Firefox 3.1 beta 1 released and reviewed

Mozilla has released Firefox 3.1 Beta 1, the first official development release of the next update to Firefox 3 just about four months after its release past June.

Firefox 3.1 is basically meant to be a completion release to get some features and enhancements that didn’t make it on time for the Firefox 3 final release. An example of this is the new tab switching behavior when pressing Ctrl + Tab (Cmd + Tab on Mac) which instead of moving to the next open tab, alternates between the current and previously viewed one. Keep Ctrl pressed while tabbing and a small dark window is overlaid  with thumbnails of the most recently used tabs. You can also click on the thumbnail to select it or, press W while holding the Ctrl key to close it.

While, after a few months of using it, I’ve come to rely on the new tab alternating behavior, I still can’t get used to the tab preview dialog and I don’t feel it helps me reach the desired tab any faster. Setting browser.ctrlTab.mostRecentlyUsed (via about:config) to false, and restarting Firefox, disables both the alternation and the thumbnails. I would prefer to have separate hidden options for each of the features.

Another update to tabbed browsing is the implementation of true tab drag and drop between windows (though tab reparenting instead of just a page reload as in Firefox 3), along with a dedicated button to open a new tab added to the tab bar, which is now turned on by default.

You can also press the Ctrl key while pressing the Reload button to reload the current page in a new tab.

Performance-wise, TraceMonkey is a new JavaScript optimization technique that significantly improves web applications performance. It’s not stable enough to be turned on by default but you can activate it setting javascript.options.jit.content to true via about:config.

If you are subscribed to dozens of web feeds you will appreciate the change to the way they are refreshed that prevents occasional freezing. I am subscribed to about a hundred feeds and where these freezes were common in Firefox 3, I haven’t seen any in the last three weeks since the fix was checked-in in the nightlies.

Firefox 3.1 will come with support for <audio> and <video> tags as defined in the HTML 5 specification and native support for open and free Ogg Theora and Vorbis video and audio formats.

Geolocation will enable Firefox to provide the current user location (with neighborhood or exact precision) to web sites that can use it to provide customized content. Geode, a Firefox 3 extension released last week, aims to test this feature in advance of Firefox 3.1 release to spot and address possible bugs, and most importantly, privacy concerns.

Options to exclude tags, bookmarks or history items from the awesome bar results that were originally planned for Firefox 3, are now in, and you can either filter them in using the default operator while typing in the location bar or make it permanent setting a few preferences in about:config. This should address privacy concerns many users have voiced since the feature was introduced in past June.

Tags can be edited for several bookmarks at a time.

Web developers are being treated to a bunch of powerful enhancements. CSS media queries allow developers to deliver content appropriate for the user’s screen size, resolution and color capabilities; query selectors let web programmers more effectively access relative page elements for better applications performance; support for HTML 5 drag and drop specification will also ease this common task; while experimental support for CSS transformations and SVG effects for HTML elements dramatically expand the possibilities for web designers with options to rotate, scale, blur, or solarize web elements a matter of a couple of lines.

Support for CSS @font-face, or the option to embed fonts in web pages so users automatically get the very same font and overall result, is also in. Mozilla is complementing this feature with a $5K grant to the Open Font Library project which collects public domain fonts web developers can freely use and distribute.

Cross-site XMLHttpRequests support is back in Firefox 3.1. It was pulled back from Firefox 3 because of late changes to the specification, but will now allow AJAX web applications to pull content from other web domains if the server allows it.

Beta 1 scores 89 in Acid3, a popular web standards compliance and performance test, about a 20% gain compared to Firefox 3’s 75. In nightly builds, Firefox already scores 90, and a handful of patches awaiting for review could push the mark to 97 as demonstrated in experimental Windows and Linux builds prepared by Ehsan Akhgari. In the meantime, WebKit nightlies already pass with a perfect and smooth 100 score as required.

With at least one beta ahead (and most likely two), there’s a lot more to come.

Most noticeably, a private browsing mode (which has suddenly become an expected feature with Chrome’s Incognito and Internet Explorer 8’s InPrivate following Safari’s implementation), tag autocompletion, an all tabs preview to replace the current List all tabs button (at the end of the tab bar), serious performance improvement to Places, Windows theme refresh, drag and drop tab detaching (to its own window), tab animations, and polished audio/video playback controls are all expected to land soon, along with the usual dose of performance and stability improvements including enabling TraceMonkey by default.

Also, an option to display PDF documents on Mac OS X within Firefox; a way to clear private data for a specific period of time are being pondered. A reviewed awesomebar (awesomebar++) would exclude bookmarks tagged as “private”, and will search open tabs from the location bar.

A better session restore feature that lets you select what windows and tabs you want to restore precisely is already available in the nightlies.

A second beta should be out by mid-November (following a scheduled November 4th code freeze), with a final Firefox 3.1 release targeted for early next year.

Get Firefox 3.1 Beta 1.

19 thoughts on “Firefox 3.1 beta 1 released and reviewed”

  1. Another great review Percy! I am totally loving the first image you have up top. It’s so transformer like. =P But I am definitely looking forward to all of these new enhancements in the final release of Firefox 3.1.

  2. as always, percy has done the best review/preview of firefox in the whole internet.

    percy, thank very much for doing this! you rock, mate

  3. Great review! Installed it for about 10 minutes today, but waiting for support for my add-ons before making the step. Firefox 3.1 will be truly awesome. As a webdeveloper I would like to use audio and video tags right away, but then I remember there’s people using IE, and I start thinking about all sorts of awful things like png-fixes and so on. :-(

    I also hope that I will be able to deactivate switch to last used tab, but keep the thumbnail animation.

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