Firefox 4 beta 1 is a smart-looking, snappy performer

With greater speed, a sleek new interface and a few tricks up its sleeve, Firefox 4 may be on track to regain the browser crown.

The just-released first beta of Firefox 4 takes some smart design ideas from Chrome, mixes in a few of its own and throws in a few new features and snappier performance. Add these benefits to Firefox's existing world-class library of add-ons, and Firefox just might leapfrog other browsers and become the best of the bunch -- if the beta keeps progressing along its current positive path.

Firefox 4 enters the modern age

Of late, Firefox's interface has begun to look long in the tooth compared to more modern-looking browsers like Chrome and Safari. This beta changes all that.

The biggest change to Firefox is immediately noticeable -- as with Chrome, the tabs range along the top of the browser, rather than appearing below the address bar, which Mozilla calls the "Awesome Bar."

new tabs in Firefox 4 beta 1
Firefox's new look includes tabs across the top of the screen.

(This new design shows up only in Windows 7 and Vista, not in Windows 2000 or XP. It's also not in the Mac OS X and Linux betas, although Mozilla says it will be at some time in the future.)

The space allotted to the Awesome Bar and navigation buttons has also been reduced, giving content on Web pages more real estate and making it easier to see the titles of all pages on your open tabs. The navigation buttons themselves also been given a softer look, with rounded rather than straight edges. The overall effect is to give Firefox a more modern, more pleasing look.

new buttons in Firefox 4 beta 1
Firefox 4's buttons have a softer, rounder look.

The navigation buttons have also been simplified. No longer are there separate Reload and Stop buttons. Instead, they have been combined into a single button, which changes its appearance and purpose depending on whether a page is loading or has already loaded.

The tabs themselves have also been given a minor makeover. Go to a site, and a clock-like icon appears on the tab as the page loads, indicating the speed of the page being downloaded and how much has been downloaded. It's a nice little feature for those who can't abide delays and would like to have some sense of how long the page will take to load.

Like Chrome, Safari and Internet Explorer, Firefox has also finally given up menus. To get at the features that were previously available on menus, click the orange Firefox button on the upper-left part of the screen, and a drop-down menu appears.

Firefox button in Firefox 4 beta 1
The new Firefox button replaces Firefox's old menus.

The button itself is not particularly attractive, and its bright orange color is somewhat jarring. Don't be surprised if its design changes in the future. Still, with the menus gone, Firefox has a simpler, sleeker look.

I especially welcome a small addition: a star button on the right-hand side, next to the search box, that lets you browse through your bookmarks. It's there in place of the Bookmarks menu that used to be at the top of the screen.

"Switch to tab" -- good idea, bad implementation

Firefox 4 includes a very nifty feature that unfortunately still seems only half-baked. Type text in the Awesome Bar and it searches not just your history, previous searches and sites you've bookmarked or tagged as it used to do, but also the titles of all your open tabs.

If it finds a matching result in another tab, it shows a "Switch to tab" icon. Click that icon to head to the tab. If you're the kind of person who often uses multiple tabs, you could find this feature to be a big timesaver.

Unfortunately, though, the feature leaves much to be desired and may not be of much practical use. The search results for open tabs are mixed in with your history list, previous searches, and so on. That means the open tabs often will be found very low down on the list of results -- so low that you may never see them.

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