Living on the Edge of Firefox


ScreenshotWe’ve covered the Firefox 3 betas several times – and generally liked them. But as some users have discovered, “beta” really does mean “not finished.” For example, several of us here at WWD have had problems using Firefox 3 Beta 5 (the most recent beta release) with GMail.

If you run into an incompatibility between a beta version of Firefox 3 and one of your must-have sites, the safe path to take is to downgrade back to Firefox 2. This is easy, because Firefox 3 betas won’t overwrite your Firefox 2 install. But there’s another option for the adventurous web user: move forward to the most recent nightly Firefox 3 builds, even though they’re not official betas.Like many software projects under rapid development, Firefox pushes out new compiled versions of the code every day. The Firefox developers call these “Minefield” builds – a subtle reminder that you’re taking your chances when you use them. My own experience has been that the post-beta 5 builds are of high quality – indeed, higher quality than beta 5 itself – but obviously your mileage may vary. But they’re safe to try; installing a Minefield build won’t overwrite either your Firefox 2 or Firefox 3 beta install.

If you want to try this, you can grab them from links at the bottom of the Mozilla For Developers page. They’re in the same format as regular beta builds and install the same way; you don’t need to do any of your own compiling. Start it up and see what happens. After you install a Minefield build, it will try to update itself nightly, unless you turn off the update checks (see the Update tab on the Advanced page of the Minefield preferences to change this).

I generally allow Minefield to update itself on my computers. But recognizing that about 1 build out of every six or eight is lousy (at least for my browsing patterns), I also keep an installer image handy for a build that’s worked well for me. That way if I do wake up and discover it’s crashing, I can easily take a minor downgrade and wait another day to see whether things improve.

You’ll probably also want to install the Nightly Tester Tools if you decide to live on the edge. This extension offers some tools for those doing serious testing, but it also has two big benefits for those of us who are primarily interested in using Minefield. First, you can use it to make other extensions compatible with Minefield, even if their authors haven’t updated them. This doesn’t necessarily mean the extensions will work – but at least you can load them and try them out.

Second, the Nightly Tester Tools add a “Restore from Last Session” item to the History toolbar. If Minefield crashes on you, you can use this menu to see all of the sites you had loaded into tabs, and selectively choose which ones to reopen. This is a lifesaver when you run across one particular site that takes the whole browser down.

Running on the edge of Firefox isn’t for everyone. But given the closeness of Firefox 3 to release, now is a good time to give it a try if you’re having problems with the most recent beta builds. Just be sure not to delete your old copies of Firefox just yet!


Mike Gunderloy

Robert – Oh, absolutely. And users of the nightlies should report their crashes, too. But meanwhile, gotta get some work done – which is why side-by-side installs are so sweet.

Robert Accettura

If you run into an incompatibility between a beta version of Firefox 3 and one of your must-have sites, the safe path to take is to downgrade back to Firefox 2.

Don’t just downgrade. Go to the help menu and select “Report Broken Web Site…” and submit it. That way we can identify problematic websites and figure out if it’s a regression, if the website should be contacted, etc. etc.

Don’t suffer in silence. Report it.

Disclamer: I wrote that tool.

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