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Firefox 3 for Mac: Is it time to switch from Safari?

Do performance improvements and a pleasant user interface make Mozilla's Firefox the clear choice?

June 18, 2008 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - When I switched from a Windows PC to a Mac in the fall of 2006, I was very disappointed in my choice of Web browsers. As a confirmed Firefox user, I expected Mozilla's Mac browser to be a no-brainer. But after trying Firefox 1.5 and 2.0 for the Mac, I adopted Apple's Safari -- and haven't looked back. Now that Firefox 3.0 is out, though, is it finally the better choice for Mac OS X?

Safari has been the better browser on the Macintosh for a number of reasons. Among the annoyances is Firefox's more Windows-centric way of doing things -- it doesn't closely adhere to Apple's user-interface principles (which admittedly aren't all that well understood or followed by many native Mac applications).

Here's an example: Clicking on the "green + window" button in Safari makes Apple Inc.'s browser expand to fit the width of the currently-loaded Web page -- a neat trick because in most cases, you don't need the page to be wider than that; you just want to be able to see the whole page. Firefox, however, treats the green button as a Windows-style maximize button, so it always expands the browser to your entire screen. As a cross-platform product, that's not surprising or terribly wrong. But it's an example of a lack of Mac integration that I miss in Firefox.

By far the bigger deal with earlier versions of Firefox concerned performance. Firefox 2 on the Mac OS X 10.4 loaded slowly, especially the first time you launched it after starting up the Mac. It also loaded Web pages sluggishly. In my personal experience, Firefox 2.0 was faster in OS X 10.5 "Leopard," but not by enough to significantly attract my attention.

By comparison, Safari launches very quickly, and its WebKit open-source Web-page rendering engine loads most pages in lickety-split fashion. Initially, I did have a hard time warming up to Safari's squared-off, drab gray look. The best way to describe Safari is Spartan. But in the end, it was Safari's excellent overall performance that decided me.

There are other Mac options, such as Camino, Opera and OmniWeb. All have good points, but each also has glaring problems that rules it out of contention: Camino's lack of extensions and older Gecko engine, Opera's quirky interface and OmniWeb's lack of modern tabs.

Firefox 3 puts in the fix

Mozilla's latest release of Firefox puts a whole new spin on the Mac browser discussion. Firefox 3.0 is noticeably faster than earlier versions. Even Safari stalwarts, such as Computerworld's Mac editor, Ken Mingis, readily agree on that point. The performance difference is apparent -- especially on pages that use complex JavaScript. If Firefox 3.0 had been available when I switched to the Mac, things might have turned out differently.

Firefox 3 for the Mac has literally come up to speed.
Click to view larger image.
So what's faster about Firefox 3.0? To find out, I ran Firefox 2.0, Firefox 2.0.0.14, Firefox 3.0 and Safari 3.1.1 through a battery of objective tests. I used the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark, which showed me that Firefox 3 bests today's Safari by a small amount of time.

The big news, though, is that Firefox 3 processes JavaScript more than three times faster than Firefox 2. I also ran tests loading 10 multiple tabs simultaneously and other page-load tests. Firefox 3 edged out its predecessors and Safari 3.1.1 by a small margin in those tests. On paper, it's the currently fastest.

There is one downside to Firefox 3, however. The first time you launch it after starting up OS X, Firefox 3 takes 5.5 seconds to open a blank page. By contrast, Safari 3.1.1 takes about half a second for the same task. It's a noticeable difference. If you're the kind of person whose Mac is always running, though, it's a moot point.

Firefox has also had perennial stability issues, sometimes leading to loss of performance over time, as a result of memory leaks. To be honest, though, I've only ever seen or heard about that problem under Windows. Mozilla's developers were able to rid the Gecko 1.9 browser engine -- under development for almost three years -- of some of the reliability-robbing inefficiencies of its predecessors. According to Mozilla's Firefox release notes:

Memory usage: Several new technologies work together to reduce the amount of memory used by Firefox 3 over a Web browsing session. Memory cycles are broken and collected by an automated cycle collector, a new memory allocator reduces fragmentation, hundreds of leaks have been fixed, and caching strategies have been tuned.
The long list of new features in Firefox 3.0 is certainly attractive in its own right. For example, there's a selection of welcome security tweaks, full-page zoom, better password management, a new download manager, and numerous improvements to address-bar auto-complete and bookmarks. New Mac integration includes a native OS X application look and feel, support for OS X widgets and support of some Growl notifications -- although the "green + button" still does a Windows-style maximize.

And then there are the intangibles: I have always liked the way Firefox feels. What does that mean? I can't really explain it. Safari doesn't have the fun factor that I get from Firefox. Safari may take you down the virtual highway with performance akin to a BMW M3, but while you're doing it, you'll feel like you're driving your father's Oldsmobile. (Is there any other kind anymore?) Firefox feels more like the M3, and now it comes close in the speed department. Of course, Apple has reportedly released a beta of Safari 4 to its developer community, so there's another chapter to come.



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