Firefox 3 First Look

Features are all well and good but is the browser back to being a stable, reliable partner and has it stopped snatching up memory?

I've loved Firefox since version 0.93. It was so much better than Internet Explorer and the other alternatives that I couldn't imagine using anything else. But, then Firefox's memory leaks went from annoying me to ticking me off; I started having real stability problems with it on both Windows and Linux; and security holes started appearing far more often. I was about to switch to Safari on Windows and MacOS and Konqueror on Linux, when Mozilla got serious about not just fixing, but rebuilding Firefox. Now, Firefox 3 release candidate 1 was released early. Based on my quick look at it, I may end up sticking with Firefox after all.

I downloaded Firefox 3 RC 1 yesterday for both my Windows XP SP3 system and one of my openSUSE 10.3 PCs. Both are up-to-day systems without any problems. Installing the browser on both operating systems was a snap. How easy was it? I installed them at the same time with barely a thought.

Once in place, rather than looking at the new and nifty features, I just start using the browser as I would normally. Features are all well and good but what I really wanted to know was whether the browser was back to being a stable, reliable partner and had it stopped snatching up memory. I'm happy to report that, based on twelve hours of non-stop use and abuse, Firefox 3 is both more stable than Firefox 2.x and it finally has stopped being a memory piggy.

I also immediately noticed that two of my 'must-have' Firefox extensions, Google Browser Sync, which lets me sync my bookmarks over my two dozen plus PCs, and Google Toolbar, a toolbar that gives me easy access to Google search and Google applications like Gmail and Google Calendar, don't work yet with Firefox 3. Until they're supported this going to keep me from upgrading all my systems to Firefox 3, but that's the only thing that's stopping me.

Besides the better stability, Firefox 3 is also faster, a lot faster, at rendering Web pages. This is thanks to the improved Gecko 1.9 Web rendering platform. Complex pages, with text, graphics, and animations, now spring to my screen. Overall, I estimate that I'm seeing a 20 to 35 per cent boost in screen performance.

As for JavaScript rendering, here the numbers are better, but not wildly better, than the ones I've seen with Firefox 2.x. On the XP system, which is running on a 3GHz Pentium IV with a gigabyte of RAM, Firefox delivered a 5213.17ms performance on the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark. The same test on my openSUSE 10.3 PC, which uses an 1.86GHz Intel Core Duo E6320 processor with 1GB of RAM produced a 10,142.2ms on the same benchmark.

Mozilla claims that it will work twice as fast with heavily JavaScripted pages like Gmail. I didn't see that. I saw more of a 50 to 60 per cent speed boost.

When it comes to standards compliance, Firefox 3 does well, but not great, on the Acid3 CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) test with a 71 result. On the other hand, with the exception of the latest version of Safari, 87 the last time I tested it, all the other browsers I tried do far worse. Still, as far as real world use goes, Firefox 3 does an outstanding job of delivering the Web page goods.

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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols
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