Firefox 4 adds speed and tames your tabs

The latest version of Mozilla's browser joins its peers with a clean interface and increased performance.

It's been a long wait for Firefox 4; it was nearly two years ago that Firefox 3.5 was released. A lot has changed in the browser world since then. But though the wait has been a long one, it has paid off for those with patience: Firefox 4 is a winner.

It features a clean interface, competitive speed, HTML5 compatibility and two of the best browser features to be unveiled in a long time: the tab-wrangling prowess of Panorama, and the multicomputer synchronization power of Sync. Given all that, plus some other extras it offers, you'll want to try it right away.

Firefox goes lean

With Firefox 4, the "Chrome-ization" of the browser world is complete -- all of the major browsers now use a variation of the simple, stripped-down interface pioneered by Chrome. Firefox doesn't go quite as far as Chrome in its leanness, and it adds several new features of its own. By and large, the basic look and feel of browsers seems to have crystallized around simplicity, with Web page content the focus, and menus and navigation scaled back.

The visual changes in Firefox 4 are quite substantial. Tabs now live along the top of the browser, above the address bar (which Firefox calls the "Awesome Bar"). Menus have vanished; to get at all of the browser's features, you click a button labeled "Firefox" at the top left corner of the browser and a menu drops down. (If you're a big fan of menus, you can always get them back by clicking the "Firefox" button and choosing Options --> Menu Bar.)

The height of the address bar and navigation buttons has been reduced so that Web pages get more screen real estate. The navigation buttons are rounded and softer-looking and have been simplified. In addition, there are fewer navigation buttons, and some have been relocated. The once-separate Reload and Stop buttons have been combined into a single, small button at the right end of the address bar. This new button changes its appearance and function depending on whether a page is currently loading or has already been loaded.

The Home button has been relocated to the far right of the search bar. To bookmark your page, you click on a star icon on the right side of your address bar. To browse through your bookmarks, you click a small button to the right of the Home button instead of using the Bookmarks menu that was previously at the top of the window.

To browse through your bookmarks, you click a small Down arrow just above the Home button instead of using the Bookmarks menu that had previously been at the top of the window.

The result: a cleaner-looking browser with simplified navigation and more room to view Web page content.

A new Panorama

Firefox 4 may have borrowed some of Chrome's basic design ideas, but it has also introduced some useful new features as well. Key among them is Panorama, which helps solve the problem of tab proliferation. If you're the kind of person who tends to have many tabs open, making it hard to find the one you want quickly, Panorama may well be the best new feature of Firefox 4.

Let's say you've got 20 tabs open. Some are open to technology sites such as Computerworld, others to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and so on. With so many tabs open, it's difficult to quickly find and switch to the tab you want.

Panorama does all this by using a feature reminiscent of Mac OS X's Exposé and Spaces. Click the Panorama button (a square icon composed of four smaller rectangles) in the upper right of your Firefox window, and you'll come to a screen that shows thumbnails of all of your open tabs grouped in a single box against a blank background.

(Note: If you don't see the Panorama button in Firefox right away, click the small down-arrow icon at the far right of your row of tabs. You'll see a menu listing your open tabs. Select Tab Groups from this menu to get to the Panorama screen. Subsequently, the Panorama button will appear in your browser.)

You can then put those tabs in groups -- a social networking group, a news group, an entertainment group and a technology group, for example.

Drag any tab out of the box, and Panorama creates a new tab group. Drag another tab out of the box and place it on top of the first tab that you dragged out, and those tabs form their own tab group in their own box. You can keep creating new groups this way. You can also drag a tab from one group to another.

Double-click any of those groups in Panorama, and you go back to normal Firefox -- but the only tabs visible are those in that group; the tabs in the other groups are hidden. Go back to Panorama, click on a different group, and you'll be working with only those tabs. When you browse the Web and add new tabs, the tabs get added to whatever tab group you're currently using.

Panorama includes a lot more features, including the ability to close tab groups, resize them and rename them. You can also perform a limited search of all of your open tabs. Panorama will search only the URLs and titles of open tabs, not the content on the pages themselves, but still, it's a useful little feature.

There's so much to Panorama that it will likely take some time to get used to. But if you're a frequent user of multiple tabs, you'll never want to give it up.

More tab-taming

Firefox 4 introduces another feature, called Switch to Tab, to help you tame your tabs. As in the previous version of Firefox, when you type text in the address bar, Firefox searches through your history, previous searches and sites you've bookmarked and shows likely matches in a drop-down list below the address bar. Now, however, it also searches through any tabs you have open.

If it finds any matches in your open tabs, it shows a "Switch to tab" icon below the Web page's title in the drop-down list. To go to the tab, click the icon. As with Panorama, this feature searches only the URLs and words in the titles of open tabs, not the content of the sites themselves.

Although the feature is useful, it could be improved. Any search results that match open tabs get mixed in with your history list, previous searches and so on. So it's difficult to see at a glance if your matches are in open tabs.

In addition, you may get multiple matches for the same Web page. If you type "cn" into the address bar, for example, and you have CNN.com open, you may see two matches for it: one from your history list, and another showing it's an open tab. Switch to Tab would be more useful if it showed matching tab search results separately -- on the top of the list, perhaps.

With Firefox 4, you can also permanently pin a tab to the left of the tab bar. That way, the tab is always there, even when you restart Firefox. It's a moderately useful feature, but doesn't go as far as similar Chrome or Internet Explorer features, both of which also let you pin tabs. In Chrome you can also create a shortcut on your desktop to launch a site, while in Internet Explorer 9 you can pin a site to your taskbar in Windows 7.

Firefox Sync

If you use Firefox on different computers, operating systems and/or devices, you'll be pleased with Firefox Sync, introduced in this new version. Firefox Sync can synchronize bookmarks, browsing history, passwords and open tabs.

If you use Firefox on a Mac and a PC, for example, Firefox Sync will automatically keep all of that in sync between them. And it will also work with the Firefox mobile browser, currently in beta. To do this, you'll have to first set up a Firefox Sync account, and then follow the instructions for using multiple devices. It's a simple and straightforward process.

You can even simultaneously display open tabs from another computer running Firefox. You click the Down arrow at the right of all of your open tabs and select "Tabs from other computers," and you'll see a listing of all of your open tabs on another computer or device. Double-click any of them to open it.

But the tab-sharing feature can be confusing to use. If you are displaying the tabs from another computer, and new tabs are added or closed on the other computer, your display won't update -- it will only show the tabs that were open at the time you asked to see them. In order to see the currently opened tabs, you have to close the page and then ask to see the tabs from another computer again.

Firefox Sync is not completely new to Firefox. In 2007, Mozilla began a syncing project called Weave that is available as an add-on to previous Firefox versions as well as for iPhones, BlackBerry phones and as a beta for Android phones. However, with Firefox 4, it's baked directly into the browser for the first time.

Firefox Sync may not be that useful to those who use different browsers. For them, a better bet is Xmarks, which synchronizes browser bookmarks and passwords for Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer and Chrome.

The need for speed

Web pages are becoming ever larger and slower to load, and Web-based apps are proliferating -- so browser speed is more important than ever. In tests, I found that Firefox 4 didn't rate as fast as the current versions of Internet Explorer, Opera or Chrome on the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark, although it rated significantly faster than Safari.

In my tests, I used a Dell Dimension 9200 with a 2.4-GHz Intel Core 2 Quad processor and 2GB of RAM, running Windows Vista. I ran three sets of tests on each browser and averaged the results.

Firefox 4 clocked in at an average speed of 319.4 milliseconds (ms) to complete the tests, versus the fastest, Internet Explorer 9, at 277.3ms. Opera 11.01 came in at 308.7ms, Chrome 10.0.648 at 312.1ms and Safari at 417.1ms. That said, it's unlikely that you'll notice a speed difference among Firefox 4, Internet Explorer, Chrome and Opera -- a few milliseconds difference here or there won't likely be apparent.

Firefox, like IE9, uses your computer's GPU to accelerate processing-intensive work such as for playing games and displaying 3D graphics. Mozilla and Microsoft have been trading barbs over which browser is superior in this respect, but there are currently no standard tests for measuring this.

HTML5 support

Firefox 4 does an excellent job of supporting Web standards, including the upcoming HTML5 standards. On the HTML5 test page, which tests overall support of HTML5, it scored 240 out of a possible 400, second only to Chrome 10's score of 288. Opera came in just behind Firefox at 234, followed by Safari with 228 and IE9 at 130.

Firefox did well but not perfectly on the Acid 3 Test, which rates the degree to which a browser follows a number of Web standards, especially JavaScript and the Document Object Model (DOM). It scored 97 out of 100 and rendered the test page perfectly except for showing a box as gray when it should have been blue. Opera, Safari and Chrome all scored 100 and rendered the page perfectly. IE9 scored a 95 and made the same error rendering the page as Firefox 4 did.

Firefox 4 also did an excellent job of playing HTML5 video on every page that I visited, except for a website that Microsoft set up for demonstrating HTML5 -- the videos there either didn't display properly or didn't work at all. Otherwise, Firefox displayed every page I visited without any errors.

Other features

Firefox first gained popularity (at least in some part) because of its many add-ons. In this version, the Firefox Add-Ons Manager has been given a moderately useful facelift. The manager now opens into a full window in its own tab, rather than into a small pop-up window, which makes it easier to navigate.

In addition, when you click the More link next to any add-on, you'll get much more information about it than previously, including the date the add-on was installed or updated, a link to its home page and a full description.

However, when you install or uninstall add-ons, you'll still have to restart Firefox -- unlike Chrome, in which no restart is required.

Firefox 4 also introduces a do-not-track feature, which lets you tell websites you visit that you don't want your behavior tracked. To turn it on, click the Firefox button and choose Options (on a Mac, go to your Firefox Preferences), click on the Advanced tab, then click the General subtab and check the box next to "Tell web sites I do not want to be tracked." In addition, Mozilla has also made an array of other behind-the-scenes tweaks to improve security.

Turning this on does not guarantee that websites will not track you, because there's no requirement that sites adhere to it. Still, some should respect it, so it's a useful feature.

Speeding up the revision cycle

Firefox 4 is a big improvement over Version 3, but it took Mozilla far too long to get there. Firefox 3.5 was released in June 2009, which means that it has taken nearly two years to produce a major upgrade. That's as glacial a revision cycle as Microsoft's -- the company took two years to upgrade Internet Explorer from Version 8 (released in March 2009) to Version 9 (March 2011).

It's an eternity in browser time. Mozilla has recognized that, and says that it will dramatically speed up its revision cycles. If it doesn't, it may well be leapfrogged by Chrome, which has a much more aggressive revision cycle.

The bottom line

With Firefox 4, the browser has gotten a significant overhaul, offering improved speed and a cleaner interface that gives more screen real estate to Web content. Most useful are Panorama's superb tab-handling features and the cross-platform, multidevice synchronization power of Sync.

For those who frequently keep many tabs open and want a way to tame them, it's clearly the best browser out there. But even ignoring Panorama's capabilities, Firefox users and those who may have stayed away because of Firefox's cluttered interface will want to give it a try because of its increased speed and clean interface -- and because Firefox still has the largest collection of add-ons of any browser.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor for Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Preston Gralla

Computerworld (US)
Topics: applications, browsers, software, mozilla
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