Firefox 3 – First Look

With Firefox 3.0 now reaching Release Candidate stage is it stable enough to warrant upgrading or should you hold fire? We tested it against Firefox 2.0 on the Mac and IE7 on the PC to find out.

Against Firefox 2.0
A quick install over the previous version and away you go. The update will simply work instead-of, rather than as-well-as, and all cookies, bookmarks and previously installed plugins “will” work. We say “will”, as at the time of writing you’ll probably find that your favourite plugins aren’t compatible with FF3.0. Out of the ones I personally run, only the eBay companion updated and loaded.

Once you’re set-up, it is business as normal with a massive speed increase over previous versions. We haven’t benchmarked it (it isn’t the final version), but it is as fast if not faster than Safari 3.0 on the Mac. Since the launch of the latest version of Apple’s browser, we had found ourselves using it when on a datacard as Firefox 2.0 is incredibly slow, and now Firefox 3.0 puts a stop to that.

Beyond speed there are a few other nifty features to note.

The first is the ability to get identity information, if present, about a site at the click of a button. Situated next to the address bar, it will tell you about security, permissions, media and general info of the site you are visiting. While some of the features only work for the bigger sites on the web, it does mean that you can see how many time you’ve visited the site, if you have any saved passwords for it, what cookies it has stored and other information like whether you want to allow popups. For those who internet bank, it's a great way of determining that the site you are visiting really is the site you are expecting to be on.

The other feature we’ve being enjoying in the first week is the auto fill web addresses offering you website addresses you’ve already visited so you don’t have to type the full address, the data drops down from the address bar complete with favicons (a website's logo) so it's easy to recognise.

Elsewhere there is a greater emphasis on bookmarking with a star button on the other side of the address bar and a new array of folders that will offer you your latest bookmarks or the pages you visit the most (something that could get you in to trouble ... ahem).


Against Internet Explorer 7
Internet Explorer 7 might be your preferred choice because you use it at work and you know where everything is. Simplicity rules right? We installed Firefox 3 to give IE7 a run for its money.

Installation is quick and easy and opens with the question of whether you want to make Firefox your default browser. Well that’s the big question. Firefox, as if in preparation for hoards of IE converts, even has a help page to welcome you to this weird non-Microsoft world. You can import all your settings from IE, but rather than integrate your bookmarks to one place, it puts them in a folder “From Internet Explorer” which sort of has a quarantine feel to it.

The interface looks remarkably similar to IE7, from the large green forward and back buttons, to the shortcut bar. Things are laid out differently, but most of the options you are looking for are here and easy to find. The noticeable difference is that the tabbed browser bar doesn’t contain anything except tabs.

Bookmarking is handled differently in Firefox and more intuitively so. Rather than resort to the right hand column which I used extensively (in coordination with the Links bar), your bookmarks hide in a drop-down menu – but surely, that’s worse, I hear you cry, but fear not.

You can set up a bookmark or shortcut bar that reflects the IE7 Links bar, which is great for common sites. But, as mentioned above, the address bar will offer you bookmarks as you type in a URL, so you can bookmark more, and then just start typing and it will make suggestions from your bookmarks.

Feeds again seem to be more intuitively handled than IE and you can set your preferred reader for RSS feeds, such as your Bloglines account and away you go.

Much has been made of speed improvements over IE7, but this is difficult to test, or reproduce, to positively report the "10 times faster" claim. In truth, in real world use, it is difficult to tell whether FF3 is a faster browser. We certainly didn’t notice it to the extent that we’d profess it to be the case and tested in parallel, there was little difference.

However, the download manager is an interesting option, and you can have a default location for all your Firefox downloads, with options to pause or stop downloads in a one place, rather than in separate windows as you’ll find with IE.

The plugins are where the Firefox world gets excited and as this is open source, you have more people coding away behind the scenes to create extras to customise your browsing experience. If you are new to Firefox, this might not be much of an incentive, but simple things like the eBay plugin can save you a lot of time.

One of the great things about using IE7 is flipping straight into Windows Explorer. Firefox will let you navigate your hard drive, but behaves differently to the native Windows environment – it still tries to be a browser, so it will open your files in the browser, rather than in the default application. Then you can bookmark files, rather than breaking into normal file management like you would in IE7.

Also, those who use the Microsoft update options within IE7 will also come unstuck, as you’ll quickly be told to upgrade your browser.

There are plugins to change these things, but you could be forever adapting Firefox until it is a clone of Internet Explorer, at which point you have to ask why you switched.

Verdict

Your experience with Firefox will very much depend on how you set yourself up, how you use your existing browser and what you want to achieve. With Firefox you get a great feeling of community, that someone, out there, is looking for a solution to your problem. It is free, so you have nothing to lose by giving it a go.

Are we happy we’ve upgraded? On the Mac, definitely. The Release Candidate has been very sturdy and we only experienced two crashes in 7 days (not bad for a software that isn't recommended for the general public). Even then, the pages we were surfing were restored on restarting.

It is annoying that we have lost the use of our plugins for the timebeing, but if you’re not that fussed about them and want a speed increase, Firefox 3.0 on the Mac is worth the download.

But are we converted on from IE7 on the PC? The internet experience is a better one, with bookmarks and feeds becoming more intuitive and more useful. In reality, personal preference will rule and as Firefox is free, and waiting for you, why not give it a go?

Additional content in this review was provided by Stuart Miles.


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