DailyTech, in Firefox 4.0 Beta 1
We check out what Mozilla's been cooking up

When we tested out Opera 10.6, we were hoping to test out Mozilla Firefox 4.0 Beta 1, the test version of the successor to Firefox 3.6.x.  Unfortunately, Mozilla had pulled that build offline, soon after its initial release, leaving behind a "currently unavailable" page.  Well the beta is back, and we got to work assessing its new traits, and, more excitingly, benchmarking it.

I. Look and Feel

Overall there are significant differences for Windows users in the Firefox looks department, thanks to a makeover embracing Aero Glass.  The buttons have been replaced with smaller, cleaner icons.  The stop and reload buttons have been merged into a single button.  Bookmarks are now accessible via button (though you can switch back to the classic toolbar).  The tabs have been bumped up, in a style called "Tabs on Top", leaving only a thin aero glass margin above them. 

The menu bar has been chopped up and spread out of across different parts of the interface.  Most of it, though, can be found inside the Firefox main menu dropdown, triggered by the orange button on the upper left-hand side of the frame.

One nice addition, that has been included in some past experimental builds of Firefox, but has been unreleased, is the ability to type in your URL bar to search for open tabs.  You can click on the resulting tabs that come up.  If you have a lot of tabs open, this can be a lifesaver for navigating to offscreen tabs.

Overall scrolling with a large number of tabs (50+) open feels much smoother in Firefox 4.0 beta 1, despite the graphical improvements.  This may be in part thanks to "rendering improvements", which Mozilla says it accomplished using lazy frame construction.  Direct2D acceleration has finally arrived, as well, and may make it even silkier.  Be warned it may cause your browser to crash.  However, if you want to try it go to the "about:config" in your URL window, click through the warning, and follow the rest of the instructions found here.

II. Web Technologies

Mozilla boasts that it's improved its API's handling of JS-ctypes.  The new Websockets interface offers similar API performance improvements for web devs and extensions developers. 

CSS Transitions are partially supported, as is the WebM video format, an HD HTML5 competitor to H.264 and other players.  There's also a new HTML5 parser and better support for HTML 5 form controls.

III. Benchmarks

We took Firefox 4.0 Beta 1 through the paces in three popular synthetic benchmarks -- Sunspider (Javascript, only), Celtic Kane's JSBenchmark (Javascript, only), and Futuremark's Peacekeeper browser benchmark (all around performance) -- and report the results below, compared to our previous tests on other browsers in similar conditions:

SunSpider Benchmark
Opera 10.5                   353.4ms +/- 1.1%
2. Chrome 6.0.408.1       489.6ms +/- 3.9%
3. Opera 10.6                  517.4ms +/- 5.7%
4. Safari 5
.0 (7553.16)   600.4ms +/- 1.1%
5. Chrome 5.0.375.86      635.0ms +/- 3.6%
6. Firefox 4.0 Beta 1        777.0ms +/- 13.9%
7. Internet Explorer 9      807.4ms +/- 12.1%
   (Trial Build 3)
8. FireFox 3.6.4            1396.6ms +/- 14.6%
9. Internet Explorer 8   7228.8ms +/- 9.7%

JSBenchmark (by Celtic Kane)
Chrome 5                     459 ± 0
Opera 10.6                  387 ± 0
3. Chrome 6.0.408.1       355 ± 0
4. Safari 5.0
(7553.16)   252 ± 0
5. Opera 10.5                  211 ± 0
6. Internet Explorer 9      177 ± 0
   (Trial Build 3)
7. Firefox 4.0 Beta 1     139± 0
8. FireFox 3.6.4              100 ± 0
Internet Explorer 8      59 ± 15

Futuremark Peacekeeper Benchmark
Opera 10.6                 5244 Points
2. Chrome 6.0.408.1      5162 Points
3. Chrome 5.0.375.86     4897 Points
4. Opera 10.5                 3323 Points
5. Safari 5.0 (7553.16)  2606 Points
6. Firefox 4.0 Beta 1       1976 Points
7. Firefox 3.6
.4             1939 Points
8 Internet Explorer 9      1919 Points
   (Trial Build 3)
9. Internet Explorer 8      829 Points

Overall, these results show the picture is relatively unchanged -- Opera 10.6 is still the fastest stable browser, with Chrome 5 (and the unstable Chrome 6) close behind.  The results do show Firefox 4 has already sped up versus Firefox 3.6, but they also show that Internet Explorer 9's test builds continue to beat it, or come very close to matching it in performance.

Microsoft and Mozilla appear to be in a dead heat approaching the latest round in the browser wars.  This may prove bad news for Mozilla, which has long enjoyed a large speed-lead over its more-adopted foe.

IV. Conclusions

Firefox 4.0 Beta 1's biggest assets are probably its revised look and improved rendering.  It's a must-have download for Firefox users and proved remarkably stable, despite a large number of tabs open during some points in our testing.  Mozilla will always have a bit of a lead in its excellent extensions development community (though Chrome can now use these extensions, too). 

Overall performance is slightly improved, but the memory footprint appears very similar, or perhaps barely reduced.  One major disappointment, though, is the lack of official inclusion of a 64-bit build (fan-made 64-bit versions of Firefox are available, but less tested).

Firefox 4.0 can be found here for download.  It weighs in at 8.96 MB in Windows, and can be installed in under a minute on most systems.

All tests were done on a MacBook Pro running 64-bit Windows 7 Professional.  The hardware onboard included a Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T9600, a NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT GPU, and 4 GB of DDR RAM.

"Mac OS X is like living in a farmhouse in the country with no locks, and Windows is living in a house with bars on the windows in the bad part of town." -- Charlie Miller

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