Taking Firefox 4 Beta 1 for a Test Drive

Taking Firefox 4 Beta 1 for a Test Drive
I want, I really want Firefox to become a top-of-the-line Web browser again. It was Firefox, after all, that broke IE's (Internet Explorer) strangle-hold on Web browsers. Even Microsoft owes Firefox some gratitude. If Firefox hadn't pushed Microsoft into making IE into a decent Web browser, many of us might still be stuck with crapware like IE 6. Unfortunately, I'm not sure Firefox 4 is going to get Firefox back into competition with IE 8, much less, what I see as today's leading Web browser, Google's Chrome 5.

You see, Firefox has been getting a little long in the tooth. Like other software programs that haven't aged well, Firefox has accumulated more features, which has led to bloated, slow performance. So the good Firefox developers at Mozilla have decided to give Firefox a facelift.

Firefox's new interface, which is now only available on Windows 7 or Vista, consists of a single large orange button that gives you access to the rest of the browser's controls. I've used it on one of my test Windows 7 boxes -- a Dell Inspiron 530S, with a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor, an 800-MHz front-side bus, 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB SATA (Serial ATA) drive, and an Integrated Intel 3100 GMA (Graphics Media Accelerator) chip set. It ran quite well on this system. Its speed was comparable to the latest shipping version of Firefox 3.6, and that's no small feat for beta software. Still, when all was said and done, the interface left me cold.

Yes, as Mike Beltzner, director of Firefox, pointed on his Mozilla blog, that makes "the most-used options [available] with just one click." So? I'd rather have them on the browser bar or, as Chrome does, integrated so completely into the browser itself that you don't even need to find them because they're already there. This may just be a matter of taste, but for me, one big button doesn't do it.

One user-interface change I do like is that the browser tabs are now on the top, above the navigation toolbar. That change really does make it easier to access. This is present by default only in the Windows version of Firefox 4. Mac and Linux users can switch on the UI feature from the View menu by selecting Toolbars and then clicking on Tabs on Top. Another small, but nice, change is that the new add-ons manager loads up in a tab instead of its own window when you check your extensions and plug-ins.

All these UI changes bother me in another, more fundamental, way, though. I get that Windows is the dominant desktop operating system, but I'm not sure why Linux and Mac users have to be second-class citizens. In the past, Firefox development was on an even keel across all the major desktop platforms. Why are the other operating systems on the back-burner for Firefox 4?

Be that as it may, I'm actually more excited about the changes you can't see from Firefox 4's surface. "The aptly named OOPP (out of process plug-in)," -- which I choose to pronounce "Oops!" -- protects both the browser and the operating system from plug-in crashes. With OOPP implemented, if Adobe's Flash or Microsoft's Silverlight blows up, it will only take out the tab it's in, not the entire browser. Or, as I've known to happen on Windows in extreme cases, the entire operating system. Mozilla brought this to Windows version with Firefox 3.6.4, but it's only available now in the Firefox 4 Beta 1 on Mac and Linux PCs.

As you would expect, the new Firefox also includes better support for HTML 5 and native support for Google's open WebM video standard, which is based on the VP8 video codec. There are also other minor performance improvements.

All-in-all, Firefox 4 isn't yet ready for prime time. Back in Firefox's early days, you could take Firefox betas and start using them as your main Web browser. This one's too unstable at this point, both on Windows 7 and Linux Mint, an Ubuntu Linux-based desktop distribution, to use on a daily basis. Still, if you can live with the new default interface, Firefox promises to become more competitive.

Can't wait? You can try it today by downloading a copy from the Firefox beta Web site. Let me, and the rest of the ComputerWorld's readers, know in the comments.

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