Firefox 3.6 Goes Gold

It's finally here! After about six months of development, Firefox 3.6 has landed. A bit too late for the original 2009 release date, Firefox 3.6 is worth the extra bit of development time.

The first Firefox 3.6 alpha landed in August of last year. Code-name Namoroka, it took less than six months to get to the final release. This release brings a number of enhancements for users and developers, both in terms of obvious features and under-the-hood improvements.

This week we’ll take a look at what the changes mean for users. Next week we’ll tackle developer improvements that made the final 3.6 release and what they mean.

Speed

The main new feature, at least as far as I’m concerned, is performance. Specifically, JavaScript performance. The Mozilla team was targeting JavaScript improvements for 3.6 and it looks like they’ve succeeded pretty handily. The SunSpider benchmarks for 3.6 show marked improvement, and so do real-world tests.

As just one example, I took Firefox for a spin using Google Reader. I have a ridiculous number of feeds in one account (more than 1,000) which gave Firefox 3.5 some serious headaches on multiple machines. Using Firefox 3.6, though, I noticed no real lag at all.

With recent improvements in Opera and continual improvement in Chrome, Firefox doesn’t have the market cornered on JavaScript or rendering speed — but it is in the game. Users who love Firefox’s other features and extensions don’t need to feel like they’re trading off speed for functionality with 3.6, and that’s a good thing.

In addition to better performance, I’m seeing way better stability out of Firefox 3.6. I’ve dinged Firefox a few times in the past for stability issues, but in the past month or so I haven’t seen any major problems with the release candidates or betas.

Detect Outdated Plugins

Firefox can tell you which plugins are out of date and warn you about it.

This seems like a really tiny feature and probably isn’t terribly exciting to most users. “Great, Firefox can nag me, woo!” However, it’s one of those features that does protect users from outdated plugins that might mean more crashes or (worse) security vulnerabilities. Linux users might feel that they’re safe anyway, but remember that the vast majority of users are still on Windows.

Firefox also lets you know when extensions/add-ons are incompatible with Firefox and disables them. Even though Firefox 3.6 has been in beta/RC for a few months, sad to say that several of my add-ons are incompatible and new ones not yet available. Not sure there’s anything that Mozilla can do about this since most of the add-ons are written by the community.

Other Goodies

Another new feature in 3.6 is Personas, basically wallpaper for Firefox. You could get support for Personas prior to 3.6, with an extension. Now it’s as simple as running Firefox and heading over to the Get Personas site and clicking “Wear this Persona. No restart required, which is a good thing especially since you don’t have to restart Firefox 20 times trying to find one that looks right when actually installed. (This was something of a headache with the Firefox Themes feature.)

The Firefox community has developed quite a few colorful and attractive Personas. I’m not convinced that this is a killer feature, but it doesn’t seem to impact performance and it is nice to glitz up the browser a bit when you spend more than 10 hours a day at the computer.

It would be good, though, if it were more obvious how to return to the default theme. Users have to dive into the preferences to change this and it can take a bit of digging to find.

This release also includes the ability for Firefox to guess how you’d like to fill in forms based on past experience. If you spend a lot of time filling in forms, this is probably going to be handy. I can’t say I’ve run into a lot of use for this one yet, but maybe I’m just not buying enough stuff online. Maybe 3.6 will boost the economy by making it easier for us to fill in forms. Or sink it by driving us all deeper in debt by making it easier to fill in forms. We’ll see.

What’s Ahead?

Browser development moves quickly. So quickly, in fact, that the Mozilla team will be changing the way that it does releases in the near future. There was a Firefox 3.7 on the roadmap, but that’s been scrubbed in favor of incremental updates.

This means users will not only get bugfixes and so on through Firefox updates, but also new features. The up side for the Firefox team is that they can more easily deploy new features. The trade-off is that this makes it harder in some environments to decide whether to update for new features vs. just applying security updates. And Linux distribution vendors and projects may find it a bit harder to break out only the security updates when providing in-place updates.

Overall, this release is worth updating to right away. Not so much because of any obvious new features, but just for the performance improvements. Next week, I’ll take a look at what 3.6 means for Web developers and how that translates into better experience for users as well.

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