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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A free browser add-on called Xmarks (formerly called Foxmarks) does a better job of syncing than does Firefox Sync, because it synchronizes browser information not just for Firefox, but also for Safari, Internet Explorer and Chrome. In other words, Xmarks works not just with multiple computers, but with multiple browsers as well.

Firefox 4 beta 4
Firefox Sync lets you see what tabs are open in other computers running Firefox and browse to them as well.

However, Firefox Sync does something that Xmarks can't -- it will show you all of the open or saved tabs in all of your other computers and devices. This feature is useful, but can also be problematic and confusing.

I tried it out by first using Firefox on a Mac. I closed Firefox, saved the tabs and shut down the Mac. (When you save tabs like this in Firefox, the tabs automatically open the next time you start the browser.)

When I used Firefox on my PC, it showed me all of those saved tabs -- which is a good thing. I then opened one of those saved tabs and closed it. When I started up the Mac and opened Firefox again, I found that Firefox Sync had closed the tab on the Mac as well.

However, when Firefox was actively running on both the Mac and PC and I used the PC to view open tabs on the Mac, browsed to one, then closed it down, it did not close the tab on the Mac. So Firefox Sync's behavior changes according to whether another version of Firefox is running or not. Mozilla needs to make this behavior more consistent.

Still, despite that, Firefox Sync is a useful feature. If you use multiple computers and devices with Firefox on them, you'll no doubt use it, especially with your smartphone.

Hardware acceleration

Also new in this version of Firefox is hardware acceleration to speed up graphics. It's available in Windows only and is turned off by default. To turn it on, you'll have to fiddle with Firefox's "about:config" file. (For instructions on how to do that, head to Mozilla's demo page). Microsoft has introduced a similar feature in the platform preview of Internet Explorer 9 (which, rumor has it, is starting to look a lot like yet another rival browser, Chrome).

The bottom Line

Previous versions of Firefox 4 offered the useful additions of a sleeker, Chrome-like interface, tabs placed along the top of the browser and an improved add-ons manager. With the addition of Panorama and Firefox Sync, Firefox has leapfrogged competing browsers. It's now the one to beat.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor to Computerworld.com and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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