Web & communication software

Firefox 4 Browser Inches Ahead with Ease of Use

Mozilla on Tuesday released the fourth beta version of Firefox 4, complete with several new features that have the potential to propel the browser ahead of its competitors.

The new release's Panorama feature, most notably, offers a new approach to tab management that makes it easy to organize and multitask while on the Web. Rather than packing all browser tabs in a single strip at the top of the screen, Firefox Panorama--formerly known as Tab Candy--lets users group and prioritize those tabs any way they want to. With a single keystroke, users can see an overview of all their tabs, and they can quickly locate and switch among tabs or groups of tabs.

As a heavy user of tabs--I'll often have 10 or more open at once--this feature is already making my life a lot easier. It's also likely to become increasingly valuable as the world moves more and more activities to the cloud, meaning that a growing proportion of tasks are conducted via the browser. No one likes tab clutter, after all.

Perhaps even more significant, though, is that none of Firefox's main competitors have a feature like this--not even Chrome. For business users relying on the browser to get work done, the new Firefox is going to be particularly compelling.

A video on YouTube demonstrates the Firefox Panorama feature in action.

Sync Across Multiple Devices

Also included in Firefox 4 Beta 4 is a Sync feature that makes a user's bookmarks, history, Awesome Bar, passwords, form-fill data,and open tabs accessible across multiple computers and mobile devices--even on the iPhone, courtesy of Firefox Home. For privacy, all data gets encrypted before it's sent to the server, and the software does not track the user's travels around the Web.

Synchronization is not unique to Firefox. Chrome and Opera have had a similar feature for some time now. Still, for mobile business users visiting the Web and accessing files in the cloud from multiple devices, the capability is one that simply has to be there. Another video explains how to use the Sync feature.

Then, too, there's hardware acceleration, a feature designed to speed Firefox's page rendering. In the current beta version it's available only for Windows, and it's turned off by default. Still, given the fact that hardware acceleration is expected to play such a key role in Microsoft's upcoming Internet Explorer 9, it's nice to see Firefox getting a head start.

Crash Protection

As with previous Firefox 4 beta versions, meanwhile, this latest one sports a clean, Chrome-like user interface, protection for when there is a crash in the Adobe Flash, Apple Quicktime or Microsoft Silverlight plugins, and native support for the HD HTML5 WebM video format, among many other improvements.

Available in 39 languages, Firefox 4 Beta 4 includes an experimental API as well for more efficient Javascript animations, and it supports the HTML5 video "buffered" property. The software is freely downloadable for Linux, Mac OS X and Windows.

Based on the Gecko 2.0 Web platform, the release is considered to be stable and safe to use for daily Web browsing, Mozilla says--the "beta" status simply means that some features or content may change before the final product release. It's important to note, however, that some add-ons have not yet been tested by their authors to ensure that they are compatible with this release.

Focused on the Cloud

Of course, there's no doubt that Mozilla has its work cut out for it: It's still in the browser arena's No. 2 spot, according to researcher Net Applications, and Microsoft's upcoming Internet Explorer 9 is considered by many to look promising.

Then, too, there's Chrome, which many hail for its speed and many useful add-ons.

Nevertheless, with these new cloud-friendly features, Firefox 4 looks to be on solid footing for the browser wars' next round of competition.

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