Firefox 4 Beta 4 opens a new Panorama

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

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There's a lot more to Panorama, including the ability to name groups. If you've got a lot of tab groups and not enough space on your screen to show them all, make the group very small and it shrinks into a pile that looks a bit like a deck of cards. Click an icon just beneath the pile, and thumbnails of the tab group appear. Click the pile itself, and you'll open the topmost tab in the pile, with all the pages in their own tabs, just as with any other tab group.

Firefox 4 beta 4
A "pile" of tabs stacked neatly on top of one another. Click the icon just underneath the representation of the pile...
Firefox 4 beta 4
...and the pile "opens" to show thumbnails of all of the tabs you've put into it.

All this sounds more confusing than it really is; you can do it all in seconds without much thought. I've found that in practice Panorama is a significant time-saver. It also encourages you not to close tabs that you might want to reopen later on. Without Panorama, I commonly close tabs because I often have so many tabs open that I can't keep track of them all. With Panorama, I no longer do that.

That's not to say that Panorama is perfect. For example, what do you do if you want to see all of your tabs back in a single group, rather than in their own separate groups? There's no simple way to do that. You'll have to drag all the tabs back into one group.

Mozilla is working on features that will make Panorama even more useful. For example, it might add the ability to search for content in groups or across all open tabs, to color-code and add themes to groups, and to share groups with friends. For now, though, there is no release date for any of that.

Panorama takes a little getting used to, and if you're happy with the way that Firefox handles tabs, you won't need it. But those who live in their browsers and open dozens of sites a day will find it one of the best new browser features since tabs were invented.

Inside Firefox Sync

Also new in Beta 4 is Firefox Sync, which is not as useful as Panorama and is aimed at a smaller audience -- those who use Firefox on multiple computers and devices.

The feature is not altogether new -- it began life back in 2007 as a Mozilla project called Weave, and is currently available as an add-on to earlier versions of Firefox, and to iPhones and BlackBerry phones. However, this is the first time that Firefox Sync is built directly into the browser itself.

Firefox Sync synchronizes your bookmarks, passwords, browsing history and even open tabs among multiple computers and devices. Let's say you use Firefox on a Mac. You do some browsing, add several bookmarks, log into a Web site and tell Firefox to keep the password. Then, if you move to a Windows PC whose Firefox browser has been synced with the one on your Mac, the PC's version of Firefox will have all that information -- the bookmarks, password and browsing history from the Mac.

While Sync is useful for those using multiple computers, in the long run, it will likely be of most use for smartphone users. As of yet, though, there is no Android version -- which isn't surprising, because Firefox hasn't yet been officially released for Android. One would expect that Firefox Sync will be included in the eventual Android release.

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