So after 8 million downloads in it’s first day and amidst claims of speed increases and enhanced stability am I about to make Firefox 3 my primary browser?

I’m a Browser Junkie!

Well first of all I need to say I’m a browser junkie!

It’s true, I have 10 browsers installed on my Mac and an extra 3 on Windows in Parallels. Which ones I hear you ask? Well, here goes:

  • Safari
  • Opera
  • Firefox
  • OmniWeb
  • Fluid
  • Camino
  • Shiira
  • Flock
  • Fluid
  • Sunrise
  • Netscape Navigator (yes I know it’s dead but I like it!)

And on Windows (in addition to Safari, Opera, Firefox, Flock and Navigator):

  • Internet Explorer
  • Konqueror
  • Maxthon

I’m always open to trying more so if you find one I’m not using be sure to let me know and I’ll give it a try. Until then here’s a personal take on the final release version of Firefox 3.

What Was Wrong with Version 2?

I’ve never really used Firefox consistently as my primary browser. Obviously on Windows I gave it a try as my desperation to be rid of Internet Explorer reached critical mass. I could never quite understand why Firefox didn’t work for me, it just didn’t feel right.

On Windows I used Opera and Firefox languished neglected on my hard drive save for testing web sites in. Moving to the Mac I tried it again but it still didn’t feel right.

So what were my pet peeves with version 2?

Interface

The Firefox interface as shipped didn’t look like a native application on Windows or the Mac. Themes provide an opportunity to change the entire look and feel of the interface but each seemed to have it’s own idiosyncrasies.

It’s actually frightening how honed one can become using a piece of software, to the extent that anything else feels sufficiently alien to slow down every task undertaken.

Speed

Despite reading plenty of claims regarding how Firefox was a fast browser it never felt that great to me.

It was a slow application to launch and a memory hog when it had been running for any length of time.

Missing Features

If I’d moved from Internet Explorer I would undoubtedly have felt Firefox had numerous features that IE did not, tabbed browsing alone was always worth switching to Firefox for. I’d go so far as to say that compared to IE, Firefox didn’t have any missing features 😉

However, using Opera for several years meant that I had a different perception of Firefox. Opera had every feature I could imagine I would ever need and if something didn’t look right or work the way I hoped then it’s configuration options where amazingly flexible and I could fix it instantly.

Of course Firefox can be made to do anything via it’s extensible add-on based architecture but that just meant:

  1. Testing several add-ons before finding a suitable one
  2. Installing it on my desktop, laptop, office machine etc. etc.
  3. Keeping all the add-ons updated
  4. Trying to overburden the Firefox installation with more add-ons than core code 😉

Some of the missing features were just plain infuriating, like the inability to re-order tabs. I shouldn’t need an add-on to add that sort of basic functionality.

And Version 3?

I’ve been beta testing version 3 for a considerable time and there are many changes, some positive, some negative and even glimpses of exciting future developments.

The Positives

Completely New Look

The first apparent improvement is the interface. It’s much more Mac-like and made a huge difference to my perception of the entire browser.

In fact Mozilla have gone to great lengths to integrate Firefox into each operating system it supports. On Windows there are two separate skins, one for XP and another for Vista although they are so similar it’s difficult to discern much difference other than the colour of the icons.

Of course now Firefox natively integrates much better aesthetically with OS X I managed to find the perfect theme – but more on that later.

Talking of themes, there are plenty of themes available some specifically designed for the new version 3 so if you’re either looking for the perfect theme or trying to waste an hour while looking busy visit the Firefox theme download page.

Personas

One of the issues with themes is that each time you download a new one and apply it the browser needs a restart. A big time waster when you’re testing several themes seeking that perfect browsing experience.

In fact Mozilla themselves point out that themes can be hard to find, install and use. Creating themes also requires coding knowledge, something the best graphic designers may not have.

It’s to address these issues that Mozilla have created Personas. Very much a prototype concept and installed as an add-on, Personas adds lightweight theming to Firefox. The idea is that the user is able to select a Persona from a dynamic menu and instantly see the changes, no restart required. Personas can be added, removed and updated by their designers at any time, without the need for the software to be updated.

It is Faster

The first few betas I installed didn’t appear to differ greatly in speed from version 2 but towards the latter stages of the beta program the application felt much more responsive and certainly started up faster than I’d ever known.

The same can be said of the final release version too. Personally, I think Safari is still that bit faster but I have to say I no longer dread the startup wait Firefox previously engendered.

Google Integration

My primary use for Firefox is an interface to Google’s tools and services.

I use Google Notebook extensively and the availability of the Google toolbar and in particular the Google Notebook add-on make using it a breeze. For the uninitiated Google toolbar is an extra toolbar available for several browsers (but sadly not Safari) that adds direct access to many Google features such as Gmail, Notebook, Bookmarks, Docs and much more. In fact if the slew of tools provided aren’t enough you can generate custom buttons to further customize your Google toolbar. Google have a great page demonstrating all the features of the Google toolbar with all the details you’ll need to customize your installation.

The Notebook add-on extends the integration between Firefox and Google Notebook even further, adding an option to send selected page elements straight to your Google Notebook from the “Note This” context menu within Firefox. One click access to your Notebook is added to the chrome in the lower right corner, clicking this option opens a small window containing your Notebook. Useful as that is it’s even better to click the option to open your Notebook in it’s own chromeless window showing your whole Notebook.

Scrolling Tab Bar

When you have so many tabs open that they aren’t all displayed in the tab bar a common way for a browser to handle the extra tabs is to have them appear in a drop down list on the right of the browser window.

Although Firefox still has that very feature it now also allows the user to scroll the tab bar to the left and right using a mouse wheel. On the mighty mouse logically the ability to scroll to the right and left functions as expected but for those using a different mouse, with a wheel, scrolling up and down has the same effect.

It might be a little disorientating but it’s a positive addition for me.

Tab Management

In fact the handling of tabs has been improved all round.

Whereas adding the ability to re-order tabs using drag and drop required an add-on previously, this is now built in and the implementation is a good one with small white arrows showing where a tab will appear when dropped.

Sadly it’s not all good news with tabs though (see below).

Keyboard Shortcuts

It’s great to be able to use a plethora of browsers and not have to learn a completely different set of shortcuts to be up to speed with each one.

Firefox keeps the majority of the commonly used shortcuts standard, such as command & T for a new tab and command & N for a new window. It might not sound like a big deal but a few years ago when Opera decided to change their more non-standard keyboard shortcuts to match those in other browsers the furore was both long and loud.

Smart Location Bar

The Smart Location Bar, or AwesomeBar as it’s colloquially termed, has to be the biggest advance in Firefox 3.

The Smart Location Bar selects pages from both your bookmarks and history if it can match your input to any part of them. This is vastly different from Firefox 2 and most other browsers which match only the beginning of a URL.

The results are at first somewhat disorientating, each displayed on two lines and seemingly a random mix of entries. However, the undoubted power of the Smart Location bar is that it learns your intentions as you use it and adapts it’s results accordingly.

It might take practice and patience to get the most from it but if you’re not convinced of it’s benefits (too much like Clippy for you?) then you’ll be pleased to know you can turn it off and regain the Firefox 2 address bar.

Another time saver is that a single click in the Smart Location Bar selects the entire URL. Although, for this Safari user, that has proved to be something which will take more getting familiar with as I’m in Safari mode most of the day and that needs a triple click to achieve the same. My work around is to use command & L which performs the same in both browsers, it selects the URL of the current page.

Bookmark Management

Selecting Books > Organise Bookmarks from the menu gives access to the Library window, a ‘one stop shop’ for managing your bookmarks. It might sound uninspiring but this new implementation of bookmark management integrates everything you’ll need to micro manage your browsing experience.

For traditionalists Firefox has folders to store related bookmarks in but that’s only the starting point for marshaling your bookmarks. A single click is all that’s required to create a bookmark but if you require more classification another click on the star icon in the toolbar allows additional meta data regarding the bookmark to be specified.

Live Bookmarks show RSS feed items as individual bookmarks updating them as the feed updates while Smart Folders allow a user to define a set of criteria and every bookmark matching the criteria appears within the Smart Folder. The criteria available allow advanced search queries by providing matching rules on the page title, date last visited, and location.

The ability to apply tags to bookmarks brings one of the most attractive features of online bookmark management services to Firefox. It’s perfectly possible to forget folders and mange your bookmarks using tags alone.

Having the History items integrated in the same Library windows means items not saved as bookmarks at the time of browsing can be added as bookmarks later with a simple drag and drop from the History to the required location.

Confession time for me, I use entirely my own system with the majority of my bookmarks, a process I’ve mentioned before in Creating Global Shortcuts with Typinator but despite this I can certainly see the benefits of the new management system Firefox brings with it in version 3.

Partial HTML 5 Support

A cherry picked selection of HTML 5 specific elements are supported in Firefox 3.

The support for offline caching certainly caught my eye. Google Gears is aimed at providing a similar functionality but that is specific to Google. Firefox offline caching could potentially provide the ability to use a range of web based applications without a web connection.

Exciting times ahead then.

The Negatives

Of course into every life a little rain must fall and it wouldn’t be new software if it didn’t have a few gotchas.

Closing Tabs

Primarily using a different browser means coming to Firefox and finding that the option to close tabs is on the right of each tab and not the left side as in Safari and as I’m more used to.

In Opera I was able to make numerous configuration changes and altering this would be relatively simple. Together with many users I’m not familiar enough with the Firefox configuration system to easily change this but I did find a simple solution for this particular foible in the form of a wonderful theme from takebacktheweb.org I went for the GrApple Yummy (blue) theme.

Another issue I noticed is that to close a background tab (i.e. Not the active tab) it takes two clicks rather than one. The first click makes the tab active and the second click actually closes it. In Safari background tabs can be closed in exactly the same way as the active tab.

Merging Windows

Safari has this feature and it’s amazing the difference it makes when you’re trying to tidy up the myriad browser windows you’ve managed to open throughout the day and completely forgotten about. A click on ‘Merge All Windows’ in the Window menu gathers all the tabs open in any number of Safari windows and consolidates them in a single window.

Sadly, Firefox lacks this feature. However, all is not lost as the Tab Mix Plus add-on adds it and many more advanced tab management options.

Moving Windows

A bit of a strange one this but I did notice that when attempting to move either the main Firefox window or, for example, the Library window you need to be extremely precise where you click to attempt to drag the window or it just doesn’t move.

More explanation needed there I think!

The majority of OS X applications have a very wide toolbar area just under the strip containing the control buttons and title. Clicking and dragging either on the title strip or a clear area of the toolbar allows the user to move the window but Firefox behaves differently. In Firefox clicking on the toolbar and dragging has no effect. To move the window you need to be precise and click and drag only on the title area.

It sound like much and I wouldn’t have thought I was that imprecise anyway but I noticed it in the first session I had using Firefox 3.

Printing

While the printing feature is a huge improvement from the early days of the browser there remain a couple of gotchas. For example, there’s no indication that the print job is in progress until the printer icon appears in the dock and there is no thumbnail preview feature.

Firefox does have a neat shrink to fit page option though that certainly helps with pages that otherwise wouldn’t print correctly, important when you consider how many times IE proved it was incapable of printing anything without losing at least an inch of text from one side or the other.

Services

Firefox still has no OS X services support which for inveterate services users is going to be a show stopper when it comes to using Firefox for anything other than casual browsing.

It is the services function that powers such useful things as the CircusPonies NoteBook clipping system, so it would be a welcome addition to future versions of the browser.

The Future

Mozilla Labs plays host to countless clues as to the future of Firefox. Three in particular caught my eye:

Fennec

Although Firefox have ventured into the mobile browser market before with less than astounding success, undeterred they have returned with Fennec (named after the Fennec Fox).

Opera have traditionally had much more success with their mobile browser so Firefox has some catching up to do but competition has got to be good news for users.

Prism

Prism is the code name given to a single function lightweight version of the browser. The idea behind this is that you can create a dedicated application to handle a specific site, this works really well for sites such as Gmail or Google Notebook.

Given the popularity of other implementations of the single source browser, such as Fluid, this is something to look forward to as it should be possible to create a browser dedicated to the site of your choosing while at the same time retaining all the functionality of Firefox.

Weave

Increasingly important in the ever more connected world is the ability to transfer your familiar settings to other machines, which is where Weave comes in.

Weave is the code name for a Mozilla Labs project aimed at providing an open-standards-based hosted online service to provide this synchronization together with sharing options and much more. Details of Weave are available on the Mozilla site.

So Am I Won Over?

Well since I use Firefox most as an interface to Google I’ll certainly be using version 3 and the speed increase both in start up and use means that I’ll enjoy using it much more than version 2. With my new theme I’ve managed to solve the problem of interface incongruity and in fact my installation of Firefox now look so much like Safari it’s difficult to tell them apart, which is great ;-).

My verdict is give it a go you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the changes.