Firefox 3 Beta 4 is about to be released (later today or tomorrow), as the twelfth milestone, in what already is the longest development time for a Firefox version since the initial Firefox 1.0 back in 2004.
Fortunately, Mozilla has not been shy to set as many milestones as needed, and given the many new features and tweaks Firefox 3 introduces, it seems anything but sensible, specially considering it’s not only about Firefox but Gecko, the web page rendering engine and the Mozilla platform as a whole which affects the many products based on it.
Firefox 3 gets several performance improvement gains. Among them, profile guided optimizations (PGO) provides an optimized Firefox build based on the way it internally works. So far it is only available for Windows. Linux should follow shortly and Mac OS X could also make it before final release.
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 eat up when Firefox is idle as it has been reported several times in the past for Firefox 2.
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), what to search (visited date, web address or title), combine criteria 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 and add tags which you can later use to perform searches.
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 sheâ€™s looking for. Highlighting the match result also helps to direct the userâ€™s attention.
New in Beta 4 is adaptive learning: Firefox will keep an eye of what you type and what you select. After a few repetitions Firefox will understand what you’re trying to do and provide better suggestions. This should address the case where frecency (a combined frequency and recency index) didn’t provide the best results.
Beta 4 also brings support for multiword search so “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.
One of the most visible changes are the theme updates in all platforms. On Windows XP and Vista, a large part of the planned new XP icons has been added to the main toolbar, the Options window, the Download Manager, here and there. Beta 4 introduces some minor changes to the back and forward buttons with arrow styles that better blend with the other main stop and reload icons.
The Options window on Windows XP with the new icons.
Mac OS X users get Proto, a new Safari-like theme introduced with Beta 2. Linux users also get a very well integrated theme that uses native icons.
The back and forward buttons have been combined in a single keyhole-shaped widget featuring a single history menu and is now featured in all platforms except Linux.
According to the new guidelines, consistency across platforms is obtained 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 those who prefer the old back/forward buttons style, an option to split them is being considered. There could also be a revised throbber (the connection activity indicator) coming soon.
The Home button has been moved to the Bookmarks toolbar by default but can be easily moved back: Select Toolbars and then Customize… from the View menu. Drag the home button to the navigation bar.
An invisible splitter is added between the location and search bars when they are placed next to each other. It lets you customize their width.
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.