No, I don’t mean the rumored Apple tablet, sorry. Nor, more realistically, am I talking about the spec bump to the Macbook line. The first release candidate for Firefox 3 dropped yesterday, and a shiny new thing it is. (I can hear you now: but we’re on Macs! We use Safari! I know, I know. Some of us use Firefox. Anyway, on with the show.)
Firefox 3 is built on top of Mozilla’s latest update to its Gecko framework, 1.9. Gecko 1.9 allows for a number of improvments, including better CSS support, Acid2 compliance, a bookmark functionality built on SQLite, and better SVG handling. FF 3 touts a whole slew of improvements, from more eye-candy level changes to a completely new underpinning to the app as a whole. I tried it out on my machine, a 2.16Ghz C2D Macbook Pro running 10.5.2 with 2 gigs of RAM.
The biggest complaint I and many others had with Firefox 2 was its outlandish memory consumption. For comparison, FF 184.108.40.206, the latest final build, uses 926 mb of virtual memory and 102 mb of real memory to render the eight tabs I have open. (Yes, I will also admit to having a number of extensions. Extensions are why I don’t use Safari.) To render the same eight tabs, with all the same extensions running, FF 3 rc1 uses 723mb of virtual memory and 74 mb of real memory. That’s a pretty decent decrease, especially for those of us that tend to be running more/ memory heavy apps. (A secondary note on this statistic – I am using the Nightly Tester Tools package to force extension compatibility, so this is not simply a decrease due to loss of extensions. I will update those numbers with final-version ones when updates appear for addons.) Ars Technica and others have reported that, for certain benchmark values, FF3 weighs in lighter than Opera and Safari, in fact.
A lot of this improvement is due to the newly-added memory cycle collector, which is responsible for collecting and reallocating memory from bits of the app that ask for it and then don’t really let go of it when they’re done. More of this improvement will be seen for those who run less extensions, as not all extensions are expected to have developers savvy enough to get their modules to be recognized by and added to its queue.
For the first time without a third party theme, Firefox looks like it belongs on my Mac. The interface is much slicker (and rc1, thank heaven, got rid of the quarter-sized back button). The tab bar is a bit more tab-y, with rounded edges a la Leopard app menus and a little space between each tab. The theme particularly blends with Leopard, with a heavy use of darker grey gradients. The address and search bars have been revamped with a sharper curviness than the understated rounding on Firefox 2.
Firefox 3 also takes advantage of Gecko 1.9’s ability to handle full-page – pictures too! – zooming. Accessible either through the view menu or the usual apple-plus and apple-minus keyboard shortcuts, this is a very welcome improvement, especially for those of us who spend too long every day staring at websites designed by the kind of crazies who think 8-pt type makes them look cool and trendy.
Another of Firefox 2’s biggest problems was its stability. There’s nothing more annoying to many than being halfway through a long streaming video and having your browser die on you, and FF was a notable offender in that category. Especially for a release candidate, though, this version of Firefox 3 seems very reliable, handling even such massive tasks as opening my entire ‘Tech’ bookmarks category in tabs with nary a burp.
The downloads pane in Firefox 3 has also been usefully updated, with the largest improvement being new support for resuming downloads. Also something that used to require a third party add-on, this now takes the form of a nice slide-down window telling you that it can resume x downloads.
There are a number of security updates in Firefox 3, from obvious suspect-site blocking features to more subtle improvements. One of the neatest I’ve found is the site information dialog – in FF3, clicking on the address bar favicon for a site brings up the identity information supplied by the site, as well as whether your connection to that site is encrypted or not. If the site lists an owner, the area around the favicon turns blue – try it for yourself at bankofamerica.com. If the site uses full Extended Validation SSL certificates, this area turns green – try it yourself at paypal.com. (I’ll refrain from directly linking to either of those for you paranoid types out there.) Oddly, mozilla.com supplies no identity info at all, a strange oversight in my mind if they’re going to enable this feature.
A nice touch is that the ‘remember passwords’ dialogue – which is now a nice bar at the top of the window, not a popup – appears after you successfully log in. No more hoping that you’ve remembered the password to that random forum when you tell Firefox to remember it; how wonderful.
It also says that it will notify anti-virus software when downloading executables. I can only assume that this is a Windows-only feature, since I tested it by downloading an app, and I don’t think anything else noticed or cared. (Certainly not ClamXAV, my seldom-used antivirus of choice.)
Another security layer is added in the extensions pane, as FF3 will automatically disable any add-ons that do not offer their updates securely.
Bookmarks & History
Firefox 3 now has a one-click bookmark interface; the little blue star in the address bar is an outline if the site is unbookmarked and filled if you’ve already bookmarked it. A second click on the star lets you edit the bookmark, including editing the brand-new tags field. The loading time to bring up a large folder of bookmarks in tabs is also dramatically shortened; I suspect is may have something to do with the previously-mentioned SQLite-based bookmarks database. Firefox 3 also now – finally – smartsuggests your history and bookmarks when you type in the address bar, a nice little piece of friendliness to those of us whohate typing the whole address. A clean drop-down menu, complete with synopses, appears as soon as you begin typing, and shows all the bookmarks or recently-visited pages that might match those keywords. The ‘Organize bookmarks’ pane now also makes your bookmarks searchable, another nice new feature.
The biggest downside for me right now is that many of the extensions I have come to depend on are broken, but then, it’s a beta – what can one expect? The Mac version of Firefox still does not support the placement of a blank-titled bookmark in the bookmark bar such that I can use the favicon alone as the key. The Windows build comes with this by default; getting it on a Mac has thus far required using a third-party theme which, unsurprisingly, doesn’t yet work on rc1. I’m also still not terribly keen on the ‘keyhole’ design of the forward-back buttons, with the back button being significantly larger and rounder than the forward. For all the devs’ comments that they’re trying to fit with the OSX aesthetic, that’s the one place where they fail remarkably.
RC1 also removes a couple of functions that many people may be fond of; the most notable is that the DOM Inspector is no longer a default chunk of the browser. It is available as an add-on, but that may not satisfy those who depend on it.
On the whole, I’m pleased and impressed by Firefox 3 – if this is only the first release candidate, the final 3.0 build, expected in late June or July, may well be definitively the best browser going. This build is fast, stable, and well-designed, with some nice new features that are found on none of the competition. Reader participation time – have you used it? Will you use it? What should it have that it does – or doesn’t? Let us know in the comments.