Review: Firefox 3.6 RC gives new life to an old browser

Firefox 3.6 is almost here, and if the release candidate is any indication, it's looking mighty good.

The Web browsing world is exciting again. Google's Chrome browser is faster than fast and there's serious thought that Internet Explorer may actually lose its top spot in the browser market-share wars. But for all the excitement, it would be a real mistake to overlook Firefox; with the forthcoming release of Firefox 3.6, which is now available as a release candidate, Mozilla's flagship browser is looking better than ever.

As soon as the release candidate came out on January 9, I started putting it through its paces, using two Dell 530S desktop PCs. These older computers are powered by a 2.2GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800MHz front-side bus. Each has 4GB of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chipset. One was loaded with Windows XP SP3 and the other used MEPIS 8 desktop Linux.

Much improved performance

To my delight, I found that Firefox uses considerably less memory after prolonged use than its predecessor, Firefox 3.5.6. Better memory use may not strike you as the most exciting thing about a Web browser, but if you're a serious Web user, with multiple tabs open at once for hours at a time, it's a big deal. I, and other users, have noticed memory issues with Firefox 3.5.6 that slowed a PC's overall performance. In my testing of 3.6, these memory problems appear to have been fixed, and that alone makes it a "must upgrade" in my book.

I also noticed that the new Firefox is much faster than the last version. Part of this speed boost comes from Firefox's new ability to run scripts asynchronously. In the past, Firefox waited for the first script on the page to download completely before running the next script, no matter how long it took to download. Now, Firefox runs whichever script downloads first, no matter where it's placed on the page. It's one of those small changes that make a big practical difference on pages with multiple scripts.

In particular, Firefox 3.6 does much better with Web 2.0 sites that rely on JavaScript. With its updated JavaScript engine, TraceMonkey, I found that the browser was more than three times faster than Firefox 3.5.6 on the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark test. On the Windows XP system, Firefox 3.5.6 came in at a poky 3034.4 milliseconds, while Firefox 3.6 zipped by it at 1007.0 milliseconds.

That's great, but it still leaves Firefox lagging behind Chrome, which easily lapped the field with a time of 553.0 milliseconds.

New features

There's more to a browser than just fast page rendering, and Firefox 3.6 offers numerous new features that I think make it a compelling browser choice.

Users who like to tweak the look of their browser but don't want to dig into the technicalities of Firefox's XUL (XML User Interface Language) should enjoy playing with Firefox's new Personas feature. This is a one-click Web-based tool that lets you change the look and feel of your browser. You can either roll your own theme or pick one of the more than 35,000 themes that are already available. Personally, I like the plain-old Firefox theme, but if you like jazzing up your browser's looks, you'll like Personas.

Firefox Persona
Like to customize your Web browser's look? With Personas, Firefox 3.6 makes it easy.

A more universally useful feature is that Firefox 3.6 will now automatically check to see if your plug-ins are out of date. Since many 21st-century security problems come from outdated plug-ins, this is an important fix. For example, Adobe Flash, which most of us use for Web video, has had numerous security problems fixed in the last year. With this improvement, even users who don't follow security news will be able to keep their plug-ins up to date and secure. This is a win/win situation as far as I'm concerned. I'd like to see all browsers implement this feature.

The new Firefox has also improved its support for HTML5. Specifically, Firefox now supports full-screen native video and will let you use local files with Web applications. As the gap between traditional desktop applications and SaaS (Software as a Service) applications continues to narrow, this last feature is likely to see a lot of use.

At the same time, though, Firefox's developers are preventing Firefox browser extensions from loading third-party components installed in its internal components directory. This is because the programmers were finding that many Firefox crashes were actually caused by misbehaving extensions and plug-ins. To make matters worse, users couldn't access some of these third-party components with the add-ons manager or even disable them.

The long-term gain from this change will be to make Firefox more stable. In the short run, though, Firefox's programmers estimate that about 1 in 4 current Firefox extensions will need to be rebuilt to work with Firefox 3.6. I'm more than willing to put up with that for the sake of having a Web browser that won't fail on me when I'm in the middle of work.

In any event, I've discovered that the Firefox extensions that I consider to be absolutely essentially -- the Google Toolbar and Xmark's Bookmark Sync tool -- work just fine with Firefox 3.6.

Taken all in all, I'm very impressed by Firefox 3.6. While I still really like Chrome's speed and recently introduced support for extensions, this new version of Firefox is so much better than the last iteration that I've decided I'm going to keep using Firefox as my main browser on Linux and start using it again on Windows.

Internet Explorer? Chrome? Look out. Firefox is back in the game again.

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