When Firefox 1.0 was introduced two years ago, the goal of the Mozilla Foundation was clear: Take all of the innovations and strong features from the Mozilla browser suite and streamline them into a stand-alone Web browser that could compete directly with Internet Explorer and chip away at Microsoft's overwhelming browser market share.
Looking back, Firefox 1.0 was an unqualified success.
Now, with the release of Firefox 2.0, the Mozilla Foundation is focusing on streamlining the Web browser even further while adding usability features that will make the popular open-source browser easy for even novice users to pick up.
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At the same time, the Mozilla Foundation is working to keep Firefox extremely effective, innovative and, of course, poised to gain continual market share from IE.
Based on our tests of Firefox 2.0, we have to say, at least when it comes to ease of use, mission accomplished.
eWEEK Labs found Firefox 2.0, which can be downloaded at www.mozilla.com, to have the greatest out-of-the-box usability of any Web browser that we have tested (and that's a lot of Web browsers).
From improvements in tabbed window management to built-in spell checking to integrated search aids, new features in Firefox 2.0 make it very easy for any user to take full advantage of modern Web browser capabilities.
And, of course, unlike the recently released Internet Explorer 7, which runs only on Windows XP Service Pack 2 and the upcoming Vista, Firefox 2.0 will run on the Linux, Unix and Mac OS X platforms as well as on most versions of Windows.
However, while the Mozilla Foundation has greatly boosted the usability of Firefox, some configuration options have been removed from the main settings interface, forcing advanced users to rely more on extensions to the browser or on complicated changes through about:config.
These changes may lessen confusion for novice users, but they put Firefox even further behind the Opera Web browser when it comes to ease of configuration and breadth of configuration.
Users upgrading to the new Firefox 2.0 browser will instantly notice the updated interface, which uses a new default theme that has glowing, 3-D-like buttons on the tool bar.
Some of the biggest changes to the interface, however, are in the use and management of tabbed windows.
Firefox 2.0 finally changes the longstanding Mozilla style of closing tabs through a button on the right side of the browser.
With Firefox 2.0, as with other tabbed browsers, there is a Close button on each tab. This is a big improvement to the Firefox browser, making it much easier to close only the tabs the user wants to close. We also like that a Recently Closed Tabs item has been added to the History menu.
Firefox 2.0 adds scrolling arrows to each side of the browser window, leaving each tab the same size instead of scrunching them all together as in previous Firefox releases. This allowed us to actually see the title for each tab even when we had lots of tabs open.
One thing we would like to see by default is a New Tab button on the browser tool bar, although the lack of such a button is easily remedied by right clicking on the tool bar, choosing Customize, and dragging and dropping a New Tab button to the tool bar.
Firefox's search has been enhanced with a feature that displays a drop-down list of suggested search terms when users begin entering a word in the integrated search box. Search engine management also has been improved, and new search engines can be added from a long list of common search engines.
Firefox 2.0 can't add a search engine from any site — as Opera does very well and IE 7 does to a certain degree — but if a site has a search engine that uses OpenSearch technology, Firefox 2.0 will give users the option to add that site to their integrated search engine list.
One of the coolest new features — and one that greatly boosts usability — is the new integrated spell-checker, which checks users' spelling when content is entered in Web-based forms and fields.
In other browsers, this functionality can be added through plug-ins and add-ons, but we liked the smooth integration of the spell-checking function in Firefox 2.0.
Finding out about RSS feeds and subscribing to them is also improved in Firefox 2.0.
When we clicked on a feed link, rather than showing RSS code, Firefox showed an informative summary page and provided a drop-down menu with several options for subscribing to the feed.
Also new is the Live Titles feature — small, updatable headlines created by Web sites that display in the bookmark headings in Firefox.
When bookmarking a site with Live Titles, referred to generally as microsummaries, we could choose to view the summary headlines in our bookmarks.
Anti-phishing features have become a must-have capability for modern browsers, and we found Firefox 2.0's anti-phishing features to be solidly implemented.
When we surfed to a potentially malicious Web site, Firefox launched a very obvious pop-up.
Firefox also can subscribe to a Google-based service that checks a site against a known list of phishing sites, or it can also use a periodically updated list that is downloaded to the browser.
We liked that the latter method is the default because the live Google service sends surfing information to Google — something that Firefox 2.0 wisely warns users about when the Google-based anti-phishing features are turned on.
Firefox 2.0 now includes a single Add-Ons manager for managing the installation and use of browser extensions and themes.
During tests of Firefox 2.0, we've had good luck with nearly all of our standard Firefox extensions.
Unlike Firefox 1.5, which broke many extensions, Firefox 2.0 looks like it will be a smoother — but likely not flawless — upgrade in terms of extension support.
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