Firefox 4 adds speed and tames your tabs

The latest version of Mozilla's browser joins its peers with a clean interface and increased performance.

It's been a long wait for Firefox 4; it was nearly two years ago that Firefox 3.5 was released. A lot has changed in the browser world since then. But though the wait has been a long one, it has paid off for those with patience: Firefox 4 is a winner.

It features a clean interface, competitive speed, HTML5 compatibility and two of the best browser features to be unveiled in a long time: the tab-wrangling prowess of Panorama, and the multicomputer synchronization power of Sync. Given all that, plus some other extras it offers, you'll want to try it right away.

Firefox goes lean

With Firefox 4, the "Chrome-ization" of the browser world is complete -- all of the major browsers now use a variation of the simple, stripped-down interface pioneered by Chrome. Firefox doesn't go quite as far as Chrome in its leanness, and it adds several new features of its own. By and large, the basic look and feel of browsers seems to have crystallized around simplicity, with Web page content the focus, and menus and navigation scaled back.

Firefox 4
Firefox 4 features a simple, stripped-down interface that gives Web content more real estate.

The visual changes in Firefox 4 are quite substantial. Tabs now live along the top of the browser, above the address bar (which Firefox calls the "Awesome Bar"). Menus have vanished; to get at all of the browser's features, you click a button labeled "Firefox" at the top left corner of the browser and a menu drops down. (If you're a big fan of menus, you can always get them back by clicking the "Firefox" button and choosing Options --> Menu Bar.)

The height of the address bar and navigation buttons has been reduced so that Web pages get more screen real estate. The navigation buttons are rounded and softer-looking and have been simplified. In addition, there are fewer navigation buttons, and some have been relocated. The once-separate Reload and Stop buttons have been combined into a single, small button at the right end of the address bar. This new button changes its appearance and function depending on whether a page is currently loading or has already been loaded.

The Home button has been relocated to the far right of the search bar. To bookmark your page, you click on a star icon on the right side of your address bar. To browse through your bookmarks, you click a small button to the right of the Home button instead of using the Bookmarks menu that was previously at the top of the window.

The result: a cleaner-looking browser with simplified navigation and more room to view Web page content.

A new Panorama

Firefox 4 may have borrowed some of Chrome's basic design ideas, but it has also introduced some useful new features as well. Key among them is Panorama, which helps solve the problem of tab proliferation. If you're the kind of person who tends to have many tabs open, making it hard to find the one you want quickly, Panorama may well be the best new feature of Firefox 4.

Let's say you've got 20 tabs open. Some are open to technology sites such as Computerworld, others to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and so on. With so many tabs open, it's difficult to quickly find and switch to the tab you want.

Firefox 4
Firefox 4's Panorama is a fresh new feature that helps bring tabs under control.

Panorama does all this by using a feature reminiscent of Mac OS X's Exposé and Spaces. Click the Panorama button (a square icon composed of four smaller rectangles) in the upper right of your Firefox window, and you'll come to a screen that shows thumbnails of all of your open tabs grouped in a single box against a blank background.

(Note: If you don't see the Panorama button in Firefox right away, click the small down-arrow icon at the far right of your row of tabs. You'll see a menu listing your open tabs. Select Tab Groups from this menu to get to the Panorama screen. Subsequently, the Panorama button will appear in your browser.)

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