Firefox 4 Approaches Warp Speeds With JägerMonkey

We've known for some time now that the JägerMonkey JavaScript engine seen in recent nightly preview builds of Firefox 4 would increase the browser's speed, but yesterday's release of the seventh beta version of the software shows performance increases beyond what many of us might have imagined.

That's due in large part to JägerMonkey, but also in part to the addition of support for hardware-accelerated graphics and hardware acceleration for Windows XP and Mac OS X. Firefox 4 Beta 7 also enables 3D capabilities without the need for plug-ins using WebGL.

Taken together, the result is that pages load faster and interactions with Web sites are "snappier," Mozilla says. The free and open source browser is really, really fast, in other words--three times faster than Firefox 3.6.12 is on both the Kraken and Sunspider JavaScript benchmark test suites, and a full five times better on version 6 of the V8 benchmark.

Such improvements will be particularly noticeable in JavaScript-heavy applications like Gmail and Facebook, Mozilla engineer David Mandelin noted in a related blog.

Faster Gaming Performance

Along with the new JägerMonkey just-in-time (JIT) compiler, the Firefox SpiderMonkey JavaScript engine now incorporates enhancements to the existing TraceMonkey JIT and SpiderMonkey's interpreter.

"You'll notice this in faster start-up time, improved page-load speed and the performance of Web apps and games," Mozilla said.

Firefox 4 Beta 7 also adds hardware-accelerated graphics into compositing, or the final rendering of a website, enabling Web sites to load and respond faster to rich and interactive content like Web games, apps and photos. On Windows--including Windows XP--hardware acceleration is done using DirectX technology, while on Mac OS X it's done using OpenGL.

At this point, however, support for hardware acceleration is still limited among graphics cards and video drivers; a post from Firefox developer Joe Drew offers a guide to determining where it is and isn't supported.

HTML5 Validation

The inclusion of WebGL, meanwhile, allows developers to create games, vivid graphics and brand-new visual experiences for the Web without requiring users to install plug-ins. So, 3D graphics can be combined with other Web technologies and seamlessly integrated with the rest of a Web site.

WebGL in Firefox 4 Beta 7 requires an OpenGL-capable graphics card on Windows or Mac OS X. Additional support for other graphics cards on Windows--Intel GPUs, in particular--and Linux will come in future beta releases, Mozilla said.

Other improvements in this latest beta release include enhancements in the realm of HTML5 forms. Specifically, detailed HTML5 forms become easier to create thanks to an auto-complete feature, HTML5 form validation and a new Form API.

The browser now supports the OpenType font format as well, giving designers and developers a way to create sophisticated effects by controlling ligatures, kerning, alternative characters, small and large caps variants and more.

Finally, the add-on APIs for Firefox 4 are now stable, so developers can update their Firefox 3.6-compatible add-ons to support Firefox 4.

Focus on Speed

The Firefox 4 Beta 7 is currently available on Mac, Windows and Linux and in more than 35 languages. For mobile, it's available on Maemo and Android.

If you're already using a beta version of Firefox 4, you'll be automatically updated to the current one, Mozilla said. If not, it can be downloaded from the Mozilla site. Though it's now feature-complete, more beta releases of Firefox 4 are expected before the final version is released; the next one will come out sometime in "the coming weeks," Mozilla said.

Six-year-old Firefox is currently the No. 2 browser worldwide, according to researcher Net Applications--behind only Internet Explorer. Speed is at the forefront of that race, however--witness also Chrome's latest innovations in that area--so these new developments could give Firefox the edge it needs to win.

The competition heats up again.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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