After eleven months in development Firefox 2 is expected to be released tomorrow. As of this writing, Release Candidate 3 released last week will just be renamed to Firefox 2 and so be it. You can get Firefox 2 (on late Tuesday 24), here.
Since its first release, back in November 2004, the web browsers landscape has changed a lot. Competition is back and security, performance and features are again topics when talking about web browsers. Internet Explorer 7, Safari 2 and Opera 9 are all playing along and the great winners are of course us, the users.
Without more preamble, let’s give a look at Firefox 2.
First look: The visual refresh
Most apparent change in Firefox 2 is definitely its look. It was much criticized during its debut in Beta 2 because of its soft colors and somewhat enhanced for RC1 which is basically what we have here today. In general, we have glossy icons, integrated go and search buttons with their respective location and search bars, a new shape for the refresh buttons, glowing web feed and security icons and more distinguishable active and background tabs. Unfortunately some enhancements didn’t make it: integrating the location and progress bars a la Safari, which I would love to see. Another idea that made the round was converting the progress bar into a progress pie inside the throbber, which would make much sense. Other considerations like merging the stop and reload buttons and moving them inside the location bar along with the Go buttons didn’t make it either.
Firefox 2 in Windows XP with Luna Silver theme
Firefox 2 in MacOS X
Firefox 2 in Ubuntu 6.06
Reorganized user interface
As part of the user interface enhancements, the Options window got the most dramatic update, making it simpler and cleaner.
As you can see download options have been brought to the front, along with the option to start with the tabs and windows that were opened at last close time.
Simplified options in the Tabs options page. Plus an alert for warning when opening many tabs at a time, like when accidentally clicking on a Live Bookmark Show all in tabs.
The new Contents page. Again, streamlined and cleaner.
Simplicity is the key of the new Firefox user interface and the Feeds page keeps options down to two: subscribe automatically with the selected web feed reader or show me the web feed nicely formatted and ask me.
The Privacy page is where the most fat was removed mainly to the new Security page (below). Options have been reduced to a list of check boxes while all data is cleared from a single point in the Clear Private Data dialog.
The new Security page collects all security related options previously scattered among the Privacy, Contents and Advanced pages in one convenient view, including the new anti-phishing protection.
There is also a new dialog to enable/disable warning messages on web pages encryption levels.
The Advanced page shows a new option to enable/disable the spell checker. Also, the cache size option as well as proxy configuration have been moved to a new Network tab here.
The Go menu was renamed to more appropriate History, while Read mail option from the Tools menu was removed. New item Subscribe to this page… has been added to the Bookmarks menu.
Protection has been added to alert when you visit a known fake site. An alert pops up with options to ignore it, report the site or go to somewhere else.
If you encounter a phishing site that Firefox doesn’t properly identify, you can report it: in the Help menu, select Report Web Forgery and you’ll be able to help other users.
If you experience a crash in Firefox, fear not. The next time you start Firefox, it will detect an abnormal shut down and will prompt you to choose whether you want to restore the open session or start a new one. As easy as that. Restore Session will bring back all tabs you had previously open but bets with all contents you may have been typing such as blog posts, comments or a long email.
You can also choose to always restore the previous session when you start Firefox. In the Tools menu, select Options…. In the Main page select Show my windows and tabs from last time and you are done.
Firefox 2 automatically checks any text entered in multiline text boxes for proper spelling. Any word not found in the currently selected dictionary is highlighted with a red underline. Right-click in the misspelled word and you are prompted with options to replace it with a suggested word, or add it to your personal dictionary. Your personal dictionary is stored in persdict.dat in your profile, so you may want to include this file when you backup your Firefox settings.
If you tend to write in more than one language, you can add as many dictionaries as needed. Just right click in a text box and select Languages>Add dictionaries… You will be directed to Mozilla Add-ons dictionaries section. Dictionaries are available as extensions, so just click on one of them and have it installed. Restart Firefox, and now you can select the proper dictionary.
Single line text boxes are not automatically checked for spelling, but you can force it by right-clicking on it and selecting Spell check this field. You can disable spell checking in multiline text boxes in the same way. To completely disable spell checking, in the Tools menu, select Options…, open the Advanced page, and in the General tab, uncheck Check my spelling as I type.
I have noticed what seems to be a bug in the spell checker: if you have some words marked as unrecognized, marks will disappear as soon as you press Enter to start a new paragraph.
Firefox 2 finally gets tab overflow handling. If you usually have lots of tabs opened you should have noticed that in Firefox 1.5 and previous versions, tabs descriptions became increasingly short as more tabs were added, and at some point, tabs even overlapped with the close button. In Firefox 2, a minimum size has been defined for any tab so that there’s always a readable, understandable description. If more tabs need to be accommodated, scroll buttons are added to both edges of the tab bar, but you will find that the mouse wheel is a much more comfortable and efficient way to do it. There is also a new tab list button at the very right of the tab bar to easily select a tab.
Another change is the inclusion of the tab close button in every tab. If there are too many tabs, the close buttons is shown only in the active tab. For long time Firefox users this may be annoying at first, but I strongly suggest giving it a try. After months using the new layout I now find hard and unintuitive having a single close button. But if you want your single close button no matter what or would like the close button in the active tab only, or further customize tabs behavior, check this tip.
For those times when we have accidentally closed tabs where we were writing a very long email, a blog post or a forum comment, Firefox 2 now allows complete recovery of a closed tab. In the new History menu, select Recently Closed Tabs, and the tab you want to restore. It will magically reappear just as you left it.
The search bar has learned some new tricks as well.
Sites that offer suggestions when you start to type a search word (like Google and Yahoo!) are now supported and suggestions are displayed as you type. Your search history takes precedence however and previously entered terms are displayed separately from suggested terms. Suggestions can be deactivated from the search bar by right-clicking and unchecking Show suggestions.
Sherlock, the previous search engine plugin format has been replaced with modern OpenSearch. You can still install Sherlock plugins (like the thousands available at the Mycroft project) and Firefox will convert them on the fly to the new format. With OpenSearch, Firefox can detect a search plugin offered by a web site and turn the background color of the search engines list button into blue. You can then press it and select Add search engine to have it available.
Finally, a complete search engine manager is now provided. Here you can remove and sort the installed search plugins, deactivate suggestions for all search engines, and, in case you accidentally delete a bundled plugin, an option to restore all of them. There is also a link to Mozilla Add-ons’ Search Engines section for more search engines.
When you bookmark a web page for which a microsummary generator is available, the Add Bookmark dialog will show an option to use the actual bookmark title or a Live Title, which is a small summary of the web page. For example for auction pages it could be the current price and remaining time for the auction to end. For a stock reports, it could be the current price and day variation. And options are literally endless as more web sites adopt this technology. It can be manually updated by right clicking on the bookmark.
Web feeds (RSS/Atom) handling has also been improved. A new setting in the General page in the Options window allows to specify how web feed subscriptions should be handled.
Options are to subscribe using a third party application such as Thunderbird, NewsGator, RSS Reader and others; a web feed aggregation service such as Bloglines, Google Reader, My Yahoo or NetVibes or just let Firefox handle your subscription as Live Bookmarks. To add more online web feed reader, check this tip.
Feeds are now displayed nicely formatted instead of the raw code (RSS/Atom) shown before when you clicked on an RSS/Atom web feed link. Above the contents, options to subscribe to the displayed feed are presented.
Even more enhancements
In the security front, support for SSL version 2 (a weak version of SSL dating back to 1994) has been dropped. If you encounter a web site that fails to load because of this, you should really contact the web master to let him know the problem and update his web server to the better SSL version 3 or TLS 1 (both supported by Firefox). However a workaround exists.
A new installer is now available for Windows versions. It is now based on open source NSIS (Nullsoft Scriptable Installing System). It adds a couple of advantages over previous in-house developed Mozilla installer. First, it is a whole project dedicated to installing software so it delivers a higher level of flexibility and compatibility, including the option to download optional components/patches from the web at setup time, multiple languages in a single installer, patching and automated installation. Plus, NSIS is widely used by a number of other software makers so the interface may be already familiar for users.
Some people have voiced their concern that this release is not worth the 2.0 moniker. I however don’t understand the point. If numbers are to be believed, this version is as incremental as 1.5 was for 1.0 Firefox 1.5 basically brought the updates infrastructure, quick back and forward and tabs reordering, along with Clear Private Data. So, in terms of features, this update is sensibly larger, and makes it reasonable to sport at least the same version jump. Yes I know version numbers are not decimal, but I would like to see someone suggest this update should be called 1.10 with a straight face.
Firefox 2 brings a lot of usability enhancements that some old time users may found intrusive. While you get used to this changes you may want to try some customizations to better suite your taste.
I find Firefox 2 more stable than 1.5. I just can’t remember the last time it crashed. It still however has some memory clogging issues, though not as serious as in previous versions. Plus we can’t forget that Firefox is indeed a platform (that enables is extensibility) as well as an application so taking more memory should be expected. Some printing problems are still there and should get some attention for the next release, 3.0. I hope the Mozilla project may realize the importance of this and make an interim release focused in memory and printing alone.
Following Mozilla’s support policy, Firefox 1.5 will be supported until April 2007, 6 months from the latest release. But you have much more compelling reasons to update now: the features and the security enhancements.
Firefox 3 is already in the works under the code name Gran Paradiso. Among other enhancements, the inclusion of Places, a feature that integrates bookmarks and history in a single interface along with tag support, that should make bookmark pack rats more than happy. Also, Cairo should become Firefox’s graphic layer with some benefit including the possibility to natively opening and saving PDF files. Better support for upcoming Windows Vista, which is also already in the works.