Firefox 3 Beta 2 shows some nifty new tools we can expect in Mozilla's next browser.
New versions of favorite applications are always a little tricky; you want to keep up with the times without fixing what ain't broke. With that in mind, I took a look at the newly released Firefox 3 Beta 2 to see what we can look forward to when the final version ships in 2008.
Although the basic look of the browser hasn't changed, there are actually quite a few new features coming. (For a complete list, you can check out Mozilla's release notes.)
[Improved in Beta 2!] Firefox 3 Beta 2 includes approximately 900 improvements over the previous beta, including fixes for stability, performance, memory usage, platform enhancements and user interface improvements. Many of these improvements were based on community feedback from the previous beta.
Some of the new features in Firefox 3 are not immediately obvious -- at least, not to the casual user. Among other things, Mozilla is incorporating new graphics- and text-rendering architectures in its browser layout engine (Gecko 1.9) to offer rendering improvements in CSS and SVG; adding a number of security features, including malware protection and version checks of its add-ons; and off-line support for suitably coded Web applications.
Other new features -- some of which are listed here -- are more visible to end users, such as the menu bar that now appears asking if you want to save a just-entered password. Indeed, I've wondered if the browser will become top-heavy with built-in features that were already available as add-ons.
For example, Firefox 3 Beta 2 adds the ability to save your existing tabs when you close the app down, and it has enhanced the browser's ability to magnify Web pages from just affecting text to taking in the entire page -- features that are already available via the Tab Mix Plus and Image Zoom extensions. Right now, it looks like the new version will escape that particular criticism -- its memory footprint is, if anything, smaller than that of Version 2 -- but time alone will tell.
Incidentally, if you'd like to try out the new beta, feel free -- but be aware that this is a beta version in the traditional sense, not the sort of eternal beta you get with, say, Google Docs. As a result, there is as of yet no support for current add-ons. (Correction: There are some extensions, such as Adblock Plus, that will work with Firefox 3 Beta 2 -- but you should still be cautious.) And there are still a few serious glitches -- for example, you're going to get an error message if you try to use Yahoo's newer e-mail format. (According to Mozilla's bug report, this is a problem on Yahoo's end -- but whoever is responsible, as of this writing, it doesn't work.)
All that being said, here are the five new and/or enhanced features in Firefox 3 Beta 2 that most caught my attention:
1. Easier downloads. While the older Download Manager was quite serviceable, Mozilla has made some nice tweaks in the new version. It now lists not only the file name, but the URL it was downloaded from, and includes an icon that leads to information about when and where you downloaded it. (The Remove link has been, well, removed from the Download manager -- you now have to right-click to delete a listing.)
But the new feature I really approve of is the ability to resume a download that may have been abruptly stopped because Firefox, or your system, crashed. I tried it out by using the Task Manager to end firefox.exe during a download; when I brought Firefox up again, the Download Manager resumed the download as if nothing had happened.
Since I've wasted a lot of time over the years having to deal with repeatedly failing downloads, this is something I appreciate.
2. An enhanced address bar. Mozilla has also made improvements in the autocomplete function of its address bar (which Mozilla calls a "location bar"), and I have to say I find it both impressive and useful. In Firefox 3 Beta 2, the autocomplete doesn't just offer a list of URLs that you've been to, but includes sites that are in your bookmark list.
It then gives you a nice, clear listing of the URLs and site names in large, easy-to-read text, with the typed-in phrase underlined. It makes it really simple to find and return to that semi-remembered Web site you visited a few days ago.
3. A workable bookmark organizer. Speaking of bookmarks, the separate history/bookmarks sidebars and managers have been replaced -- or, rather, augmented -- by a single Places Organizer, which uses Windows Explorer's familiar tree-on-the-left/list-on-the-right format. It offers a simple, quick way to read and manage your history and bookmarks -- including the ability to immediately edit a bookmark's name, location and tags rather than having to go into the Properties box (something that I was really sick of in Version 2).
4. Easier bookmarking. There are, in fact, quite a few new features involving bookmarking, some of which are small but highly useful. For example, you can now quickly create a bookmark by double-clicking on a star that appears in the right side of the address bar. You can also add tags to your bookmarks, which could work nicely as an organizational tool.
There is also new folder called Smart Bookmarks in the toolbar. It offers three categories of bookmarks -- Most Visited, Recently Bookmarked and Recent Tags -- and is automatically populated during the course of your Web sessions. Since, like most people, I have a series of sites that I tend to visit regularly, I can see how something like the Most Visited list could prove handy as a one-click resource for my daily surfing. (I could, of course, create my own folder for these sites, but it's a lot easier to let Firefox do it.) My only quibble: A Recently Visited list would also be handy -- more handy, I think, than a list of sites that were recently bookmarked.
5. Better memory management. I'm a great fan of Firefox, but there have been times when I've considered going back to Internet Explorer because of issues I was having with memory. After a couple of hours of adding and dropping tabs, Firefox could commandeer nearly 200MB of memory, at which point I'd usually have to shut it down to prevent my other apps from grinding to a halt. It was very frustrating -- especially when the folks at Mozilla denied that it was really a problem.
It now looks like that may have finally been taken care of. Mozilla has announced that the new version handles memory usage better, so I decided to put it through a modest test. I opened the Firefox 3 beta and my current copy of Firefox 18.104.22.168 on different systems; initial memory usage for the current version (with add-ons disabled) was 25,740KB, about 100KB less than the new beta's usage of 25,848KB. I then opened five tabs in both versions, ran a two-minute YouTube video, and shut everything down but the initial home page. At that point, Firefox 3 Beta 2 was using 46,296KB of memory -- more than 2,500KB less than the 48,968KB that Firefox 2 was using.
This is admittedly not comprehensive or conclusive testing, but if that trend extends to long-term usage, I can see the latest version of Firefox taking up a lot less memory than its predecessor.
According to Mozilla's Firefox 3 Beta 2 release notes, "There's still more to come." That could be good -- or bad. Firefox became popular because it was lean, mean and user-tweakable, and I'd hate to see Mozilla lose that focus.
Certainly, if Firefox 3 Beta 2 is anything to go by, the Mozilla team is doing a fine job in balancing new features with a basic philosophy of "don't fix what ain't broke." We can only hope that they will continue following this adage as time goes on and the final release grows closer.