Prepare yourself, Firefox 3 is on the way…

Having just released beta 4, the Mozilla Foundation is well on its way to making Firefox 3 a reality.  Firefox 3 aims to bring a host of new features, as well as speed and security enhancements.

On the front end, they updated the theme.  Yes, again.  I’m not entirely sure what the reasoning is, but I’m sure it’s some inane marketing thing.  Probably something along the lines of “we need to make it look shiny and new!”  It’s not bad, though, and only takes a few moments to re-acquaint yourself with the basic functions.

One significant change is the function of the front and back history buttons.  In previous versions you could click towards the bottom of the button and get a history of the pages forward or back in your history, relevant to the button you pressed.  They have combined this into a single button now, with a small dot identifying where in the history you are.  Back history expands to the bottom of the list while forward history moves up.  It’s a little hard to explain in words, but it’s not that difficult in action.

Next up is the download manager.  They revamped the entire download manager, making it look quite different.  Gone is the global “Clear History” button, in is the new “Search” box.  It seems that one of the themes of this release is that history is important, so they added features to allow you to quickly find relevant information.  But fear not, you can still clear the list by right clicking and choosing clear list.  It’s just not as apparent as it used to be.  In addition, you can continue downloads that were interrupted by network problems, or even by closing the browser.

Some of the pop-ups have been reduced as well.  For instance, when new passwords are entered, instead of getting a popup on the screen asking if you want to save the username and password, a bar appears at the top of the page.  This is a bit more fluid, not interrupting the browsing experience as it did in the past.

Many of the dialogs related to security have been re-vamped in an attempt to make them more clear for non-technical users.  For instance, when encountering an invalid SSL certificate, Firefox now displays something like this :

Other warnings have been added as well.  Firefox now attempts to protect you from malware and web forgeries.  In additions, the browser now handles Extended Validation SSL certificates, displaying the name of the company in green on the location bar.  Clicking on the icon to the left of the URL provides a small popup with additional information about your connection to the remote website.

A plugin manager has been added, allowing the user to disable individual plugins.  This is a very welcome addition to the browser.

The bookmark manager has been updated as well.  In addition to placing bookmarks in folders, users can now add tags.  Using the bookmark sidebar, users can quickly search by tag, locating bookmarks that are in multiple folders.  Smart bookmarks show the most recently used bookmarks, as well as the most recently bookmarked sites and tags.

The location bar has been updated as well.  As you type in the location bar, Firefox automatically searches through your bookmarks, tags, and history, displaying the results.  Results are sorted by both frequency of visits, as well as how recent your last visit was.  For users who clear their history on a regular basis, this makes the location bar much more useful.

Behind the scenes there have been a number of welcome changes.  The most noticeable change is speed.  Beta 4 is insanely fast compared to previous versions.  In fact, it seems to be significantly faster than Internet Explorer, Opera, and others!  And, as an added bonus, it seems to use less memory as well.  Ars Technica did some testing to this effect and came out with some surprising results.

Mozilla attributes both the speed increase to improvements in the JavaScript engine, as well as profile-guided optimizations.  In short, they used profiling tools to identify bottlenecks in the code and fix them.  The reduction in memory is attributed to new allocators and collectors, as well as a reduction in leaky code.

Firefox 3 was built on top of the updated Gecko 1.9 engine.  The Gecko engine is responsible for the actual layout of the page on the screen.  It supports the various web standards such as CSS, HTML, XHTML, JavaScript, and more.  As the Gecko engine has evolved, it has gained additional capabilities, as well as performance.  In fact, using this new engine, Firefox now passes the coveted Acid 2 test.

Overall, the latest beta feels quite stable and I’ve begun using it on a daily basis.  It is definitely faster than previous releases.  I definitely recommend checking it out.  On a Windows machine, it will install separately from your primary Firefox installation.  It imports all of your bookmarks and settings after you install it, so there is no danger of losing anything from your primary install.  Just be aware that there is no current guarantee that any new bookmarks, changes, add-ons, etc. will be imported into the final installation.  Many add-ons are still non-functional, though there are plenty more that work fine.

Best of luck!

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