Test Center review: Firefox 3 comes out sizzling

After an eight-month beta phase, Firefox's major update scores big with unprecedented ease, snappier performance, and sensible security features

As the window to the Internet, the Web browser is arguably the most important application ever developed, and it will only become more important in the coming years, as applications continue their retreat from the local system and into Web frameworks built on Apache, IIS, Python, PHP, Perl, Ruby, and countless other languages and tools. Against this backdrop, today's official introduction of Firefox 3 may in fact be a watershed event in the history of computing.

It's no secret that Firefox isn't the most popular browser. Internet Explorer, for better or for worse, enjoys a significant advantage in market share, but data gathered from all corners of the Internet show this advantage eroding. Judging by the traffic at a Web site that handles more than 100,000 unique visitors a day, Firefox gained almost 8 percent over Internet Explorer for the month of May, year over year, moving from just over 26 percent of all visitors to 33 percent. Internet Explorer lost a total of 9 percent to other browsers in that time frame.

Oddly, the difference seems to have been taken up by Apple's Safari, which gained almost 3 percent. These numbers will differ depending on the site -- for instance, sites focused on technology will have higher numbers for Firefox, since most tech-savvy users prefer Firefox over Internet Explorer -- but the general trend shows that Firefox is making significant inroads all over the globe. Judging by the advances in Firefox 3, this is likely to accelerate.

Turning up the heat
Firefox 3 has been in development for years. While not exactly a start-from-scratch rewrite, it's certainly been overhauled, and those changes are apparent in just about every aspect of the browser. The new look is more streamlined, less clunky, and the active elements such as the newly retooled location bar offer a new way to work with the Web. On the back end, the days of Firefox being a notorious memory hog may be over, or at least reduced, and the security measures in the new release are not only far better than any other browser, they also manage to be less intrusive than you might expect. The ease-of-use additions, such as the ability to save a session on exit, and the wonderfully implemented full-page zoom are instant winners.

I've been using Firefox 3 since the November beta, moving through to the very latest release candidates. While I've hit a number of issues over the months, they've all but disappeared in the past few releases. Over the course of the beta period, I've found it difficult to go back to Firefox 2, and certainly difficult to use Internet Explorer; they're missing key Firefox 3 features that have become instantly indispensable.

Smart security
Browser security is of paramount importance. Particularly on Windows, browsers have served as a vector for an enormous number of realized and unrealized vulnerabilities. From malware and spyware to viruses and outright system exploits, all browsers have had their share of missteps. Generally speaking, user education could significantly reduce these occurrences, but that's easier said than done. Firefox 3 makes a valiant attempt, however, with a bevy of new features tuned to the average user.

Clicking the Favicon in the address bar on Firefox 3 offers a quick view of the current site and a button for more detailed information, such as the SSL certificate data, how often you've visited the site, the use of cookies, and so forth. If you happen to come across a forged page (such as those used in phishing attempts), Firefox will block the page and display a surprisingly attractive warning screen explaining the problem and offering a link to return to your home page. There's also a small link allowing you to continue to the content regardless of the warning.

If you browse to an SSL-protected site with a valid certificate, the address bar notes the verified owner of the certificate in a green highlight, giving immediate feedback on the validity of the site. If the site's SSL certificate isn't valid, Firefox 3 presents a method of either quickly navigating away from the site or an option to pull down the certificate and continue to the site. For those of us who use self-signed certificates, this is an extremely useful feature.

On Windows, Firefox 3 now integrates with Vista's parental controls to prevent downloads and so on in accordance to the system-wide settings. Firefox 3 can also integrate with some anti-virus tools to initiate scans when downloading executable files.

On a smaller scale, Firefox 3 has improved add-on management. It will detect outdated add-ons and offer to update them if possible. Add-ons that don't provide updates securely are disabled.

All told, these measures seem to effectively prevent novice or general users from hurting themselves while sacrificing very little for the power user -- a goal that's typically all but impossible.

Smooth moves
Firefox 3 has broken new ground in browser usability. The address bar has taken on a life of its own. Going far beyond address-matching as you type, Firefox 3 also matches your entered URLs against keywords within the title or tags of the page. It sorts by frequency and recency, and tunes itself as you use it. I've found that it gets the right page or link for me just about every time.

The combination of the smart address bar and the new page-tagging feature for bookmarks can make finding pages you've visited incredibly simple. Bookmarks are now organized in a database, not in a flat file, and thus are easier to manage and search. Smart bookmark folders can be created to automatically arrange bookmarks meeting certain criteria based on tags and other information. All of these features are impressively handy no matter what I seem to be doing with the browser.

On platforms other than Windows, Firefox 3 has made a great effort to integrate better with the host OS. Firefox 2 on the Mac platform, for instance, always had the feel of a foreign app. It functioned well enough, but it didn't share the OS X look and feel. It does now, and it even supports OS X Widgets and Growl. On Linux, Firefox 3 uses the native GTK theme running on the system to provide a better visual fit.

As with Firefox 2, the customizable Search toolbar is right at home, offering any number of existing search engines from Google and Yahoo to Wikipedia, YouTube, and eBay.

As far as add-ons go, it might take a little while for all of your favorite accessories to come up to speed with Firefox 3, but I've had few problems in that area. In fact, Firefox 3 has led me to use some add-ons that I probably never would have discovered, all due to the Recommended page in the add-on manager.

Some of the most important add-ons for me, such as the simply indispensable Web Developer toolbar, have been Firefox 3 compatible almost since day one. Others will follow soon. Sadly, I can't seem to find the Abe Vigoda status add-on anymore. Surprising that Abe outlived it, I suppose.

Binge browsing
The speed and resource requirements of Firefox 2 were a sore spot for many users. There were certainly instances where Firefox 2 behaved nicely, but those were overshadowed by the times when loading a page with certain embedded elements or other code would cause Firefox to crank up the CPU and start eating RAM like candy. Often, closing the offending page would reduce these symptoms, but sometimes quitting and restarting the browser proved the only solution. Firefox 3 hasn't been free of these episodes, but the frequency has been greatly reduced.

Now I find that I can run with dozens of windows open and not take a terribly significant performance hit. Mozilla.com claims that the Gecko 1.9 rendering engine has improved CSS and SVG handling, as well as JavaScript performance. I've noticed that pages do seem to load faster, and the overall experience seems snappier in Firefox 3 than in either Firefox 2 or Internet Explorer. It might be a tie with Safari, however.

If the Web browser isn't the most important application ever developed, it might be the most personal. If you're working in a company that regrettably invested in Web-based applications that cannot function without using Internet Explorer, you have my sympathy. For those of you who have a choice, you no doubt want a browser that functions as an extension of yourself: customizable, quick, reliable, and stable. Firefox 3 meets all those criteria for me, and there's no looking back.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Value (10.0%)
Features (20.0%)
Ease of use (25.0%)
Performance (25.0%)
Security (20.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
Mozilla Firefox 3.0 10.0 10.0 10.0 8.0 9.0 9.3
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies