Firefox 4.0 RC

Since the arrival of Google's Chrome browser (Free, 4 stars), Firefox has been slipping in both mind and market share. For several years, the only major browser made by an independent organization rather than a multi-billion dollar software company was the enthusiast favorite. But version 3.x was starting to trail Google's browser in speed benchmarks, as well as in support for upcoming standards like HTML5. Now with version 4, Firefox has more than just independence on its side: It can nearly match Chrome on JavaScript speed, even currently beating it in 3D graphics acceleration, holds its own when it comes to HTML5 support, and offers a trimmed down interface that gives the Web page center stage.
A simple 12MB download gets you the Firefox 4 installer. When you run it you'll lose your old version of Firefox, so make sure you're ready to say goodbye to 3.6. The latest Firefox is available for Mac and Linux as well as for Windows 7, Vista, and XP—the last of which even Internet Explorer 9 (Free, 4 stars) can't claim. You can import bookmarks from any other installed browsers on first run, but setup is nearly as uncomplicated as it is for Chrome. Firefox also now makes it easy to choose a search provider other than Google, but surprisingly, not as easy as Chrome does.

Firefox's new interface brings it in line with the trend of "less is more"—less space taken up by the browser frame and controls and more space for Web pages. The page tabs have moved above the address bar, and, as with Opera 11 (Free, 4 stars), there's just a single menu option in the form of the orange Firefox button at top left. You can re-enable the standard menus by hitting the Alt key. The Home button has moved to the right of the search bar, and a new bookmark button appears to the right of that. That new bookmark button only appears when you don't want the bookmark toolbar taking up browser window space. This gives you one-click access to frequently needed Web addresses. But I wish that, like IE's star button, it also let you see recent page history. You can still call up the full bookmark manager, which lets you do things like importing bookmarks from other browsers, search, and organize.

Firefox is one of the last remaining browsers to still use separate address and search boxes, which is good for those who like to keep those two activities separate. That doesn't mean, however, that a search won't work in the address bar, aka the "awesome bar." That tool, which drops down suggestions from your history and favorites whenever you start typing, was pioneered by Firefox and copied by all other browsers. The Firefox version now adds a new twist: When one of its suggested sites is already open in a tab, you can click on a "Switch to tab" link, preventing you from unnecessarily opening more tabs unnecessarily—a useful new tweak.
Panorama and Pinned Tabs 
With version 4, Firefox brings a new way to organize tabs. Dubbed "Panorama," this feature helps those who like to have lots of tabs open. Just click the Mondrian icon all the way to the top-right of the window, and you'll see rectangles containing page thumbnails. You can drag tabs between groups, and resize and move the group boxes themselves around. You can even give a name to a tab group to keep organized.

When you click on a page thumbnail in any tab group, that page will maximize in the browser window, and you'll only see tabs from its group. It takes a bit of a rethinking, as you won't see all of your pages' tabs, but a click of the group icon gets you to them. I only wish that Panorama had some automation of the group creation, similar to IE's color grouping of tabs. And unlike Opera's nifty stacked-tabs, Firefox's groups are a click away on their own page, rather than always in front of you.
Another tab-related feature seems clearly Chrome-inspired—pinned tabs. If there are sites you always want access to, just as in Chrome, you can pin their tabs to the left side of the tab bar. These pinned tabs appear narrower, showing just the site icon. The pinned sites will also load automatically when you start Firefox. But you can't create an app shortcut icon for use on your desktop or Windows 7 taskbar, as you can with IE9 and Chrome.
Firefox Sync 
Chrome and Opera have had bookmark and settings syncing for a while, but Firefox does an excellent job at implementing this on-the-go convenience in version 4. Not only will Firefox 4 sync bookmarks and settings, but it also open tabs, history, passwords, and forms. The data is encrypted locally so that no one can intercept those passwords while they're on their way to Mozilla's servers. The setup creates a key that you need to enter into the other PCs you want to keep in sync; the process isn't arduous, but it's not as simple as Chrome's sign in. One thing you can't sync in Firefox that you can in Chrome, though—surprisingly—is extensions. Themes, are another, but Chrome can't sync History or open tabs. IE9 has yet to offer any syncing option.

Add-ons (aka Extensions) 
Add-ons have been revamped inside and out in the new Firefox. The new Jetpack add-on system is both easier for developers to create extensions and easier for consumers to use them. JetPack makes it possible for an extension developer not to require a restart to install the add-on and to make updating less intrusive. In previous versions of Firefox, I often had to wait for a check for extension updates before I could start browsing. Jetpack could save me a lot of frustration when I just want to get browsing. Interface-wise, in another nod to Chrome, Firefox's add-ons manager now resides in what looks like a Web page. In its present form, it's a little harder to simply find the most popular extensions and their ratings, but you can still head to the Mozilla Web page for this. Firefox is still customizable in appearance, too, thanks to Personas and Themes.


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