Firefox 4 Beta Brings Speed Boost

Firefox has been taking heat from Google Chrome over speed for some time, but the world's most popular open source browser is getting ready for a comeback. Can Firefox 4.0 woo back some of the early adopters who've embraced Chrome? It looks like it will have a very good shot.

It’s fast, standards compliant, and stable. I’m not talking about Google Chrome, or the Chromium browser, but the Firefox 4 beta. Released this week, the Firefox 4 beta brings a look at the next generation of the world’s most popular open source browser.

The first thing you’ll notice about Firefox 4 is its speed. Firefox 3.6 boosted Firefox’s JavaScript speed impressively, but wasn’t touching Chrome by a country mile. The speed of Firefox 4 is deeply impressive, though it may not be all related to JavaScript improvements. I ran the SunSpider test a few times against Firefox 4 beta and Chromium, and Chromium still blew the doors off Firefox in benchmarks.

Real world performance, however, is another story. I’ve been using the beta for a few days, and the difference is like night and day. According to Chris Blizzard’s post this is before adding in the improvements that have been made to the Jagermonkey work to really boost JavaScript performance in Firefox. I can’t wait to see what Firefox 4 will perform like after those improvements.

The other thing about the beta is that, at least in my testing, it’s rock-solid. I haven’t had a single crash of the beta, and have tested it on Linux and Mac OS X. Not only stable, but also mostly glitch-free. The only thing I’ve run into that doesn’t seem to quite work right with Firefox 4 is the Bit.ly sidebar for creating shortened URLs. It works, but then you can’t get rid of it by closing it as you usually would.

Additional Features

Speed isn’t everything. The first beta includes a few other changes that might be worth upgrading for. If you’re on Windows, 4.0b1 brings a new location for Tabs. Taking a cue from Chrome, the tabs are located at the top of the Firefox window and the menus have moved. Linux and Mac users won’t see this yet, unless they turn it on manually. Go to View -> Toolbars and select Tabs on Top if you want to see it. But the UI isn’t complete, so you won’t see the same one-button menu you’d get on Windows.

You’ll also find a “switch to tab” feature in 4.0b1. If you hit Ctrl-l to enter the Awesomebar (also known as “location bar”), start typing a URL or page name. If it’s already loaded in another tab, you’ll see it as a drop down. You can then switch to the open tab instead of loading a new page. This is nicer than having to use Ctrl-PageUp and Ctrl-PageDown to cycle through all tabs.

Want to give feedback on Firefox? There’s a Feedback button in the main toolbar that allows you to say why Firefox makes you happy, or sad. (That’s actually the language used…) Test Pilot is also built into this release, so the Mozilla folks will be able to collect data about Firefox from a much wider audience.

This release brings the Out of Process Plugin feature to Linux, which is a fancy way of saying “don’t let Flash crash the browser.” How well does it work? I can’t honestly say, I didn’t run into any crashes.

Firefox 4.0b1 also brings another remedy for Flash crashes: WebM support. Except, good luck finding much content that’s in WebM format. You can jump through a few hoops to view WebM on YouTube, but the rest of the Web hasn’t joined the WebM experiment just yet.

Another feature worth mentioning affects privacy. Specifically, the Moz folks are altering the way that helps block sites that would use CSS :visited to query your browsing history. It might mean some sites don’t work exactly as designed, but the changes should be largely painless for users with a significant privacy boost.

Beta Bound?

If you’re feeling adventurous, I’d recommend trying the beta right away. Some caveats, though. First, most extensions don’t support 4.0b1 yet, so you may not be able to use your favorite extensions right away. You can install the Add-on Compatibility Reporter, though and not only enable your extensions but also give feedback on them.

The first beta appears very stable, but it would be wise to back up your profile and think about whether the next few releases will be as stable. Not all of the features planned for 4.0 are shipped with 4.0b1, which means there’s a good chance there will be regressions before 4.0 stabilizes and is feature complete.

With that in mind, I’d strongly recommend upgrading to 4.0b1 and help the Moz folks test to get ready for 4.0. You might encounter a few bumps along the way, but there’s plenty of fun to be had along the way.

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