The days when Internet Explorer was the most convenient browser to use are long gone. With viruses and worms designed specifically to exploit holes in the Windows operating systems and Internet Explorer, the only browser being recommended for a long time was Firefox. Of late however, the image of Firefox of being a fast, secure and highly customizable browser seems to have been overshadowed by the success of Google Chrome and to some extent Opera. Loyal users and fiery fanboys switched from Firefox to Chrome and Opera. Those unaware of other browsers haven't.
It's still a beta, but not for long
Things went south around a year ago when Firefox started to slow down – both in performance and also in development pace. Many avid users found Google Chrome and Opera to be better alternatives. Chrome didn’t pick up many followers in the very beginning, but extension support acted as a catalyst for Chrome and this only made things worse for Firefox.
Where does Firefox stand now, if Chrome has the edge and is constantly eating away at its share? Firefox 4 is right around the corner and it has been a long time coming. Development started more than a year ago and we’re currently on Beta 11. There might be another beta version sometime soon, but at this point, there's bound to be little change. Mozilla has added a ton of features to the browser over the months, but most of the HTML5, WebM and WebGL feature additions might make little sense to many of us. Let’s look at some of the drastic changes.
Revamped user interface
You can tell that a software has changed by the way it looks. In the case of Firefox 4, it has changed a lot, but a resemblance to Google Chrome is pretty clear. The design looks slightly different on Windows XP than it does on Windows 7. The new design is more obvious on Windows 7.
A more spacious Firefox with fewer visible toolbars
The title bar has disappeared and the tab bar is visible in place of the Firefox title bar. All this ensures more workspace in the browser window and less for the toolbars. If you need to access the menu bar, it can be quickly activated by the press of the Alt key. Some other changes are visible such as the larger Back and Forward buttons and also the Bookmarks dropdown menu button. Even the status bar at the bottom of the window is smaller, and hidden except when a page loads.
Synchronization has been around for a long time in Opera and recently Chrome as well. This feature in Firefox 4 allows you to synchronize all of your bookmarks, preferences, history and tabs to an online account. It can then be accessed on other Firefox installations. Before Sync came along, the most popular add-on that had similar functionality was Foxmarks or Xmarks, as it was later known as. Accessing your bookmarks on a work PC or a laptop will be much simpler for sure.
One of the features that every browser developer is working on is hardware acceleration. The aim is to offload the processing from the processor to a graphics card. Obviously, you’ll need a compatible graphics card or integrated solution for it to work, and the benefits may not always be very visible.
Hardware acceleration comes to Firefox
If you’re using the latest beta, the feature can be enabled under the Advanced options window.
One of the biggest lacking areas of Firefox has been its performance. It’s slow to load up and rendering speeds haven’t been the best. Firefox 4 has come a long way from Firefox 3.6.x. A quick run of the Peacekeeper, an online browser benchmark threw up a score of 4678 points on Firefox 4 on a pretty powerful laptop. Firefox 3 is slower for sure and scored 3018 but Chrome 9.0.597.98 in comparison seems light years ahead with a score of 9451. This is not to say that there’s a distinguishable difference in rendering times between browsers and that rendering a page takes half a minute.
Enhanced Tab Management
The Panorama mode in Firefox is a quick way to get around tabs in a visual interface instead of the plain tabs. The Panorama feature can is accessible by clicking a button on the toolbar.
Bunching up tabs for easy access is possible with the new Panorama mode
In case it isn’t showing up on the latest version of Firefox 4 Beta 11, right click on the toolbar and click on Customize, then drag and drop the Tab Groups icon into one of the toolbars. The feature lets you create groups out of tabs so navigation and browsing through them become easier.
New Add-ons Page
The new add-on window like the older one allows for management and installation of addons, themes and browser plugins. Since the window is part of the browser itself and not a separate window, there’s access to more workspace and the presentation of add-ons on Mozilla's site looks better. This kind of layout is only available for the addons unfortunately.
There are many other smaller features that have been implemented through the year. There are features that allow you to stay anonymous. We’re not sure how well it will work, but there’s a clear option under the Options window which lets you tell sites not to track you.
Firefox 4 should be out in the next couple of weeks and Mozilla is going to release Firefox 5 by the end of the year. Google Chrome has won the race of browser versions by reaching 9 and development builds crossing into version 10, so Mozilla is going to play catch by releasing Firefox 6 and 7 by the end of 2011.