Review: Firefox 3 Stays Ahead of Browser Pack

Published June 18, 2008

| PCMag

Three years in development, over 15,000 bug fixes and feature improvements, a new page rendering engine, remarkable performance gains, multiple OS integration — you could say the several hundred engineers working on Firefox have been busy. And their work has paid off.

Speedy performance, thrifty memory usage, and, in particular, the address bar that now predicts where you want to go when you start typing (what Mozilla insiders refer to as the Awesome Bar) firmly plant Firefox at the top of the Web browser hill, flying the flag of our Editors' Choice for browsers.

• Click here for more screen shots of Firefox 3.

When you install Firefox 3, you don't have to worry about losing anything from Firefox 2 — history, bookmarks, start page, search engine preference and even downloads performed in the earlier browser version — all will be there to greet you like old friends.

The installer for Firefox 3 is available in 46 languages, from Afrikaans to Ukrainian. The U.S. English version weighs in at 7.1 MB for Windows, 17 for Mac OS X, and 8.6 for Linux. Installation is as painless as it gets — it took me about 20 seconds on a far-from-new XP system.

• Click here to download Firefox 3.

Firefox 3 looks barely different from its predecessor, but it's undergone a minor facelift — in particular, the Forward and Back buttons, in combination, look like a sideways keyhole. The browser buttons and window frames have also been redesigned to conform with the look of whichever OS you're running — Windows XP, Vista, Macintosh, or Linux.

'Frecency' and the Awesome Bar

The top new feature has to be the address bar, what Mozilla types call "The Awesome Bar," but which the development team has officially dubbed the location bar. As you type into it, a list of suggested Web destinations based on your browsing history pops up.

It uses what Mozilla's phenomenologist Mike Beltzner has coined "frecency" — a combination of frequency and recentness — to determine the best suggestions. And, as icing on the cake, the search bar is now resizable, so you can divvy the space between the location and search bars to your taste.

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When I tried it, the location bar's first suggestion was right on the money most of the time. Knowing that hitting the down arrow and Enter will usually get you where you want to go — not to mention save you untold keystrokes and time — will change your browsing habits.

Not only does the feature match parts of words even if they occur in the middle of a URL, but when you type a phrase with spaces you'll usually be taken where you want to go immediately.

For example, when I entered "Chase Manhattan," I was taken directly to www.chase.com, without the intervening search-result page you see in other browsers.

Though the star Firefox places in the right side of the Location bar gives you a handy way to mark a page as a favorite, the difference between starring and bookmarking is a bit confusing, and I prefer Internet Explorer's bookmarks (Favorites), also represented by a star.

Firefox's star saves the page as a bookmark in "Unfiled," which means the page doesn't show up when you choose the top-menu Bookmarks item, but it does show up (if it's recent) in Smart Bookmarks and Places.

In fact, I find these two features overlap too much, and could use some streamlining.

Management Smarts

A new download manager gives you the handy ability to pause and resume downloads and search for previous ones. The status bar at the bottom of the main browser helpfully shows you how many paused downloads remain, and you can resume a download even after shutting down the browser and restarting it. Downloads are automatically scanned for viruses once they've completely arrived.

The new password manager provides another nicety. Unlike every other current browser, Firefox doesn't bother with a dialogue box that interrupts your logging in to a site. Instead, when you're entering a password, a discreet toolbar with the usual choices — "Remember," "Never for this site," and "Not now" — appears at the top of the window.

Firefox enhances bookmark management with three new toolbar links: Most Visited, Smart Bookmarks, and Places. Smart Bookmarks adds submenus for Most Visited, too, along with Recently Bookmarked, and Recent Tags.

Places is more concerned with tagging and "starred" pages: An empty star appears to the right of the current page's address; clicking on it turns it to gold and gives you a quick way to designate it as a page you like.

The Add-ons manager now lets you search for extensions right from the dialog box rather than making you go to the Add-on Web site. Users can rate extensions with stars, helping them decide which extensions might be good to try. The updated manager also lets you control plugins such as Flash, the popular browser-changing extensions, and window-dressing Themes.

Catch-Up, a Last Cool Tool and a Wish List

In at least one area where the browser was trailing Opera and Internet Explorer, it finally caught up: Now you can zoom in on a full page, including images. Earlier betas had a rendering bug when I tested it in My Yahoo, one of the Net's most trafficked sites.

Hovering the mouse cursor over a headline on a zoomed-in page, which normally pops up a story summary in a tooltip, caused the page to resize and the tooltip to be cut off. This happened in both Mac OS X and Windows. But the team had fixed it in time for final release.

One last favorite cool feature: You can now specify a Webmail account — even a Yahoo! Mail account without a POP address — as the target for e-mail links. Try doing that in Internet Explorer!

Still, however much improvement a product crams in, there always seems to be room for more.

For example, when you have multiple tabs open and attempt to close the browser, it asks whether you want to save the open tabs for your next session or just quit. These are the same choices you get from Internet Explorer 7.

But often, when you hit that close-box X, all you really want to do is close the current tab. Internet Explorer 8 actually gives you that option. Sadly, Firefox still doesn't.

And for some time, both Internet Explorer and Opera have offered a one-click way to display a sidebar that lets you switch among history, bookmarks, and one or more other functions (feeds in IE, downloads, notes and more in Opera).

In Firefox you can get one-click access to the History sidebar, but you have to create the capability yourself by customizing the toolbar with a History button — and there's no multipurpose sidebar.

An extension called All-in-One Sidebar provides an Opera-like sidebar, but the extension hasn't been updated for Firefox 3 as of this writing.

I'd also like a one-click way to add a new tab — again, you create a toolbar icon to provide the feature, but Opera and IE offer it by default.

Memory Use and Performance

In the past, Firefox's memory use tended to mushroom as you added page tabs; developers have made memory use reduction a primary goal.

The new rendering engine, Gecko 1.9, reduces memory fragmentation and identifies and removes memory leaks called cycles. You can read the gritty details on one of the developers' blogs, pavlov.net.

I checked memory usage under Vista, which reports the more accurate private working set (which is the actual memory the app is using), running 10 media-rich Web pages in each browser. Firefox handily bested all comers, including its former self.

In my anecdotal testing, even on complex, JavaScript-heavy sites, browsing was snappy. For a bit more objectivity, I ran the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark, which takes browsers through a comprehensive battery of scripts that its makers claim addresses real-world tasks, ranging from screen drawing to encryption to text manipulation.

I compared the new browser running on a Windows Vista Ultimate machine with a 2.4-GHz Athlon 64 processor with Internet 7 and Firefox 2 running on a like system, and with Safari 3.1 running on a 2.4-GHz Core 2 MacBook.

Firefox 3 crushes Internet Explorer 7, beats its own previous version, and outdoes Safari (WebKit.org, which hosts the benchmark test, developed the engine Safari is based on). When I ran the QuirksMode.org DOM 1 test, which measures the time it takes to create a large table using W3C DOM methods, Firefox 3 managed a very respectable 245 ms average over ten runs. That was comparable with Opera's 249 ms, better than the 340 ms of Firefox 2, and far faster than IE7's 1,352ms.

I also compared the cold and warm startup times of Firefox 3 with those of its Windows competitors. Cold startup — the first time the browser runs after you power up the computer, is a better test, as it takes much longer than the subsequent (warm) starts.

For these tests, I used the previously detailed Vista System. Firefox 3 improves somewhat over the earlier version, but still lags behind IE7 and Opera 9.

Compatibility

I came across just two compatibility glitches in testing: the problem with the My Yahoo! tooltips already mentioned and some slightly funky behavior when trying to add comments to a Picasa Web Album.

I had no problem logging into online accounts hosted by major financial institutions, nor did I encounter difficulties with destinations, such as zoho.com (which offers online office-productivity applications) that have tripped up other new browsers.

To more rigorously test compliance with Web standards, I ran the new Acid3 Browser compatibility test. Firefox 3 scored 71 out of 100, ahead of Firefox 2's 53, and way ahead of Internet Explorer 7, which only mustered a 12 (but note that intentional security measures caused some loss of points).

Opera 9.27 (the latest release at the time I was testing) scored 36 before shutting down with an error. Safari, at 75, bested the others.

Note that this test has less to do with whether sites will display correctly than it does with proper execution of highly interactive Web applications that take advantage of DOM Level 2, scalable vector graphics SVG and ECMAScript.

Developer's Platform

Firefox 3 even delves into the future of standards support, with support for some HTML 5 features like the video, activeElement and hasFocus attributes tags. It includes JavaScript 1.8, along with CSS and DOM improvements, such as support for several Internet Explorer DOM extensions. The new Gecko 1.9 rendering engine also improves support for graphics, (SVG), font handling and color management.

Clearly the new version adds much that Web developers will appreciate. Firefox 2 extensions won't work in version 3 without being updated, but the Mozilla Developer Center offers thorough instructions, and in many cases the process just involves a single parameter change reflecting the new version.

Mozilla reps told me that six to seven thousand extensions have already been updated. Finally, the browser supports offline Web applications, giving Google's Gears some competition.

Security

Firefox 3 may be the most secure browser around. It goes beyond the phishing protection in current browsers by also blocking sites known for distributing malware (viruses, spyware, trojans), as well as standard phishing sites that try to trick users into entering personal information and passwords. It uses a blacklist compiled by Google for this purpose, but the feature will work with other blacklist providers as they become available.

You can easily access information about the validity of any site you visit by clicking on the site's favicon — the small icon to the left of the URL. For sites with valid identity information in the form of an Extended Validation (EV) SSL certificate, the favicon area turns green and the site owner information and encryption status are listed under a green cop image (called Larry the Security Cop, according to company reps) when you click on the favicon.

You can see this in action at PayPal.com — a site you definitely want to be sure is genuine.

To wrap up the security enhancements, insecure versions of plug-ins won't run, and the browser integrates with antivirus software using the Microsoft Antivirus API. If you're letting your kids browse via Firefox, note also that the browser works with Vista's parental controls.

Mozilla has delivered a mighty salvo in the browser wars: Microsoft Internet Explorer 8, still very early in its development cycle, will have to be damned good and include killer features to compete.

Whether that will be the case remains an open question. IE8 introduces some nifty new features and displays a commendable realignment with Web standards, but I have to say that the improvements in Firefox 3 trump what I've seen of IE8 to date.

Speed, browsing enhancements like the predictive location bar, security, low memory use and compliance with new Web standards have thrust Firefox 3 above the competition.

Those factors, along with its wealth of extensions that let you customize it till the cows come home, keep it our Editor's Choice for Web browsers.

BOTTOM LINE: This new version of Firefox brings it to the head of the class in security, speed (except for startup speed), standards compatibility and thrifty memory usage. In addition, its powerful new location bar enormously facilitates browsing.

PROS: Fast. Standards compliant. Location bar predicts site you want. Low memory usage. Improved password management. Download pause, resume, and search.

CONS: Sidebar doesn't switch between history and bookmarks. No default button to create new tab. Starts up slower than other browsers.

COMPANY: Mozilla Foundation

SPEC DATA:
Price: $0.00 Direct
Type: Business, Personal, Enterprise, Professional
Free: Yes
OS Compatibility: Windows Vista, Windows XP, Linux, Mac OS

EDITOR RATING: Four out of five stars

Copyright © 2008 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Ziff Davis Media Inc. is prohibited.

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