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  (Source: Kalyan Varma)
New browser brings lots of tab features, speed improvements

On Monday Firefox 4's fourth beta will launch to testers worldwide, as Mozilla charges toward its upcoming major release.  The browser's code was frozen on Thursday and is being finalized for release.

Firefox's improvements fall into three general categories  -- looks, functionality, and speed.

In the looks department, the new build is expected to look much like the first Firefox 4 beta, which introduced the new Aero Glass look for Windows Vista and Windows 7.  Noticeably absent from the new look's default appearance is the text menus of previous editions.  Much of its functionality (such as the bookmarks menu) has been chopped and distributed to new locations around the new GUI.  However, pressing the "Alt" key at any time will reveal the traditional text menu.

In the functionality department there's a number of improvements to tabbing, the software technology that's become the face of modern browsing.  Starting with the previous betas the option to change a tab into an "app".  This serves the duel purpose of shrinking commonly used tabs and allowing their organization based on purpose.

Another tabbing technology that landed in Firefox 4 beta 3 was the "switch to tab" option.  This option's benefit is that you can quickly switch to open tabs via typing in the address bar.  It also helps prevent unintentionally opening the same URL multiple times.  However, this feature can be a bit obnoxious at times at it makes it harder to intentionally open multiple instances of a commonly visited site, as it removes the open tab from the autocomplete list.

Finally, there's the "tab candy" feature, which has been renamed "tab sets" and will be packaged with the fourth beta.  This feature allows users to group tabs together and perform group moves.  Mozilla indicates that the goal here is to prevent users from having to open multiple windows in order to successfully group tabs.

Also in the functionality department, there's increased compatibility with numerous new web technologies like HTML 5.

Turning to the speed department, the browser's Javascript performance has been tightened up.  And for the first time the browser will be able to use the GPU to offer faster rendering of graphical page elements, such as text. 

This GPU enabled rendering leverages Microsoft's Direct2D API.  Unfortunately the feature still is not complete.  In past releases enabling the feature manually would cause instant crashes on some machine.  This time around, support is rumored to be better, and Mozilla is actually encouraging users to turn it on -- it just doesn't feel the feature is quite ready to turn on by default.  Instructions to turn on the feature can be found here.

Firefox 4 still likely has one more major beta ahead.  The planned release schedule calls for a final build to release in November 2010.  It's possible that release may be moved to an early date, though, given the success of the beta builds, thus far.

Mozilla is in a tricky market position.  On the one hand, it's doing well in that it's been the first Microsoft-competitor to build up a serious market share, seizing about a third of the browser market in many countries.  However, tough obstacles loom.  The much-faster, Direct2D enabled Internet Explorer 9 will soon look to help Microsoft reverse its losses and reexpand its lead.  Recent tests have shown IE9 to be neck-and-neck with Firefox 4 in script speed. 

Firefox is also facing the challenge of dealing with faster competitors like Opera and Google.  Google's Chrome browser, in particular, has reportedly taken almost 10 percent of the market thanks to its large speed edge.




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