Firefox 3.5: Back on top... for now

Sorry Opera; too bad about what happened to you, Netscape; and Internet Explorer, please, don't make me laugh. The best Web browser on the planet is Firefox 3.5... for now.

I've been using Firefox since day one, and, for the most part, I've liked it. And, folks, since I've been using the Web since before there were Web browsers I know what I'm talking about.

The new Firefox is fast, filled with new features, and solid as a rock. I've been working with this latest update since its beta days on a pair of PCs. The first is my dependable Windows XP SP3 system, running on a was a Dell Inspiron 530S with a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor, 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA drive and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator). The other is my Fedora 11 PC. This Linux box is a Gateway GT5622 desktop with a 1.8GHz Intel Pentium E2160 dual-core CPU, 3GBs of RAM, a 400GB SATA drive, and an Intel 950 GMA.

Windows or Linux, Firefox, and its extensions worked like a charm. Unfortunately, while Firefox is back to being a fast browser, it's not the fastest browser. First place continues to go to Google's Chrome.

When it comes to rendering JavaScript heavy pages, and many Web sites are now laden with JavaScript, Chrome still leaves Firefox eating its dust. Once more, I found that Chrome 2.0's V8 JavaScript engine lops by Firefox's TraceMonkey engine without breaking a sweat. Using the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark on the XP PC, Firefox 3.5 was almost twice as slow as Chrome 2.0 at the benchmark with a recorded time of 1,274.8-millisecond to Chrome 2.0's 716.4.

Web browsing isn't all about speed though. While Chrome is finally making progress with adding extensions, it's still way, way behind Firefox. Heck, even Internet Explorer 8 does better with extensions than Chrome does at the moment. If you want a Web browser you can easily customize with extensions to work just the way you want it to work, you really want Firefox

Now, some people might say that the forthcoming Opera 11 with Unite gives you far more power to set up a browser just the way you want it to be set up. And, then they're right. But Opera 11 Unite is also perhaps the most insecure program I've seen introduced this century. I wouldn't use it if you paid me. For the best combination of having it your way while staying safe, you'll still want Firefox.

Firefox also has some very useful new features. But one of them, Open Video and Audio, much as I'd like to like it, I really don't see as being that important. While Firefox 3.5 now incorporates video and audio content by using HTML 5 for Web page embedded video and audio without the need for an Adobe Flash compatible plug-in. Sure the idea of direct audio/video integration in the browser sounds great, but it only works with the open-source Ogg formats.

I like open formats, but, there's very, very little media out there in the Ogg formats. The hope is that Ogg will replace Flash and Microsoft's Silverlight proprietary formats in the same way that the PNG image format has largely replaced GIF on the Web. I'm not convinced that will happen in this case though. The media companies have a vested interest in controlling their content and part of that, as Sony PlayStation 3 owners discovered this weekend when Hulu cut them off from its videos, is making sure they call the shots on how their video is seen.

That can be overcome though. What's a more important problem is that while open-source programs and formats are usually better than then proprietary competition, that's not the case with Ogg. As Robin 'Roblimo' Miller pointed out in the Ogg formats aren't good enough to compete with Flash, MP3, and the other popular, but proprietary, formats. The Ogg formats, and the tools that will let content creators use them, still need a lot of improvement before they see many people using them.

I feel much more sanguine about Firefox's new privacy controls. In the Private Browsing mode noting is left on your PC from your rambles around the Web. . They're also a new tool, Forget this Site, which I believe is unique to Firefox 3.5, that lets you zap every trace of your visits to any particular site from your browser's history.

So, with all this good stuff, why do I think Firefox 3.5 has only seized the lead for the moment? Primarily, it's because Google Chrome, especially on Linux, is getting really better, really fast. Chrome already has the speed advantage, and I can see it catching up and surpassing Firefox in features in the near future. Apple's new Safari 4 is also looking mighty good, and it looks to me like Apple finally has a grip on Safari's endemic security problems.

For us, the good news is that all this competition--after all even Microsoft's latest Internet Explorer has become a decent browser--means that no matter what browser you use, it's going to be a lot better than the one you used just last year.

Browser wars

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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