Firefox 4 Beta 4 opens a new Panorama

Mozilla's latest beta of its popular browser offers new tab organization and syncing abilities.

For a long time, most new browser releases have seemed to primarily offer "me-too" features to match the competition, together with interface tweaks and theoretical speed improvements measured in milliseconds. But Mozilla's recently released Beta 4 of Firefox 4 rolls out two of the best new browser features to come along in quite some time. The excellent tab-handling capabilities of Panorama and the multicomputer synchronization prowess of Sync mean that Firefox offers some of the best browsing and productivity tools now built into any browser.

A look at Panorama

Browser tabs are exceedingly useful, but they're also exceedingly clumsy to use. Spend much time browsing the Web, and you soon find yourself with too many tabs open and no easy way to manage them. Internet Explorer 8 made a small advance in tab handling when it color-coded related tabs so that you could easily see them in groups. But although that feature was useful, it was only an initial step.

Firefox 4
Firefox 4 Beta 4's new Panorama feature tames the use of tabs.

Panorama (the original code name was Tab Candy) makes a leap, not a step. It aims to tame tabs and in large part succeeds. Panorama lets you group tabs together in sets, and when you browse, you see only the tabs in that set, not any others that you've opened. You can then easily switch among tab sets.

For example, let's say you open multiple tabs for news sites, music sites, technology sites, communications sites like Gmail and Facebook, and so on. After a while, you've got 20 tabs open. Without Panorama, you might not even be able to see all of the open tabs arrayed along the top of the browser, much less quickly find the one tab you're interested in at the moment.

With Panorama, you can put those tabs in groups -- a news group, a music group, a technology group and a communications group. When you open to a tab in the news group, you'll only see the five tabs in that group. Your 15 other tabs are hidden away in their own groups. So you can easily jump from tab to tab in the news group, finding what you want. When you want to look for an open tab related to music, you can use Panorama to switch to the music group.

Panorama does its magic by using a feature that looks much like Mac OS X's Exposé. Click the Panorama button in the upper-right portion of Firefox, and it opens a new screen that contains all of your open tabs, in thumbnail form, grouped together in a box against what is essentially a blank canvas.

Drag any of those open tabs out of the box, and it creates its own new tab group. Drag another tab out of the box and drop it next to the first tab that you dragged out, and those two tabs become their own tab group, outlined in their own box.

You can keep creating groups on the Panorama screen in this way. When you click a tab in a box, that tab opens in a normal Firefox view, along with the other pages in its group, each in its own tab. None of the tabs from any other group will appear.

To get to another group of tabs, click the Panorama button. You're sent back to the Panorama screen. Click the other group, and it opens in a normal Firefox window, with just tabs from that group visible.

As you browse the Web and open new tabs, those tabs get added to whatever tab group you're currently using. Head back to Panorama, and you can move tabs among groups.

On the Panorama screen, you can delete individual tabs by clicking the X on them. You can close entire tab groups by clicking the X at the top of the group. You can resize groups, giving your more important groups more screen real estate and less important groups less real estate. And you can move the groups around the background canvas as well.

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