Thursday, July 2, 2009

Review: Mozilla Firefox 3.5

The browser wars continue to rage, and Mozilla's latest iteration of Firefox introduces a slew of new features and improvements to up the ante.
Probably the most noticeable addition in Firefox 3.5 is the inclusion of Private Mode, a feature already available in most of today's popular browsers - it's called Incognito in Google Chrome and InPrivate Browsing in Microsoft's Internet Explorer 8. The feature allows users to surf the internet with a greater degree of anonymity as no local data from the session, including history, cache files, form data, passwords or searches, is kept on the machine.

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Private Mode can be activated from the Tools menu. It closes all existing windows and begins the new Private session with a clean slate. Once the Private Mode is stopped the previous session and all its tabs are automatically restored. While this removes any confusion about what is running under Private Mode and what is not, it can be frustrating if you need any information from a previous window when entering Private Mode.
Users also now have a lot more control over data that has already been stored locally, as it is now possible to clear recent history from the past hour, two hours, four hours or day, as well as erasing all history as per normal. Similarly, from the history library users can also opt to 'forget about this site' and remove all reference to a particular site. It should be noted that sub-domains are not affected, so 'forgetting' about, for example, won't affect anything from
Mozilla has also done a lot of work on tab management with Firefox 3.5, making it easier to sort tabs. This includes a new feature called 'Tab Tearing' whereby users can reorder tabs within a window, and move them between windows as well. 'Tearing off' a tab and dropping it on the desktop will cause it to be opened in its own window, while if the last remaining tab in a window is moved to another, the empty window will automatically close.
Firefox 3.5 includes location awareness, allowing different online services to find your location based on information about your internet connection. The system uses any information to hand to pinpoint your whereabouts, be it your IP address, nearby Wi-Fi signal information and 3G data if it is available. The results will vary depending on the connection. For instance, someone on a 3G data connection will get their location pinpointed quite accurately, while someone on a wired local area network connection connected to a larger company wide area network will get only a very rough estimate. In general, we found it got a location down to within a few blocks, which should be accurate enough for most location-based services.
Although this feature will be of limited use to desktop PC users, it could be very handy to laptop users and will be ported into mobile versions of Firefox such as Fen nec where it could prove a lot more useful।

One of Firefox's most useful features is the ability to easily recover recently closed tabs, helping to fix those moments when you accidentally close a tab you still need. This has now been extended to include recently closed windows and all their associated tabs, which is perfect for those moments when the wrong click of the mouse or a mistype could mean losing something important.
There are a slew of other smaller tweaks that have been included in Firefox 3.5, over 5,000 if you include minute changes such as altering the text in a dialogue box to make it clearer. For instance, the browser's Awesome bar, which provides suggestions as users type into the address bar based on history and bookmarks, can now also be refined with the inclusion of different command keys.

The session restore will also remember any form data that has been entered but not yet committed. If a user is in the middle of an email on their webmail service, for example, and needs to close the browser before they are done, the text they have entered will still be there when the session is restored.
Mozilla developers have also done a lot of work under the hood to boost Firefox's performance. These enhancements are a little harder to test, but include the TraceMonkey JavaScript and full HTML5 support among others. Dynamic content such as webmail, Flash applications or streaming video all feel a lot slicker and smoother, and the changes will go a long way to helping support new online services and technologies as they emerge.
Add-ons are one of the most popular features in Firefox as they allow users to customise the browser and to include a wide array of services and functions, but with over 6,000 available it can be difficult to find the ones you want. To help solve this problem Mozilla has introduced Collections, which allows people to create bundles of add-ons. This can help with the management of a collection, as well as assisting those who need to deploy the same configuration across multiple computers or who are looking for a group of compatible add-ons for personal use.
Mozilla has also implemented open codecs Ogg and Theora to help more deeply integrate video and other media into the browser without the need for proprietary codecs or plug-ins, which should help to generate an even more interactive web experience.
While many of the new additions to Firefox 3.5 are available in most of today's popular browsers, Mozilla is the first to implement an open-source media platform, which should open the floodgates for a much deeper embedding of rich content by web developers.
Whether Firefox 3.5 puts Mozilla ahead of its competitors is highly debatable, but what is certain is that the firm is listening to its users and delivering the types of features and functions they want, not just solving today's problems but trying to create an open platform for tomorrow's online world.
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