstanding Mozilla's disclaimers that the version 3 betas are for developer evaluation only, I haven't encountered any reason not to use the version 3 browser for regular, workaday browsing. It works better for me than the latest Firefox 2 final.

Last week, Mozilla.org released Firefox 3 beta 3. Gotta love their incremental updates, which just download unobtrusively in the background, and then put up a dialog politely asking if you want to install them. If you give the go-ahead, it only take a minute or two, and then the program restarts and restores whatever pages or tabs you had open. Very slick and convenient. Incidentally, Firefox 3 does a masterful job of restoring your Web sessions even after routine close/startups. The program (again politely) asks you if you want to save the current session when you shut it down.

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Now, Firefox 3 beta 2 looked a whole lot like Firefox 2, which is to say it had the bland and uninspiring generic (Windowsy) Firefox interface theme. Indeed, one of the things that has always made me indifferent about using Firefox as an everyday browser has been the ugly and boring interface (I have the same aesthetic problem with Safari's interface). Yes, I know there are literally hundreds of skins available that you can use with Firefox, but I detest messing about with add-ons if it can be at all avoided. It's annoying to upgrade to a new version of your browser and then find some or all of your plugins are broken and need replacing.

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Consequently, perhaps the most exciting news for me about version 3 beta 3 is that Firefox finally gets a decent-looking user interface. Better than decent actually; it's quite attractive with a more native Mac OSX look, with smaller buttons and more compact tabs, putting me in mind a bit of the soon-to-be-terminated Netscape Navigator 9's compact navigation buttons, especially the siamesed Back/Forward buttons - only a little bit larger and in OS X Platinum rather than Netscape green, and Firefox has separate Reload and Stop Loading buttons, where Navigator has one do-all button for those functions and uses the extra space for New Tab and Home buttons, so the net result is that Firefox has three buttons in the upper left corner and Navigator has four, but I never used the New Tab (keyboard shortcut it quicker) or Home buttons anyway. In Firefox 3, the Home button has been moved to a row of shortcut buttons below the navigation toolbar.


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I still like the green Netscape theme best (there's a skin theme available for Firefox 2 that makes it look like Navigator 9, but it doesn't work with version 3 yet), but I'm no longer sure that I like the Mac-only Camino browser's look better than Firefox's. This is (finally) a good-looking browser.


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Firefox 3's location bar autocomplete now looks on visited and bookmarked page titles and tags as well as web addresses, and highlights which parts of the page title and/or URL match the entered text. Results for autocomplete are shown in two lines: one for page title and the other for web address, and in contrasting colors making it easier to isolate one or the other depending on what you're looking for. Also, matched terms are highlighted to direct attention. Beta 3's Smart Location feature incorporates an improved search algorithm that ôcalculates the recency and frequencyö of sites visited to help yield search results of highest relevancy. You can also associate keywords with bookmarks to sort them by topic.


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The downloads manager has also been improved (although I still think Opera has the best downloads manager in the business), with support for searching through previous downloads, resuming downloads between sessions, and it now displays the domain of the source site next to each completed download. The Places feature, which organizes bookmarks and browser history, has also been enhanced, offering improved search functionality and a new Smart Bookmarks folder on the Bookmarks Toolbar.

It is now possible to search History, tags and bookmarks with a real, configurable search interface, and the Mac OS X version of Firefox 3 now has full support for native widgets in forms.

Probably my favorite new feature in Firefox 3 is that before shutting down Firefox puts up a dialog asking if you want to save the contents of tabs in your current browsing session. IN most instances I definitely do, and the icing on the proverbial cake is that the tabs get reloaded from the cache, which no longer gets dumped on shutdown if you choose the save option with satisfying dispatch upon starting the program again. This is a big enhancement from Firefox 2's ability to remember the contents of tabs after program crashes.

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Firefox 3 features:

  • Redesigned download manager

  • Redesigned add-ons manager

  • Download pause and resume

  • Visual refresh

  • Places

  • Redesigned location bar

  • Full page zoom

  • Offline web apps support

  • Security improvements

  • Better OS integration

  • Web content and protocol handling

  • Discontinuous selections



Firefox 3 is based on Mozilla's new Gecko 1.9 Web rendering platform, which has been under development for the past 29 months and reportedly includes nearly 2 million lines of code changes, fixing more than 11,000 issues. Gecko 1.9 includes some major re-architecting for performance, stability, correctness, and code simplification and sustainability. Firefox 3 has been built on top of this new platform resulting in a more secure, easier to use, more personal product with a lot under the hood to offer website and Firefox add-on developers.

Of particular interest to Mac-users Firefox 3 now uses the OS X spellchecker and supports Growl for notifications of completed downloads and available updates, and the new Native Web page forms feature: HTML forms on Web pages now have a native look and feel on Mac OS X (as well as Linux Gnome) desktops.

I've found the Firefox 3 beta 3 browser to be quite stable, but I have encountered some bugginess. I do a lot of posting to Web CGI forms via drag & drop, and one evening D&D support crapped out, just dumping some code string rather than the blocks of text I was moving. Stopping and restarting the program fixed it, so not a biggie. I also find that sometimes I have to double-pump to bring the program to the foreground by clicking on a window.

Another caveat is that switching to Firefox 3 will likely break any plugins you're you're using with Firefox 2. Not a biggie for me (viz. my previous comments about my disaffection for complicating my life with add-ons), although I do hope that WeatherBug will update their weather monitor plugin, which was included with all Netscape Navigator versions up until the final version, but dropped with the release of version 2.0.0.6 this week, for Firefox 3.

Reportedly, Firefox 3.0's memory demands (especially its notorious memory leaks of which some 350 have reportedly been plugged) have been "dramatically improved," and it does seem like a better citizen on my Desktop than earlier versions.

No release date has been announced for the Firefox 3 final, and one more beta is expected before that happens. In the meantime, beta 3 is a pretty decent ride, and I would not think of going back to version 2.

Here are some more Firefox 3 improvements:

More Secure

  • One-click site info: Click the site favicon in the location bar to see who owns the site. Identity verification is prominently displayed and easier to understand. In later versions, Extended Validation SSL certificate information will be displayed.

  • Malware Protection: malware protection warns users when they arrive at sites which are known to install viruses, spyware, trojans or other malware. You can test it here (note: our blacklist of malware sites is not yet activated).

  • New Web Forgery Protection page: the content of pages suspected as web forgeries is no longer shown. You can test it here.

  • New SSL error pages: clearer and stricter error pages are used when Firefox encounters an invalid SSL certificate.

  • Add-ons and Plugin version check: Firefox now automatically checks add-on and plugin versions and will disable older, insecure versions.

  • Secure add-on updates: to improve add-on update security, add-ons that provide updates in an insecure manner will be disabled.

  • Anti-virus integration: Firefox will inform anti-virus software when downloading executables.

  • Vista Parental Controls: Firefox now respects the Vista system-wide parental control setting for disabling file downloads.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Effective top-level domain (eTLD) service better restricts cookies and other restricted content to a single domain.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Better protection against cross-site JSON data leaks.



Easier to Use


  • Easier password management: an information bar replaces the old password dialog so you can now save passwords after a successful login.

  • Simplified add-on installation: the add-ons whitelist has been removed making it possible to install extensions from third-party sites in fewer clicks.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] New Download Manager: the revised download manager makes it much easier to locate downloaded files, and displays where a file came from.

  • Resumable downloading: users can now resume downloads after restarting the browser or resetting your network connection.

  • Full page zoom: from the View menu and via keyboard shortcuts, the new zooming feature lets you zoom in and out of entire pages, scaling the layout, text and images.

  • Tab scrolling and quickmenu: tabs are easier to locate with the new tab scrolling and tab quickmenu.

  • Save what you were doing: Firefox will prompt users to save tabs on exit.

  • Optimized Open in Tabs behavior: opening a folder of bookmarks in tabs now appends the new tabs rather than overwriting.

  • Location and Search bar size can now be customized with a simple resizer item.

  • Text selection improvements: multiple text selections can be made with Ctrl/Cmd; double-click drag selects in "word-by-word" mode; triple-clicking selects a paragraph.

  • Find toolbar: the Find toolbar now opens with the current selection.

  • Plugin management: users can disable individual plugins in the Add-on Manager.

  • Integration with Vista: Firefox's menus now display using Vista's native theme.

  • Integration with the Mac: Firefox now uses the OS X spellchecker and supports Growl for notifications of completed downloads and available updates.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Integration with Linux: Firefox's default icons, buttons, and menu styles now use the native GTK theme.



More Personal

  • Star button: quickly add bookmarks from the location bar with a single click; a second click lets you file and tag them.

  • Tags: associate keywords with your bookmarks to sort them by topic.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Location bar & auto-complete: type in all or part of the title, tag or address of a page to see a list of matches from your history and bookmarks; a new display makes it easier to scan through the matching results and find that page you're looking for.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Smart Bookmarks Folder: quickly access your recently bookmarked and tagged pages, as well as your more frequently visited pages with the new smart bookmarks folder on your bookmark toolbar.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Places Organizer: view, organize and search through all of your bookmarks, tags, and browsing history with multiple views and smart folders to store your frequent searches.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Web-based protocol handlers: web applications, such as your favorite webmail provider, can now be used instead of desktop applications for handling mailto: links from other sites. Similar support is available for other protocols (Web applications will have to first enable this by registering as handlers with Firefox).

  • Easy to use Download Actions: a new Applications preferences pane provides a better UI for configuring handlers for various file types and protocol schemes.

  • Improved Platform for Developers

  • New graphics and font handling: new graphics and text rendering architectures in Gecko 1.9 provides rendering improvements in CSS, SVG as well as improved display of fonts with ligatures and complex scripts.

  • Native Web page forms: HTML forms on Web pages now have a native look and feel on Mac OS X and Linux (Gnome) desktops.

  • Color management: (set gfx.color_management.enabled on in about:config and restart the browser to enable.) Firefox can now adjust images with embedded color profiles.

  • Offline support: enables web applications to provide offline functionality (website authors must add support for offline browsing to their site for this feature to be available to users).

  • A more complete overview of Firefox 3 for developers is available for website and add-on developers.

  • Improved Performance

  • Reliability: A user's bookmarks, history, cookies, and preferences are now stored in a transactionally secure database format which will prevent data loss even if their system crashes.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Speed: Major architectural changes (such as the move to Cairo and a rewrite to how reflowing a page layout works) put foundations in place for major performance tuning which have resulted in speed increases in Beta 2, and will show further gains in future Beta releases.

  • [Improved in Beta 2!] Memory usage: Over 300 individual memory leaks have been plugged, and a new XPCOM cycle collector completely eliminates many more. Developers are continuing to work on optimizing memory use (by releasing cached objects more quickly) and reducing fragmentation. Beta 2 includes over 30 more memory leak fixes, and 11 improvements to our memory footprint.



System requirements:
Mac OS X 10.4 and later

Minimum Hardware
Macintosh computer with an Intel x86 or PowerPC G3, G4, or G5 processor
128 MB RAM (Recommended: 256 MB RAM or greater)
200 MB hard drive space

You can download Firefox 3 Beta 3 here:
http://en.www.mozilla.com/en/firefox/all-beta.html




Charles W. Moore



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