Review: Firefox 3.5 makes browsing faster, easier and more fun

Mozilla puts Firefox 3.5 ahead of the browser pack with better performance, improved tab handling and nifty new features.

The just-released version 3.5 of Firefox is a winner, offering significantly faster Web browsing, better tab handling, a host of interface tweaks and, like just about every other browser on the planet, a "porn mode." If you already use Firefox you'll want to upgrade right away. If you're not a Firefox user, this version represents a very good opportunity to give the browser a test run.

Need for speed

For many people, the browser wars are all about one thing: speed. There's no doubt that version 3.5 of Firefox is significantly faster than version 3. Pages load noticeably more quickly for a number of reasons, not least because Mozilla built a new JavaScript engine called TraceMonkey for this version of Firefox.

How much faster is open to debate. Mozilla says it ran the industry-standard SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark, which measures how quickly browsers render JavaScript, on versions 2, 3 and 3.5 of Firefox, and asserts that the newest version is more than twice as fast as Firefox 3 and more than ten times as fast as Firefox 2 on the test. Other testers have reported similar results.

Of course, rendering JavaScript quickly doesn't necessarily mean that all Web pages load faster. Microsoft, for example, argues that for most Web pages, other kinds of speed-ups are more important than rendering JavaScript quickly. I'll leave that debate to Microsoft, Mozilla and other browser makers. But putting aside any speeds-and-feeds specs, I can tell you that from the user experience, Firefox 3.5 is lightning fast -- it seems to me about comparable to the recently-released Safari 4.0 for the Mac.

Private Browsing

Any browser worth its salt these days has a porn mode, and with version 3.5, Firefox now has one as well. It's called Private Browsing (Internet Explorer's is called InPrivate Browsing), and it works as advertised. When you browse the Web using it, nothing about the session is stored -- no history, no cookies, no temp files, no forms information, no search information, nothing that can show where you've browsed or what you've done. To turn the Las Vegas tag line on its ear: What happens in Firefox doesn't stay in Firefox.

To use Private Browsing, Select Tools --> Start Private Browsing, or else press Ctrl-Shift-P. Unlike with Internet Explorer, a new instance of the browser doesn't launch. Instead, a warning appears, asking you if you want to start a Private Browsing session and telling you that Firefox will save your tabs if you want to start one.

Firefox 3.5: Starting a Private Browsing session
Starting a Private Browsing session

Firefox then closes your existing tabs, and immediately launches a private browsing window. From here, browse the Web as you normally would, and nothing of the session will remain. To end the Private Browsing session, close Firefox as you would normally, or else select Tools --> Stop Private Browsing, or else press Ctrl-Shift-P. The current session ends, and Firefox launches with all of your previous tabs intact.

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