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Firefox 3 Beta 1 Arrives in Fighting Shape

After falling months behind schedule, Mozilla released the first official beta of Firefox 3 on Tuesday. While not without a few bugs, the release showcases the substantial improvements to both user interface and performance that are in store for the final release, which is due sometime later this year.

Firefox was once the only real alternative to Microsoft's Internet Explorer. But in a month or so when the final version of Firefox 3 is released, the browser will enter a significantly more mature browser market than its predecessors. Recent versions of the Opera browser, previously a paid download, are available for free. Microsoft's much-improved Internet Explorer 7 is installed by default with Windows Vista. Also, Apple's svelte Safari 3, which the company has made available on both Mac and Windows to fuel web-app development for its iPhone, has also entered the browser fray. In short, Firefox 3 will have its work cut out for it.

The open-source and fully customizable browser remains popular, but has recently had to parry heavy criticism from users complaining of Firefox's bloat, memory leaks and dodgy performance. Mozilla hopes to change that perception with this release, which is indeed slimmer and sleeker than its predecessors. It's an important milestone for Mozilla and shows that, though a bit late, Firefox 3 remains on track both in reducing memory usage and bringing some new, useful features to the table.

Firefox 3 beta 1 is noticeably snappier. Page loads are quicker, and Ajax-heavy sites like GMail refresh almost imperceptibly.

In our testing of beta 1 and its final-release candidate on an Intel Mac running Mac OS X Leopard, the browser never consumed more than 60 MB of memory, and it disappeared from our CPU usage monitor entirely when running in the background, something Firefox 2 has never managed to do. Of course, it was running sans add-ons, a common source of performance problems. (Add-on developers will need to tweak their code to run in the new browser, so for the time being, many are unavailable.) To that end, Mozilla has said it will step up efforts to help add-on creators track and eliminate bugs in popular extensions.

Another tester at Wired News encountered massive memory usage with the beta on Windows XP, and other varying reports will no doubt continue to come in. There's already an add-on for the beta to help patch some memory issues.

While the speed alone is likely to convince many people to upgrade, Firefox 3 has some new features as well. Not everything planned for the final release has made it into beta 1, but there are plenty of enhancements.

Beta 1 features a new bookmark-management system dubbed Places, which aims to help you keep your bookmarks organized and easy to find. Recent alpha builds included Places, but did not implement all the planned features. Even now, Places doesn't look completely baked, but it's close enough to be very useful. Places supports bookmarking tools borrowed from social sites like or Ma.gnolia -- including tags and starring to classify, organize and prioritize your favorites.

On the right side of Firefox's main Location bar, you'll notice a new star icon. Press the icon once, and the page is stored in your bookmarks. Press it again, and a small panel pops up to let you edit your bookmark without having to open the Places panel.

We encountered a bug here: Although clicking the star is supposed to create a bookmark in the folder "All bookmarks," opening up the Places panel showed the bookmark was nowhere to be found.

The new star icon isn't the only change for the Location bar. In fact the Location bar isn't just a window to display the URL anymore -- it's also a full-text-search bar for finding bookmarks or pages stored in your browsing history. Rather than just searching for page titles and URLs, the way Firefox 2 does, the new version looks for keywords within the page text itself. That makes it much easier to find what you're looking for, even when you don't know where you saw it.

Mozilla has also dropped the age-old padlock symbol from the location bar. Because the lock symbol, which denotes an encrypted site, can be evoked falsely by scammers, Firefox 3 beta 1 instead offers a clickable favicon for each site. Clicking on it displays a panel that reports the page's connection status. An additional link will open a panel that displays even more information, like whether or not the site is bookmarked, how often you've visited the page and any saved passwords you might have stored. This would hopefully prevent you from being duped into visiting a fake site for your bank, for example. However, the need to click through to see the extra info is a barrier to the feature's usefulness.

Other changes include many streamlined user-interface elements, like the revamped add-on manager for installing and maintaining third-party plug-ins. The add-on manager now features a tab for managing common plug-ins like the Flash player or Quicktime, including the ability to disable them. You also get links to find any additional add-ons and a handy new "Restart Firefox" button for quickly enabling and disabling add-ons or themed skins. Previously, this button only showed up when you installed new plug-ins.

The downloads panel has also been improved by the addition of a new info icon, which tells you not only where the download is located on your hard drive, but also where you got it. There's also a small search bar at the bottom of the panel for finding those needles in your haystack of many downloads.

Although beta 1 is far from a finished product and some interface changes like platform-specific skins are still in store before the final release, the speed and memory improvements in Firefox 3 beta 1 make it worth the upgrade. That is, of course, if you don't mind losing your add-ons for a while.


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Article publication date: 20 Pluviôse Ray80 (21 Nov 2007)


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