Firefox 3.5: An early look

Chrome and IE have dinged Firefox's reputation, the Firefox loyalists are looking hopefully to version 3.5.

There was a time when Firefox was the Web browser for the cool kids who knew their tech. Most would still agree that it's better than Internet Explorer, but that's damning it with faint praise. Over the last year or so, Firefox has become better known in tech savvy circles for its relatively poor performance and mediocre memory management. Chrome's insane speed and Internet Explorer 8's overall improvement have also dinged Firefox's reputation. But now, Firefox 3.5 is almost ready to go. Does it have what it takes?

I downloaded the latest beta, Firefox 3.5 beta 4, to find out for myself. I used it on two different PCs. The first was my workhouse Windows XP SP3 system, and the other was my Fedora 10 computer. The XP box was a Dell Inspiron 530S with a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor, 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA drive and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator). For Fedora, I used a Gateway GT5622 desktop with a 1.8GHz Intel Pentium E2160 dual-core CPU, 3GBs of RAM, a 400GB SATA drive, and an Intel 950 GMA.

On both systems, installing the browser took no more than five minutes. Once installed, I found that my two must-have Firefox extensions the Google Toolbar and XMarks were both working.

However, on Windows, I found that two other extensions were DOA. These were the AVG Safe Search 8.5 malware detector and the Microsoft .NET Framework Assistant 1.0. I wasn't too surprised by either one. The AVG program has had issues with other versions of Firefox and the .NET Framework program has always been a pain.

I should also note that, unlike Google Chrome, Firefox has a mature family of extensions. I really like Chrome a lot, but it's still taking baby steps when it comes to using extensions for added functionality.

Where Chrome still zooms by Firefox is when it comes to rendering speed. That's especially true when it comes to JavaScript-heavy pages. Firefox 3.5's TraceMonkey JavaScript rendering engine is much faster than what you'll find in the Firefox 3.0 series and Internet Explorer doesn't belong in the performance conversation.

Still Chrome 2.0's V8 JavaScript engine beats TraceMonkey handily. Using the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark on the XP system, Firefox 3.5 was almost twice as slow as Chrome 2.0 at the benchmark with a recorded time of 1,225.6-millisecond to Chrome 2.0's 704.0. If speed is what matters the most to you, Chrome is the browser for you.

On the other hand, after running Firefox for days and with multiple windows and tabs, I found that on both Windows and Linux, Firefox is finally not hogging memory. Even with the debugging code that must be in a beta, I found that Firefox is no longer leaking memory. That's good for both the browser's stability and its security.

I also noticed that Firefox has borrowed several nice improvements from Chrome. For example, it uses DNS (Domain Name System) pre-fetching so that when you click on a link you'll get to its page a bit faster.

The new Firefox also has some nice features of its own. It now supports embedded Ogg and WAV video and audio format without the need for a helper program. It also far better privacy settings so you can use your own, or any other, computer without leaving any traces behind of what you've been doing.

All-in-all, I found this beta to be a real step up from Firefox 3.0.x. Still, I find myself wishing that I could have a Firefox with Chrome's speed or Chrome that works on multiple operating systems and with Firefox's abundance of extensions. If you're already a confirmed Firefox user though you'll want to switch over to Firefox 3.5 as soon as the final version comes out. Look for it sometime in mid to late June.

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Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

Computerworld (US)
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