Review: Firefox 3.6 adds speed and Personas -- but is it enough?

The latest version of Firefox has some welcome, but not revolutionary, changes.

The just-released final version of Firefox 3.6 is a moderate improvement over previous versions -- it's faster and introduces a nifty new feature or two. But at heart, it's the same browser that has steadily gained market share against Internet Explorer for years.

This newest iteration shows all signs of continuing that trend, because it's opened up an even wider speed gap against Internet Explorer, better adheres to Web standards and adds a nice trick or two. Those who favor raw speed alone will still prefer Chrome, but Firefox is clearly superior to Chome when it comes to full-featured Web browsing.

I tested the latest version of Firefox on four machines: one running Vista, one running Windows XP, one running Windows 7 and one running Mac OS X Snow Leopard. I performed head-to-head testing of Firefox 3.6 against version 3.5, Chrome 4, Internet Explorer 8 and Opera 10 on a Dell Inspiron E1505 laptop with 1GB of RAM and an Intel Core Duo T2400 1.83Ghz processor, running Windows XP SP3.

It's all about speed

Here's the most important thing you need to know about Firefox 3.6: it's faster than 3.5. Using the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark, I found that version 3.6 was faster than 3.5 by 12%. It was nearly three times as fast as Opera and nearly four times as fast as Internet Explorer. But it still lagged behind Chrome by approximately 40%. I performed the tests three times for each browser and averaged the results, shown at the bottom of the page.

Even though Chrome beat Firefox by a wide margin when it comes to speed, Firefox appears to be better than Chrome when it comes to memory footprint when multiple tabs are open, at least according to my tests. With five identical tabs open in each browser, Chrome used 194.6MB versus 100.3MB in Firefox. That is partly by design, though, because Chrome uses separate processes for each tab, which leads to a larger memory footprint when multiple tabs are open.

The upside of this for Chrome (and for Internet Explorer 8, which uses the same technique), is that when an individual tab crashes, only that tab is brought down, and the browser itself remains running. With Firefox, when one tab crashes, it generally brings down the browser.

SunSpider JavaScript tests
SunSpider JavaScript benchmark results. Times are in milliseconds. Smaller numbers are better.
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