Firefox 3 first look

I've loved Firefox since version 0.93. It was so much better than Internet Explorer and the other alternatives that I couldn't imagine using anything else. But, then Firefox's memory leaks went from annoying me to ticking me off; I started having real stability problems with it on both Windows and Linux; and security holes started appearing far more often. I was about to switch to Safari on Windows and MacOS and Konqueror on Linux, when Mozilla got serious about not just fixing, but rebuilding Firefox. Now, Firefox 3 release candidate 1 was released early. Based on my quick look at it, I may end up sticking with Firefox after all.

I downloaded Firefox 3 RC 1 yesterday for both my Windows XP SP3 system and one of my openSUSE 10.3 PCs. Both are up-to-day systems without any problems. Installing the browser on both operating systems was a snap. How easy was it? I installed them at the same time with barely a thought.

Once in place, rather than looking at the new and nifty features, I just start using the browser as I would normally. Features are all well and good but what I really wanted to know was whether the browser was back to being a stable, reliable partner and had it stopped snatching up memory. I'm happy to report that, based on twelve hours of non-stop use and abuse, Firefox 3 is both more stable than Firefox 2.x and it finally has stopped being a memory piggy.

I also immediately noticed that two of my 'must-have' Firefox extensions, Google Browser Sync, which lets me sync my bookmarks over my two dozen plus PCs, and Google Toolbar, a toolbar that gives me easy access to Google search and Google applications like Gmail and Google Calendar, don't work yet with Firefox 3. Until they're supported this going to keep me from upgrading all my systems to Firefox 3, but that's the only thing that's stopping me.

Besides the better stability, Firefox 3 is also faster, a lot faster, at rendering Web pages. This is thanks to the improved Gecko 1.9 Web rendering platform. Complex pages, like Computerworld's front page with its text, graphics, and animations, now spring to my screen, Overall, I estimate that I'm seeing a 20 to 35% boost in screen performance.

As for JavaScript rendering, here the numbers are better, but not wildly better, than the ones I've seen with Firefox 2.x. On the XP system, which is running on a 3GHz Pentium IV with a gigabyte of RAM, Firefox delivered a 5213.17ms performance on the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark. The same test on my openSUSE 10.3 PC, which uses an 1.86GHz Intel Core Duo E6320 processor with 1GB of RAM produced a 10,142.2ms on the same benchmark.

Mozilla claims that it will work twice as fast with heavily JavaScripted pages like Gmail. I didn't see that. I saw more of a 50 to 60% speed boost.

When it comes to standards compliance, Firefox 3 does well, but not great, on the Acid3 CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) test with a 71 result. On the other hand, with the exception of the latest version of Safari, 87 the last time I tested it, all the other browsers I tried do far worse. Still, as far as real world use goes, Firefox 3 does an outstanding job of delivering the Web page goods.

I also fiddled with Firefox 3's new features. I haven't enough time to really test them out, but here are my initial impressions.

The One-click site info sounds more interesting than it is. Most sites, including Mozilla's own, don't have any identify information. However, if you go on to the advanced tab, it will show you whether the site has placed any cookies with your Web browser and can show you detailed information on what's what with those cookies. This strikes me as being darn useful at times.

The malware and cross-script-aka Web forgery protection-protection mechanisms do work. Neither feature offer perfect protection, nothing does, but anything that increases Web security is a good thing in my book.

As someone who makes more than his fair share of typos with passwords, I'm pleased to report that Firefox now only asks if you want to save your password after you successfully logged in to a system. Maybe this won't matter to a lot of people, but for me it gets a big thumbs up.

I suspect more people will appreciate the improvement in bookmarking. For example, the new Smart Bookmarks Folder lets you quickly go to your most often visited pages from the smart bookmarks tab on your bookmark toolbar. Firefox 3 also enables you to add keyword tags to your bookmarks and then sort your bookmarks by these tags. I'm not a big fan of tagging, but for those who can't live without them, it's extremely handy.

All-in-all, Firefox 3 is more than good enough to keep me as a user. Better still, from Mozilla's viewpoint, its good enough that it should pull in another wave of new users. It's not just a major step up from Firefox 2; it's a leap forward from the other new browsers such as the forthcoming Internet Explorer 8.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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