A couple of months ago, I downloaded a beta version of Firefox 3 just to look at the new ideas Mozilla was working on. My intention was to try it for a couple days, then switch back to Firefox 2. I wasn't worried about stability (it's a browser after all — what's the worst that can happen?). But the beta wasn't compatible with lots of my favourite extensions and who wants to live without them?
As it turns out, I'm still using a prerelease version of Firefox (they're at Release Candidate 1 now) and loving it, even without my beloved add-ons. The improvements Mozilla has made to the browser, while subtle, are so helpful that I didn't want to give them up. Here are five of my favourites.
1. Much Better Performance
If you've used previous versions of Firefox you've likely had this experience, perhaps frequently: you're working away, but gradually become aware that something is horribly wrong with your PC. It's sluggish and apps take forever to load. You open up Task Manager and find that Firefox is chewing up 95 percent of your CPU cycles. Once you kill the browser and start over, you're running fine again.
I can't remember the last time I've had that experience with the Firefox 3 betas. Mozilla developers borrowed some memory management tricks from the Free BSD operating system for the Windows and Linux versions of Firefox. (They say memory management on Macs already worked pretty well.) The effect is clear. The browser is much less likely to commandeer too many system resources. And Firefox's developers worked to make sure that add-ons, notorious memory thieves, don't cause problems either. They've rolled in cycle collectors that help prevent extensions from locking up RAM and not giving it back. They're also distributing tools to third-party developers that will help them build more abstemious add-ons.
2. The "Awesome Bar"
Okay, so the official name is the Location Bar, the field where you enter URLs you want to visit. But beta testers have nicknamed it the Awesome Bar and it is, well, pretty awesome. Enter text in the Location Bar and a dropdown list appears of pages from your browsing history that include that text, not just in the URL, but in the page title or the page's tag (see #4 below). The list even includes Gmail messages that include that word in the subject line. If you've already visited a Web page, there's a good chance it's useful to you. The Location Bar lets you very quickly search that useful subset of the Web.
3. Can't Miss Warnings
Lots of browsers have had phishing warnings before (including Firefox), but they've been wimpy. Usually they involve some part of the address bar changing colour or some icon popping up near the URL. The problem is they're too easy to miss. I'm not looking at the address bar when I'm waiting for a page to load. I'm looking at the main well of the browser where the page will display.
But there's no danger of missing one of Firefox's new warnings. When you enter the URL of a suspected attack site, Firefox brings up a full-page warning. With a click, you can see a detailed explanation of why the site was blocked. Or you can just click "Get me out of here," which takes you to Firefox's start page. If you really want to live dangerously, there's a small link that lets you ignore the warning and proceed to the suspect site.
4. Better Bookmarks
If you like a page, you just click the star in the Location Bar and it's a favourite. A dropdown box lets you name it, choose a folder to put it in or add a tag to categorise it. Bookmarks (and your browsing history) are now stored in a database, which means you don't have to spend so much time organising bookmark folders. You can perform detailed searches of your bookmarks, then save that search as a special folder. Any new bookmarked page that fits the criteria automatically goes in the folder.
5. Whole-page Zooming
Magnifying a page in Firefox 2 caused the text to pop out of its containers. Firefox 3 magnifies the entire page in proportion.
If your eyes aren't what they used to be, it's nice to bump up the size of text on Web pages, as Firefox 2 will do. But it only changes the text size -- the other elements remain the same size. That makes for pages that look like The Incredible Hulk, with words bursting through the boxs and tabs that are supposed to contain them.
The new Firefox magnifies everything on the page equally. Everything remains in proportion, but becomes easier to read. And the next time you visit that page, it'll display at the same level of zoom.