Review: Firefox 3 Beta Answers Some Questions, Raises Others

CRN Test Center downloaded Firefox 3 Beta 1 from Mozilla for a peek to get an idea of what users can expect when Firefox 3 is officially launched. Since this is a beta, the browser is intended for testing purposes only. While no one expects the browser to be production-ready now, if history is any guide, the likelihood of users going ahead and upgrading increases the longer the product stays in beta.

The beta was downloaded onto a Compaq desktop with AMD Athlon processor, a five-year old Dell Inspiron notebook, and a three-year-old IBM Thinkpad T42 laptop. All three machines run Windows XP. Installation was painless and took less than five minutes on all machines. Bookmarks and profiles from both Firefox and from Internet Explorer migrated seamlessly. However, the browser didn't work well on all hardware configurations.

The Dell Inspiron originally had Firefox 1 installed instead of Firefox 2 because the memory leaks were so severe that the newer browser was practically unusable. Firefox 3 Beta 1 didn't seem to have any of the memory problems. It ran a little slowly, but that was a reflection on the hardware's age and not on the beta. Firefox 2 works just fine on the Thinkpad, but the beta was very sluggish and had moments of unresponsiveness. This could be an issue in the beta or in interoperability with other third-party applications. Hopefully, the uneven experience across different hardware will be resolved by the time the software comes out of beta.

Overall, Firefox 3 looks identical to Firefox 2. The visual differences between the two are fairly minor " most of the changes seem to be under the hood. Some menu options have been removed entirely, or renamed. For example, Text Size in Firefox 2 under View is now called Zoom under Firefox 3. Firefox 3 comes with a DOM inspector, which is very helpful for developers looking at scripts.

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However, most developers probably have the add-on Firebug, so the DOM inspector might not make that much of a difference. Plugin and add-on management is more comprehensive, as well. Firefox 3 has also changed how it handles page magnification. Previous version of the browser enlarged or shrunk just the text on the screen. Now, like Opera, it zooms in and out of the entire page to magnify everything.

Bookmarks and history are now part of a single tool based on a SQLite database. With Firefox Places, bookmarks become more than just a link to a specific page. With Places, users can assign tags to bookmarks as a search and organization tool, and keywords to open up specific bookmarks. How much will this affect user experience? The jury is still out on that one. It will probably depend on how long the individual bookmark list is, since Places makes it easier to search for a bookmark.

With Internet Explorer 7 now supporting tabs, the most obvious reason to shift from Internet Explorer to Firefox is gone. Places may become the new tabs " the feature that sets it apart from other browsers. Performance-wise, Internet Explorer 7 has fixed a lot of the memory issues that plagued previous versions. It it still too soon to tell if Firefox 3 fixed the memory leaks that turned Firefox 2 in to such a hog.

Firefox 3 -- on paper -- seems like it will attract a lot of new users, giving Mozilla the much-needed boost it needs to catch up, if not pass, Microsoft in the war over Web browsers. The beta doesn't give a very clear idea of how well the new features work, though. Too many things are either not working or not activated.

The Gecko rendering engine is supposed to enhance performance and stability, yet the beta browser hangs or returns script errors when trying to access the new mail system from Yahoo! or MSN Live. The advanced version of Google's Gmail works fine (which is no surprise, considering the amount of money Google has poured into Mozilla). With the shift towards Software-as-a-Service and feature-rich web applications, a browser that has trouble with major webmail sites doesn't exactly inspire confidence.

Firefox 3 will introduce several new security features, such as integration with Vista Parental Controls. As of the latest Known Issues list, that isn't working well at the moment. Built-in warnings for forged and phishing pages are nice, but the current beta doesn't have this feature activated so there's no way to see how Firefox approaches this. That kind of technology is only as good as the database storing the information. Considering how quickly spam and phishing sites move from server to server, it's a question of whether this would be effective at all. Symantec and other security firms have teams of people devoted to tracking down and maintaining the information " Mozilla can't match that level of effort. Warnings for invalid SSL certificates can be helpful, but that can also result in false positives. Perfectly legitimate sites have missing or mismatched certificates, so the warnings can lull users into just ignoring warnings and instinctively hitting OK.

With the beta, there are too many unresolved questions about the features and how Firefox will handle them. While the browser remains the top choice for anyone looking for customization, much else is still up in the air.