By Harry McCracken | Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 4:06 am
Was it really fewer than five years ago that Firefox 1.0 debuted? Its arrival ended the dismal period in which only one browser–Microsoft’s mediocre Internet Explorer–seemed to be viable. With Firefox, Mozilla proved that millions of people were itching to adopt a better browser. And today, we find ourselves with multiple better browsers: Not just Firefox, but also Google’s minimalist Chrome, Apple’s flashy Safari, the ever-inventive Opera, the highly social Flock, and even the no-longer-calcifying Internet Explorer 8.
All of which means that Firefox 3.5–which Mozilla plans to formally release today–is no longer a shoo-in for the distinction of being the favorite browser of browser fans. (As I write, Firefox 3.5 hasn’t replaced 3.0 yet on the Firefox home page, but the Windows and Mac versions are live on Mozilla’s FTP site.)
After having spent months with various pre-release versions of 3.5, though, I’m convinced that The Little Browser That Could remains the best choice for the widest array of folks. That’s as much for the virtues that Firefox has possessed for years as for new stuff: Version 3.5′ s improvements are about better speed, useful tweaks to existing features, catchup with other browsers, and early support for emerging Web standards. In other words, the browser sports no knockout new features. But the moves Mozilla has made are smart, and they’re more than enough for Firefox to keep pace with its fast-evolving rivals.
After thr jump, a look at what’s new in rough order of importance.
Here are SunSpider results for Firefox 3.5, Firefox 3.0, Internet Explorer 8, and the newest Chrome and Opera betas–they’re the average of three passes performed on a Lenovo ThinkPad SL300 with a 1.8-GHz Core 2 Duo and 2GB of RAM, and are in milliseconds. Shorter bars are better:
Firefox 3.5 introduces a private browsing option–often called a “porn mode” and usually touted by browser companies as having many other uses, such as letting you hide the holiday shopping you’re doing for your family or borrow a friend’s browser without messing up his or her history. (Then again, Microsoft seems to have given up and is running an IE ad pitching InPrivate as a way to avoid seeing your spouse’s nauseating fetish porn.)
Mozilla calls its private browsing feature…Private Browsing. It’s largely similar to its counterparts in Chrome, IE, and Safari, except that Firefox closes all your open tabs when you begin to browse privately, then restores them when you’re done. It’s a logical way to demarcate things, and probably helps remind you to leave private mode when you’re finished, although reloading your tabs can take a while if you’re as much of a tab freak as I am.
None of these browsers’ privacy features are exactly foolproof–the video-downloading feature in RealPlayer, for instance, helpfully keeps on logging all of the videos on pages you visit even when you’re in a privacy mode. Keep that in mind if you’re paranoid about keeping your online wanderings under wraps.
A new “Forget About This Site” option is a sort of retroactive form of Private Browsing that lets you remove evidence you’d visited a site after the fact. But it’s pretty buried: I could only find it by pulling up the History browser, then right-clicking on a page.
Rather than making erasing your browser’s cookies, cache, and other items an all-or-nothing affair, version 3.5 lets you delete changed for just the past hour, two hours, four hours, or day. Only Chrome does something similar, but its time frames are less useful, since the smallest one is “last day.”
Firefox 3.5 adds a bunch of small new features and refinements to existing tools, most of which feel like they’re aimed at advanced types. You can now drag a tab out of the window to turn it into a new window of its own, and reverse the process by dragging a window back into tab form. The excellent Awesome Bar address bar, which lets you do search, pull up bookmarks, and retrieve pages from your history, has rid itself of a slight lag it sometimes suffered. It’s also added a really geeky power-user feature: filters that let your refine results as you type by entering “world #”, for instance, to show only pages from your history.
Two new options on the History menu let you re-open tabs and windows you’ve recently closed. I’ve been known to zap a tab by mistake, so if I can remember these items are there, I’ll use them.