New Firefox 4 beta unveils tab manager, sync

Also debuts Windows hardware acceleration, but off by default

Mozilla on Tuesday launched the fourth beta of Firefox 4, adding bookmark and password synchronization, and revamping how people wrestle tabs.

The latest build also sported the first attempt at accelerating Firefox 4's page rendering by tapping the graphics processor. The hardware acceleration, available only in Windows Vista and Windows 7, is disabled by default.

Firefox 4 Beta 4's most visible addition is "Panorama," a new name for what Mozilla had been calling "Tab Candy." Largely driven by the work of Aza Raskin, creative lead of Firefox, Panorama lets users collect tabs into sets, graphically displays those sets, and when users open a tab, shows only those tabs within the group.

Mozilla, which calls Panorama a tab manager, has argued that it's the next step in the evolution of tabs.

Firefox's rivals have nothing like Panorama. Apple, for example, introduced "Top Sites" to Safari last year, while Google's Chrome has had a similar "Most Visited" feature since it launched in 2008. But both simply graphically represent frequently-visited sites using thumbnails.

Microsoft has not revealed the user interface or how it will use tabs in its next browser, Internet Explorer 9 (IE9), which is scheduled to ship as a beta on Sept 15.

Firefox Sync, the other major feature new to Beta 4, is not new to Mozilla: The service that keeps bookmarks, passwords, browser history, open tabs and other data consistent across multiple computers and devices traces its roots to 2007 and a project then dubbed Weave.

Sync has been available to users of earlier Firefox editions through an add-on and to iPhone owners via the free Firefow Home app, but this is the first time that the functionality has been baked into the browser.

Chrome and Opera have had integrated synchronization since 2008.

Mozilla also debuted hardware acceleration in Beta 4, but left the Windows-only feature turned off. To switch it on, users must edit the browser's "about:config" file using instructions Mozilla has posted on its site.

Firefox 4, like IE9, relies on Windows' Direct2D API (application programming interface) to boost rendering speeds by shifting some chores from the computer's central processor to the graphics processor.

Microsoft's made hardware acceleration a prominent part of its IE9 pitch, and rivals have started to react. Firefox, however, is the first browser to debut the technology in a beta-or-better build.

Hardware acceleration in Firefox 4 requires Windows Vista or Windows 7; the more popular Windows XP lacks the necessary graphics infrastructure, a fact that's prompted Microsoft to drop XP from IE9's supported operating systems.

Mozilla has set an aggressive schedule for Firefox 4, with a tentative release candidate slated for October and final ship date in November. According to meeting notes posted Tuesday, the current plan is to feature-freeze the browser Sept. 10, and issue a feature-complete Beta 6 later next month.

Firefox 4 Beta 4 can be downloaded for Windows, Mac and Linux from Mozilla's site in 35 different languages.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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