Firefox 3 Beta 4 review

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.

Performance

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.

A very noticeable gain can be seen in JavaScript: it is about three times faster than Firefox 2 implementation. JavaScript is twice as important for Firefox since it is not only used for millions of web pages that use it but Firefox manages the UI through JavaScript code.

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.

Places

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.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 library

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.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 star

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 she’s looking for. Highlighting the match result also helps to direct the user’s attention.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 location bar

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.

Visual Refresh

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.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 main window

The Options window on Windows XP with the new icons.

Firefox 3 Beta 4 options

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.

Firefox 3 Beta 3 on Ubuntu

Firefox keyhole on MacOS XThe 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.

Toolbar splitterThe 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.

Firefox 3 with native menus

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.

Page Information dialog

75 Comments

  1. Joel Zarantonello March 16, 2008 10:30 pm 

    You can always just get the ‘IE tab’ extension for Firefox that allows you to load pages using IE’s engine but through Firefox. It also comes preset to automatically load the Windows Update page with IE’s engine. This way you can update using Firefox and Windows thinks your using IE. Best extension ever

  2. Mohan March 17, 2008 5:36 pm 

    well I have been using beta4 since it came out…man I love it. I used it extensively on both on my Win XP and Ubuntu systems and works great. I am really liking they direction Mozilla took with FF3 especially in the themes department.

  3. eyaler March 17, 2008 8:23 pm 

    duplicate tab does duplicate history!

  4. Steve March 19, 2008 12:18 pm 

    Since Firefox is able to do so many nifty tricks- has anyone ever contemplated changing the scrollbar from the right side to the left?

    On a laptop, it’d be sweet to have the scrollbar on the left side, where most of the action of the cursor takes place.

    I’m actually surprised no one’s done a plug in or a hack to do that yet. Just a thought.

  5. Mr. Wallentin March 20, 2008 6:15 am 

    As a software developer, I can tell you that it would be GUI suicide to change the placement of the scrollbar – as a default anyway.

    Usability is all about uniformity, and if you start moving around standard elements of the GUI, you absolutely ruin the overall usability.

  6. Steve March 20, 2008 2:09 pm 

    I wasn’t talking about changing the scrollbar from right to left for everyone, I was curious if it could be done via a hack or plugin, for those few weirdos like me that might prefer it on that side. Since the file/back/forward/ and other browser commands are typically assigned to the left side, it just would make things easier and faster for me to have the scrollbar on the left side, since that’s where most of my mouse work takes place.

    Just a plug in or a hack is all I want, not to change the way the world works.

  7. Mr. Wallentin March 21, 2008 12:09 pm 

    @Steve March

    Sorry … misunderstood you. My bad :-)

  8. Garret March 24, 2008 5:25 pm 

    I’ve been using Firefox since version 1.5.0.4, it is my everyday browser. I’ve used IE7,opera 9 but like FF because of it’s simple design, easier to use and as of ff3 beta 4 there are lot of improvements… but certain things that i wish could be better is that 1.the location bar in xp (as of beta 4) does not look good, the Go button is always not available, so i have to click the reload button, this makes confusion, it would be better if the Go button like of ff 2 would always be available on the location bar. 2. It would be better if the drop down menu bar on the location bar would look more visible. 3. the stop button does not look good, the previous one as of ff 2 was nice. 4. the home button with red roof looks distracting. 5. it would be better if i do not loose my cache due to browser crash or sudden power failure which happens in ff 2 6. why can’t we view the cache in firefox like of IE or opera (where we could view the jpeg or videos etc clearly from Temporary Internet Files in IE and cache in opera) 7. the most useful addon that i use is the real player browser record plugin but it is not compatible with ff 3 beta 4… I hope it will work with ff 3. 8. In ff 2 when i used to open new tab, it opens smoothly but in beta 4, i experienced blinking while opening new tab. 9. the save page as feature from right click within the browser window does not work on beta4, i had to save pages using ctrl+s and the download completed notification slide always pop up after i save pages.
    when i had 10 tabs open and using DTA downloading a file, the task manager showed beta 4 using 61,504k memory – Is this normal?
    Hope someone will reply here…

  9. Garret March 30, 2008 6:10 pm 

    Hello I had expected someone would reply…

  10. diskostu sagt… » Firefox 3.0 Beta4 ist raus April 2, 2008 1:55 am 

    [...] detaillierten Überblick über die Änderungen im Vergleich zur dritten Beta-Version gibt es im Review bei Mozilla Links. Es wird noch eine fünfte Beta-Version folgen; als CodeFreeze dafür ist bereits der 18. März [...]

  11. Ubuntu 8.04 LTS and Firefox 3 in brief « Starting-Up Sknow April 4, 2008 11:17 am 

    [...] that Firefox 3 couldn’t made in time to be released alongside Ubuntu 8.04. But cheer up, Firefox 3 beta 4 has been packed into the popular distro. We still have the chance to taste the Firefox 3 features, [...]

  12. beta tester April 13, 2008 2:33 pm 

    I can’t access Project Web Access webpage can you please include the use of active x controls until then I will never be able to utilize firefox as my main browser of choice.

    I hope that Firefox 3.0 will have active x installation capabilities.

    thanks.

    • Paul June 20, 2008 10:30 pm 

      Just add the add-on IE Tab. It will permit you to use active X features.

  13. Al Billings April 13, 2008 9:39 pm 

    There will never be any Active X support within Firefox. Active X is proprietary to Microsoft and it is a Windows only technology. Mozilla supports open standards and is cross-platform (Mac, Linux, Windows).

  14. Molecular Voices » Firefox 3 - making the web a little better April 15, 2008 12:00 am 

    [...] now, through the really rough times when bookmarking was totally broken, up until the present day (Firefox 3.0b4 – click for a short review). It’s really been an impressive transformation, and I think that it will mark a very nice [...]

  15. John April 22, 2008 3:22 pm 

    When moving the “HOME” button to the Navigation bar (or any other button for that matter), then the whole of Navigation bar
    goes INactive, meaning that No “File”, “Edit”, or any other navigation button is clickable after the move.
    please advise…

  16. Firefox sigue ganando terreno y alcanza el 29% en Europa April 26, 2008 10:52 am 

    [...] y seguro y por eso cuenta el apoyo de cada vez más europeos. Veremos como evoluciona con el FireFox 3 ya en su cuarta versión beta y el Explorer 8 en camino (sin olvidar que Safari y Opera que tampoco se duermen en los [...]

  17. Shivaram May 29, 2008 11:40 am 

    real player download video plugin not working

  18. tony June 21, 2008 11:19 am 

    I tried using firefox 3 but it still has bugs and i dont like being a tester for these companys so i still use firefox 2 which is great!
    http://firefoxfreebie.blogspot.com

  19. dvmorrison September 17, 2008 11:12 am 

    The incompatibility of Realplayer Download plugin in FF3 is more than a minor annoyance- first time I believe a new Firefox release has actually delivered less functionality. Though the Firefox Download Helper extension is a viable alternative for most downloads, the convenience and simplicity of the Realplayer plugin (single click) was preferable in most instances. Until such time that Mozilla or Realplayer (I don’t really care who provides the update) provides a FF3 compatible plugin, I’m reverting back to FF2 with its’ Realplayer download support, and also have increasingly been using IE7, where it is still supported; Don’t feel there’s sufficient increased functionality or security value in FF3 to overcome this omission.

    • John October 11, 2008 4:41 am 

      I’ve got the same situation. Looks like I need to do the same. Reverting back to FF2 or forget FF, just use IE.

Comments are closed.