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Midterm Report on Firefox 3.6

Firefox 3.6 development is moving along nicely, if a bit tardy. The first beta was expected in mid-September, but it finally dropped right before the end of October. How's 3.6 look? It's not a major leap from Firefox 3.5, but it has a few nice features and is showing decent improvement in JavaScript performance.

Firefox 3.6 is galloping along towards a release. The Mozilla Project released Firefox 3.6 beta 1 the day before Halloween with a number of updates and fixes.

Since it’s been a few months since I checked in on 3.6 development, I grabbed the beta and started using it right away for all my browsing.

In the past, that’s been a major headache because there’s always a tension between staying current with development versions of Firefox and Extensions. Most of the time, Extensions don’t work with cutting edge versions of Firefox because they’re not tagged as compatible with the development versions.

Sometimes you’ll run into actual problems with the development Firefox and your favorite extension. Most of the time, though, the actual problem is just that the extension isn’t tagged as compatible.

In 3.6b1 you can override compatibility for extensions, so that you can enjoy your favorite extension — assuming that it does work, of course. When you hit override, you get a warning for each “incompatible” add-on, plus a chance to skip the override if you change your mind.

User Changes

Firefox 3.6 won’t have a ton of user changes, but it does have a few things that users will notice and enjoy.

Personas have been available for some time with Firefox as an add-on. With Firefox 3.6, Personas are part of the standard build. If you like to spruce up the look of your browser, you can choose from hundreds of themes for Firefox — everything from relaxing backgrounds to themes for your favorite OS.

Want more fonts? Firefox 3.6b1 supports the Web Open Font Format (WOFF), a format for fonts specifically for the Web that allows compressed fonts to be downloaded and displayed in the browser. Another feature of WOFF is that the download includes meta information about the font licensing, etc. Users probably won’t care very much about this, but the font foundries do. Support for WOFF means you’ll probably see a lot of fonts in your browser that you might not have gotten to see otherwise.

Do you check to see if your plugins are up to date on a regular basis? Neither do I. In fact, unless a page is telling me that I can’t watch a video or other content because my version of Flash isn’t the latest and greatest, I never think about it. The Moz folks must see that a lot, because Firefox 3.6b1 adds checks for outdated plugins and warn you about which are out of date.

If you spend much time watching video in Firefox, you’ll be happy to know about the full screen feature. Videos embedded with the HTML 5 video and audio elements can be played full screen. In previous versions of Firefox, this required an additional add-on to be able to full-screen.

That’s in theory, anyway. In testing the feature using TinyVid on a machine with an Intel Core Duo T2600 (2.16GHz) and 2GB RAM, the video stuttered like crazy when expanded to full screen — though the playback wasn’t choppy at all when it wasn’t maximized. Not sure if this is something that will be better optimized in later versions, or if it just requires really beefy hardware to get optimal playback in full screen.

JavaScript Performance

When I looked at the Firefox 3.6 alpha in August, it performed better than Firefox 3.5 on JavaScript performance. However, it was far slower than Google Chrome. How’s Firefox 3.6 stacking up now?

The SunSpider performance is better than the alpha in August. In August, 3.6a1 scored 1730.2ms, and the 3.6b1 score is around 1639.6ms. I did run the tests several times, to make sure that the results were as accurate as possible.

Still, Firefox has catching up to do in order to be comparable to Chrome. The Chrome 4.0.223.11 developer build released around the same time as 3.6b1 scored around 767.4ms. (Again, I did multiple runs.) According to the SunSpider benchmark, that’s 2.14 times as fast as Firefox.

The SunSpider benchmark is a nice objective measurement, but how does this release feel in day to day use? It definitely seems snappier than previous Firefox releases. I also noticed that a few pages that made heavy use of JavaScript would act fairly sluggish with 3.5, but presented no problems at all with 3.6b1. Your mileage may vary, but it seems like the Moz folks are on the right track with their optimizations here.

Looking Good

The first beta is a bit behind schedule (first beta was scheduled for early September), but it’s looking pretty solid.

The new features don’t add up to a must-have upgrade, but it’s a decent incremental release. In particular, the JavaScript speed improvements make this release worth looking at. If you’re interested in pre-release versions of Firefox, this release seems stable enough to use day-to-day. I spent a few days testing it and haven’t seen any major instablity or bugs.

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