firefox-chrome-metro-600

If you’re reading this on a PC, it’s probably on Google Chrome or Firefox — the two most popular browsers on Windows that Mashable readers use. It’s a telling example about how most tech-savvy Windows users don’t use the default browser on their machines, Internet Explorer. But how’s that going to change when Windows 8 launches later this year?

Windows 8, as you may know, has two modes: the familiar desktop, and the all-new Metro interface (for a primer on Windows 8, check out this link). Metro differs from traditional Windows in many ways, but one of the ways that’s not often talked about is that Microsoft will have final say over what apps run on it, since Windows 8 users will only be able to download Metro apps from the Windows Store.

With such ironclad control over the new operating system, would Microsoft even allow other web browsers to run in Metro? The answer is yes, and Mozilla is already hard at work developing the Metro version of Firefox, one of the company’s developers revealed on his personal blog. He also revealed a little tidbit: Browser apps will work somewhat differently than other Metro apps.

Mozilla engineer Brian R. Bondy says there are three types of Windows 8 apps: those that run solely in the classic desktop, Metro apps, and Metro-enabled browsers for the desktop. It’s the last one that Metro versions of Firefox (and presumably Google Chrome) will be.

SEE ALSO: Windows 8 Consumer Preview: The Good, the Bad and the Metro [REVIEW]
Bondy references a Microsoft white paper that says Metro-style browsers aren’t completely confined to the Metro environment. That means, as Bondy describes, that the browser can be just as powerful as its desktop equivalent, with the ability to multitask, download files in the background and render web-based HTML5 apps in their entirety.

That’s because, if Internet Explorer 10 is any indication, that the browser is essentially the same animal whether it’s running in the desktop or Metro — it’s only the user interface that’s different. Still, that involves quite a bit of coding, and Bondy says it’s a “very large project.”

There’s a catch, though: For a browser to run in Metro, the user must pick it as the default browser. That likely won’t be an issue for most fans of Firefox and Chrome, but it does mean you won’t be able to have multiple browsers open in Metro.


BONUS: A Tour of Windows 8


 

Start Menu

Here’s what greets you every time you log into your Windows 8 machine. Yes, the tiles are customizable, though it’s a little unwieldy in practice.

Click here to view this gallery.

More About: Firefox, google chrome, IE10, internet explorer, Metro, trending, web browsers, Windows 8

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328-firefox-4

Firefox’s rapid release schedule has not been the success Mozilla hoped. Most web developers agree it’s good for HTML5 feature evolution but it’s not without problems:

  • Add-on compatibility. Most of us use extensions which cannot keep up with Firefox’s development progress.
  • Increased effort. The majority of IT departments must test mission-critical applications before a browser update can be deployed throughout the enterprise.
  • Confusion. Few people understand the rationale behind major version increments. Why shouldn’t Firefox 6 be version 4.2?

Mozilla is replicating Google’s release model but Chrome does not necessarily exhibit the same problems. It’s add-ons system is far simpler; more akin to bookmarklets than integrated code. The browser also has fewer legacy hurdles and has silently updated since the early days. Those using Chrome either understand this concept or don’t care.

One solution Mozilla considered was the removal of version numbers from Firefox’s “Help > About” dialog. Mozilla’s logic:

  1. Few users understand version numbers.
  2. Removal would simplify the UI.
  3. Users would be informed when the last check occurred, whether they were using the latest version, and how they could update (if Firefox had not automagically done so).
  4. If you really needed the version number, it could be found in about:support.

Uproar ensued on Bugzilla and the associated newsgroup discussion. The majority of respondents detested the idea (although a large volume of ranting and spam appeared when Mozilla’s intentions went public).

The organization put forward some reasonable arguments but ultimately backed down. Mozilla’s Robert Kaiser:

Can we close this bug report?

Version numbers in software are like coordinate systems in physics: irrelevant and necessary at the same time — it’s completely irrelevant how you do them, but they provide necessary reference points. Not more, not less.

Where ever we go with this, I don’t think it will have either a large impact on version number messaging or on making Firefox useless, so I think the rage on both sides is overrated.

The reply from VanillaMozilla:

Done … I’m having a hard time finding anyone at all who thinks this is a good idea.

The argument become overheated but Mozilla’s proposition had a number of flaws:

  1. It went against established UI conventions that span OSes and 20+ years of IT development. There may be better ways, but removing version numbers is not likely to be the best solution.
  2. The proposal was too simplistic and did nothing to tackle Firefox’s rapid update issues. Version numbering was never the cause or the cure.
  3. Users may not understand version numbers, but removing them was a non-issue. Firefox wouldn’t suddenly become easier to use.
  4. There are multiple versions of Firefox in the wild. Some would have version numbers, some wouldn’t. None of the older editions would state they were out of date.
  5. Version numbers are important to developers and IT support staff. What’s the first question you ask when someone reports a problem in a specific browser?

Version numbers have been rendered meaningless in Chrome and Firefox. Few people know or care what version of Chrome they’re running. Perhaps, one day, the same will be true for Firefox — but we’re not there yet.

Firefox is an older browser with far more baggage and a large, passionate user community. Mozilla ultimately listened to their demands, but the the proposal and subsequent onslaught did nothing for the browser.

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Despite the ongoing Firefox releases, the browser market has remained quiet during the summer months.

So here are the latest statistics. I’ve changed the table so Firefox 4, 5 and 6 are amalgamated into one; it makes little sense to analyze the separate figures since most of those users update their browsers as new versions appear:

BrowserJulyAugustchangerelative
IE 9.07.27%8.05%+0.78%+10.70%
IE 8.026.30%25.68%-0.62%-2.40%
IE 7.05.45%5.07%-0.38%-7.00%
IE 6.03.42%3.09%-0.33%-9.60%
Firefox 4.0+17.66%18.10%+0.44%+2.50%
Firefox 3.6-10.30%9.39%-0.91%-8.80%
Chrome22.17%23.17%+1.00%+4.50%
Safari5.15%5.18%+0.03%+0.60%
Opera1.66%1.67%+0.01%+0.60%
Others0.62%0.60%-0.02%-3.20%
IE (all)42.44%41.89%-0.55%-1.30%
Firefox (all)27.96%27.49%-0.47%-1.70%

The table shows market share estimates for desktop browsers. The ‘change’ column shows the absolute increase or decrease in market share. The ‘relative’ column indicates the proportional change, i.e. another 9.6% of IE6 users abandoned the browser last month. There are several caveats so I recommend you read How Browser Market Share is Calculated.

IE9 had another good month. Its progress is remains relatively sedate, but there are two solutions if Microsoft want massive adoption:

  1. Offer Windows 7, the hardware which runs it, installation, migration and training services to everyone. For free.
  2. Alternatively, release a version of IE9 which is compatible with XP. The other vendors support XP and still manage to offer fancy features such as hardware acceleration. And CSS3 text shadows.

IE’s overall drop has slowed a little this month, but I suspect that’s a statistical blip while business users enjoy a summer break.

Firefox 4/5/6 is rising but not at the pace Firefox 3/2/1 is falling. While the rapid releases are mostly good, users are becoming frustrated with add-on compatibility failures and memory usage problems on Mac OS. Mozilla is addressing the issues but they’re losing users who may never return.

There’s little to report for Opera and Safari. Both browsers made modest gains, but neither is setting the market alight.

That leaves us with Chrome. It’s the same story: usage continues to grow at 1% per month — sometimes more. If the current trend continues, Chrome will overtake Firefox in December 2011. It’s already occurred in the UK where Chrome has 23.41% lead over Firefox’s 21.75%.

Personally, I like Chrome and regularly recommend or install the browser; it’s fast, simple, stable and updates without fuss. However, I primarily use Firefox (on Windows 7) because it has a range of essential add-ons for power-surfing and development. I thought others would think the same but, having asked the question on Google+, it appears not. Developers are switching to Chrome in droves. Mozilla is losing the technical evangelists who once promoted Firefox.

Mobile Browser Usage

Desktop browsers account for 92.88% of web activity. The remaining 7.12% is mobile access and it’s evident more people are using their phones for general web browsing. The applications they primarily use are:

  1. Opera Mini/Mobile — 21.61% (down 0.46%)
  2. Android — 19.72% (up 1.55%)
  3. Nokia browser — 16.99% (down 0.11%)
  4. iPhone — 14.91% (down 0.19%)
  5. Blackberry — 11.64% (down 0.66%)

Note there are significant regional variations:

  • In the US and Canada, Android takes the top spot with 34.2% followed by the iPhone with 26.1%. Opera accounts for less than 4%.
  • The iPhone is most popular in Europe at 33.7% with Android second at 23.7%.
  • For Oceania, the iPhone has an almost monopolistic lead of 56.7%. Android is way behind at 19.4%.
  • It’s Asia, Africa and South America where Opera and less-expensive Nokia devices reign supreme.

Remember that these figures are collated from internet access — not sales trends. Users with an older mobile are less likely to use the web than those with the latest 3G handset. That said, in the developing world, users may not have access to a PC so mobile is the only option.




Mozilla has offered a first glimpse of its Firefox for Tablets web browser.

The company described the new product as “an evolution of its phone based predecessor, with some added enhancements that take advantage of a tablet’s larger screen size,” in a blog post.

From what we can see (which is admittedly not much at this point), that seems to be a pretty good description. The tablet version has room for more UI elements, such as a row of tabs, unlike Firefox for mobile. A tab menu appears on the left side of the screen in landscape mode or on the top of the screen in portrait mode.

Theme-wise, the browser heavily borrows from Honeycomb, Android’s operating system for tablets. But you’ll still find familiar Firefox elements, including a big back button and Firefox’s signature “Awesomebar” — a URL field that also searches bookmarks, history and synched desktop activity.

Mozilla has still not announced a release date.

Firefox for Tablets — Tabs

Firefox for Tablets — Awesomebar

Firefox for Tablets — Theming

More About: Firefox, firefox for tablets, mozilla

531-banishing-url-bar

Google wants Chrome to be a clean distraction-free browsing experience. They’re possibly about to take their most radical step yet. Interface minimalism will reach it’s ultimate zenith with the removal of the address bar.

Madness?

Perhaps. But Mozilla are considering the same UI move.

The idea has received an overwhelmingly negative response from technical users. However, before you reach for your soapbox, be aware that it’s only a proposal which may never see the light of day. If it does happen, it will almost certainly be an option and “compact view” might only be permitted on application tabs. When enabled, the user may have to double-click a tab to view the URL.

So why does Google think a 30-pixel gain is so important? It would provide an extra 5% of space on some tablet and netbook screens, but there are deeper reasons…

I use the address bar. You probably use it too. But many users don’t. Non-technical users rarely understand URLs; it’s plainly obvious when you observe them type www.whatever.com into Google’s search box. So why retain a feature few people use?

We should also consider how web use is changing. We know the browser is a separate application but it’s likely to evolve as operating system vendors attempt a more integrated approach. Icons, application tabs and pinned sites are just the start. The distinction between online and offline is already blurred and, within a few years, users won’t know or care where an application resides.

There’s also been a noticeable shift in internet marketing. While companies still promote their URL on advertising media, many now publish more memorable search keywords for Google or Facebook.

Finally, there are commercial incentives. Without the bar, users must resort to a search engine; they’ll aways see a page of results and revenue-paying adverts before reaching their destination.

But what about the drawbacks? If you can’t see the address bar, it’s more effort to enter a URL. If users really don’t want the bar, it can usually be hidden or they can switch to full-screen mode (F11 in most browsers).

Web developers also depend on the URL — especially when testing web applications or REST services. Removing the bar will make our lives more difficult.

Finally, without the address bar, it’s more difficult to ensure you’re on the correct site or check security settings. Those involved in phishing scams will be eagerly anticipating the UI change.

The idea makes me uncomfortable. Users may not understand URLs, but removing the bar won’t help them learn. I’m sure many car drivers don’t understand hydraulics but that’s not a reason to remove their brakes (OK — bad metaphor, but a web without URLs is not without danger).

I’m all for UI simplification, but this seems like a step too far. If it happens, Google should rename their browser: “Chrome-less” would be more apt.

What do you think? Should the address bar go? Could it be an option? Are the risks too great?

522-browser-trends

It’s increasingly difficult to keep track of the browser market. Chrome 12, Firefox 5 and Opera 11.5 were released last month. Some browsers auto-update, some don’t. Some vendors have lavish launch promotions, others don’t mention it.

The big news for July is that Chrome usage has passed 20% for the first time. Let’s examine the full StatCounter statistics in more detail…

BrowserMayJunechangerelative
IE 9.04.57%6.18%+1.61%+35.20%
IE 8.029.06%27.67%-1.39%-4.80%
IE 7.06.39%6.00%-0.39%-6.10%
IE 6.03.84%3.72%-0.12%-3.10%
Firefox 5.00.00%2.81%+2.81%n/a
Firefox 4.014.23%14.04%-0.19%-1.30%
Firefox 3.5+13.95%10.44%-3.51%-25.20%
Firefox 3.1-1.12%1.05%-0.07%-6.30%
Chrome19.38%20.67%+1.29%+6.70%
Safari5.01%5.07%+0.06%+1.20%
Opera1.83%1.74%-0.09%-4.90%
Others0.62%0.61%-0.01%-1.60%
IE (all)43.86%43.57%-0.29%-0.70%
Firefox (all)29.30%28.34%-0.96%-3.30%

This table shows market share estimates for desktop browsers. The ‘change’ column shows the absolute increase or decrease in market share. The ‘relative’ column indicates the proportional change, i.e. another 3.1% of IE6 users abandoned the browser last month (yay!) There are several caveats so I recommend you read How Browser Market Share is Calculated.

In June, Chrome 11 toppled Firefox 3.6 to become the world’s second most-used browser. Confusingly, the launch of Chrome 12 has split Google’s user base so Firefox 4.0 has now taken second place. Despite being available for little over a week, Firefox 5.0 has already gained 2.8% market share as Firefox 3.x and 4.0 users migrate.

However, there’s little good news for Mozilla. Firefox’s overall total dropped by almost 1% in June: three times worse than IE and one of the biggest falls the browser has ever experienced. There doesn’t appear to be a particular reason; Firefox 4 and 5 have been well-received but they haven’t halted Chrome’s progress. Perhaps the changes were too radical for some? Or did users investigate other options rather than upgrading?

IE9 has made good gains although IE8 remains the most popular browser version. IE6 and 7 continue to drop although the pace is slowing.

Opera also experienced a small drop. However, version 11.5 may be able to reverse that trend and there’s better news for the company in the mobile arena…

Mobile Browser Usage

According to StatCounter, desktop browsers account for 93.47% of web activity. Mobile browser usage grew by almost 1% last month to 6.53%. This may be a seasonal anomaly since it’s summer in much of the western world — net users may be out enjoying the sunshine (or drizzle for those of us in the UK).

Movements within the mobile browser market are quite unusual and possibly influenced by seasonal factors. Nokia may be experiencing business issues, but they will be pleased to discover that their (fairly basic) browser has overtaken Android and Safari on the iPhone. Opera has also made gains following the latest release of their mobile editions:

  1. Opera Mini/Mobile — 22.81% (up 1.00%)
  2. Nokia browser — 17.66% (up 1.16%)
  3. Android — 17.25% (up 0.24%)
  4. iPhone — 15.22% (down 1.49%)
  5. Blackberry — 11.98% (down 0.78%)

If you’ve not done so already, perhaps it’s time to consider how your business will be affected by the rapid rise of mobile platforms.

328-firefox-4

If you’ve been waiting to upgrade to Firefox 4, you’re too late! As promised, Mozilla released Firefox 5 on June 21 2011 — just three months after version 4 was launched. The organization has embarked on a Chrome-like release-little, release-often rapid-update schedule.

If you’re too excited to read further, download the installer from getfirefox.com or update by selecting Help > About Firefox > Check for Updates. You may be lucky enough to receive a fast incremental update — it didn’t work for me and the full installer was downloaded.

Firefox 4 was a major update. You’re unlikely to spot any immediate differences in version 5 since most of the changes are under the hood:

  • support for CSS3 animations with the -moz prefix
  • improved JavaScript and canvas performance
  • additional HTML5, SVG and MathML features
  • faster browsing

Developers should also note that setTimeout and setInterval events will only execute once per second or less frequently on inactive tabs. It replicates the behavior of requestAnimationFrame to save CPU and power consumption.

Great — but there’s a downside. You may find several of your add-ons are disabled by Firefox 5. They should work, but many authors have not yet updated their add-on’s version numbers. Firebug and the Web Developer Toolbar are fine, but Console2 and HttpFox are blocked.

Not every plugin author has the time or resources to match the new schedule. It’s unfortunate and I hope Mozilla can address the problem. Perhaps a less formal approach could be adopted which allows the community to test and approve plugins without relying on the author to hard-code supported versions. Alternatively, Mozilla could have simply released Firefox 4.1 — the numbering is becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Despite the add-on hassles, it’s good to see updates appearing more regularly. Let us know what you think of the Firefox 5.

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There are plenty of Firefox add-ons at your disposal that can extend the browser’s core functionality. The types of add-ons you’ll encounter have a wide range of utility, from productivity tools that monitor the amount of time you spend on the Internet, to social media tools that conveniently give you in-browser capabilities for using popular services such as Twitter and Facebook.

The Firefox browser is a popular choice for web designers, and there are plenty of add-ons that can make the day-to-day work of web design significantly more efficient and fruitful. Here are 10 highly recommended, top-notch Firefox add-ons for web designers. Let us know what other Firefox add-ons you use in the comments.


1. Web Developer


The Web Developer Firefox add-on is a huge suite of web design tools packed with massively useful functions that will help web designers perform tasks more efficiently. By default, it displays as a toolbar towards the top of the browser, presenting you with various menus such as CSS, Resize and Cookies.

Whether you need to inspect the CSS of page, discover information about a webpage (such as seeing all the alt attributes of images on the page), quickly validate a web design for W3C compliance or measure design elements, Web Developer will likely have a convenient tool for you.


2. Firebug


Firebug is such a popular web design/front-end web development Firefox add-on that there are actually add-ons for it (see no. 5). And if you were to ask any web designer or web developer what Firefox add-on they can’t live without, chances are he’ll say Firebug.

Firebug is an open source add-on that gives web designers powerful tools for inspecting and debugging a web design. It can help you figure out what CSS styles affect certain elements (in case you’re having trouble with a style rule that doesn’t seem to render properly), inspect the document object model (DOM) to learn about the structure of the web page, determine attributes such as color, width, height of HTML elements and much more.

The extension can take a while to learn (trust me, it’s worth the time), but the creators have some helpful documentation to get you started.


3. MeasureIt


This Firefox add-on has a single purpose: It gives you a ruler that you can use on any web page for measuring items. Since web design critically relies on the proper sizing of design elements, this is a valuable tool to add to your collection of Firefox add-ons.


4. ColorZilla


One thing that web designers frequently work with is color. This add-on includes a color picker (much like the one you see in Photoshop) and an eye dropper tool so that you can sample and identify the colors used on any web page. A similar Firefox add-on to check out is Rainbow Color Tools.


5. CSS Usage


CSS Usage is an extension for Firebug (thus requiring you to have Firebug installed) that uncovers unused CSS style rules. It works by identifying the CSS you use and don’t use, pointing out what unnecessary parts can be removed to keep your CSS files as lightweight as possible.


6. Page Speed


A website’s speed is important for usability and the user experience. Research has shown that website visitors hate slow websites, so you should do the best you can to design sites that are lightning fast.

Page Speed is a browser extension (for Firefox and Chrome) developed by Google that analyzes a web page and tells you where improvements can be made to increase the site’s speed. It’s a great tool for
testing a web design’s ability to render fast. Alternatively, you can use Page Speed Online, which is a web-based version of the add-on. You can also check out YSlow, which functions similarly to Page Speed.


7. HTML Validator


This nifty Firefox add-on helps to make sure that you’re writing well-formed HTML. It checks your markup for standards compliance, and if it catches anything that doesn’t cut it, the add-on tells you why so that you can update the code.


8. IE Tab 2


Web designers are always concerned about the cross-browser compatibility of their work. IE Tab 2 is a Firefox add-on that allows you to view any web page using Internet Explorer without leaving Firefox. All you have to do is right-click on a web page, and then choose “View Page in IE Tab” in the contextual menu.


9. Screengrab


Taking screenshots in the browser is a common task for web designers. Screengrab is a simple tool for taking full-page or partial-page screenshots. You can copy the screenshot to your clipboard, or save it to your hard drive as an image file.


10. SEO Doctor


Search engine optimization should begin in the design phase, when the site’s HTML is still malleable and open to change. SEO Doctor is a convenient tool for checking any web page’s SEO.

SEO Doctor gives you a score between 0 and 100% and highlights areas in the web page that can be optimized for search engines. One neat feature is that you can export the data for spreadsheets for further analysis and logging.

What other add-ons do you use? Let us know in the comments.


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More About: CSS, Firefox, firefox add-on, firefox plugin, html, web design, web designer series

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Firefox 4 was released Tuesday, and early reports indicated the latest version of Mozilla’s open-source browser was downloaded more than 5 million times in the first 24 hours.

Those reports were wrong. It turns out, Firefox 4 was downloaded 7.1 million times in its first day. In fact, in the first 48 hours of release, Mozilla racked up more than 15.85 million downloads.

Over at the Mozilla blog, the team put together an infographic detailing the first 48 hours of activity. Downloads peaked at 10,200 per minute and averaged 91.7 downloads per second. That kind of leaves IE 9′s 27 downloads per second figure in the dust, doesn’t it?

The team at Pingdom put together their own Firefox infographic, this time showcasing the lead-up to Firefox 4. the infographic details the browser’s timeline, marketshare and assorted usage stats.

Firefox has more than 400 million users worldwide and has been downloaded more than 1.35 billion times since 2004.

Although the web browser has only increased in importance since Firefox 1.0 was released in 2004, many users and Mashable readers have expressed indifference or even disinterest in Firefox 4. The desktop browser wars are still going strong; however, most of us would agree the real battle is on mobile devices and tablets. It’s an issue I discussed at length with Dan Benjamin on a recent segment our podcast, Briefly Awesome.

The number of people who downloaded Firefox 4 in the last 24 hours, however, indicates to me that the desktop is still an area of great importance for the web and its ecosystems.

Are you one of the 15.85 million Firefox 4 downloaders? Let us know your experience in the comments.

More About: Firefox, Firefox 4, infographic, infographics, web browsers

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Mozilla’s Firefox 4 was released early Tuesday. The release comes nearly two years after Firefox 3.5 and three years after Firefox 3.

The web browsing landscape has changed significantly since then, with Google’s Chrome browser winning converts left and right, while mobile and tablet browsing gained new ground.

When Firefox first hit the scene in the early 2000s, Mozilla’s open-source browser was a refreshing change of pace for users and designers alike. It brought innovative features like tabbed browsing to the mainstream (although Opera did it first). It used add-ons to an extent that hadn’t been seen before.



Over the last few years, early adopters — once the core evangelists for the browser — shifted away from it. Those add-ons started to bog the program down. Meanwhile, the new layout engine of choice for web developers isn’t Gecko (which powers Firefox), but WebKit (which powers Apple Safari, Google Chrome, and the browsers for BlackBerry and Android).

Firefox 4 is an important release for Mozilla — perhaps the most important release since 1.0. The competition has never been so strong. We have been using the beta releases extensively and spent some time with the final release. So how does Firefox 4 stack up against the competition? Are the changes enough to keep current users from switching — and lure old users back?


Look and Feel


Mozilla first started talking about Firefox 4.0 in July 2009. The early screenshot previews — featuring tabs on top, a la Chrome — were a radical departure at the time.

Although the comparisons to Chrome are unavoidable, I think that Firefox 4 improves upon Google’s minimalist design.

Tabs are on top, but the browser window is still easily draggable. Users won’t make the mistake of dragging a tab rather than the full window. Moreover, cycling through tabs is more elegant and less cluttered than either Safari 5 or Chrome 10.

By default, Mozilla has changed the location of the home button. It also added a new bookmark bar. Fortunately, these components can be customized and removed (simply right click on them and hit “customize”). Like Chrome, Firefox eschews the the status bar on the bottom of the screen, only using it as an overlay when needed. This adds a few more pixels of space to the viewing window.

Firefox 4 includes an innovative new tab grouping feature known as Panorama. Panorama started life as Tab Candy, an experimental feature introduced by former Mozilla Creative Lead Aza Raskin. It creates different groups of tabs and lets you switch easily between them. Panorama is a great feature for power users, but anyone who don’t want to use a grouping system can ignore it and never know the difference.


Speed


Firefox used to be the fastest browser on the block. Over the years, the program has become bloated. Increasingly, the speed factor in web browsers is less about the rendering engine and more about the JavaScript engine.

Firefox 4 claims to be up to six times faster than its predecessor. In our tests, load times did seem about that fast — though Google Chrome 10 still seems to bring up pages more quickly.

The speed increases aren’t merely limited to page load times, however. Firefox 4 starts up significantly faster on my Mac (an iMac with a 2.8GHz i7 and 12GB of RAM running Mac OS X 10.6.7) than its predecessor. In fact, in a timed test, Firefox 4 launched from dock to default homepage at nearly the exact same speed as Google Chrome 10.


Performance, Memory Usage, Stability


As a full-time Mac user since 2007, I’ve long had a love/hate relationship with Firefox. Certain websites (particularly corporate backend systems) just work better in the browser than in Safari. But Firefox has never been particularly well tuned to Mac OS X machines. Firefox 3 was a significant improvement, but frankly, Firefox has remained a memory hog.

The biggest problem with Firefox versions of the past — and this is true of both Mac OS X and Windows releases — is that the program has the tendency to leak memory. This problem only gets worse on systems with lots of add-ons installed and can be made worse still by plugins like Flash.

Mozilla has said that Firefox 4 consumes less memory and is more stable. I wanted to see if this was true. Using the Activity Monitor in Mac OS X, I tracked the amount of real memory, CPU utilization and CPU threads in Firefox 4, Firefox 3.6.15, Safari 5.0.4 and Chrome 10.0.6.448.151 stable.

I tried to install the same number of add-ons or extensions to each browser. The goal was to re-create the average browsing session. I then opened a number of memory-hogging tabs, including Farmville and Hulu with video playing.

I tested the memory and CPU usage for each browser. Remember, your mileage may vary.

First, the good news — in my tests, Firefox 4 consumes less memory and CPU cycles than Firefox 3.6.15. When adding in Flash and other plugin usage to the total memory footprint, only Google Chrome 10 performs better.

The bad news — and this is really for all four browser variants tested — is that the overall usage is still fairly high. The big culprit here is Adobe Flash. Improvements have been made on this front in Windows and with certain graphics chipsets on the Mac (my Radeon HD 4850 unfortunately, is not included), but Flash is the greatest cause of browser performance and memory usage issu
es.

So if Firefox 3.6.x takes up a lot of memory on your system, the improvements in Firefox 4 might not be significantly better.

What is new is that Firefox 4 now segregates its regular browsing processes from so-called plugin processes. Previously, Firefox was the sole item to appear in the Mac OS X Activity Monitor. With Firefox 4, a “Firefox Plugin Process” appears as well.

So if Flash wasn’t running a game and playing back a video, that Plugin Process usage would be considerably less. Rather than relying on the browser to free up the memory (something Firefox is historically bad at doing), the plugin process can simply be freed up.

Moreover, if a plugin crashes, the browser can recover without taking down the entire session. Apple is doing something similar in Safari 5.0.x, which shows Flash Player as its own process. If Flash crashes, the rest of the browser can stay intact.

With Chrome, Google goes a step further and actually separates each tab into its own process. That makes it easy to shut down one tab and keep the rest of the session running. Chrome doesn’t separate Flash as its own entity; the browser uses its own sandboxed version of Flash Player.

It’s great that Mozilla has decided to split up the way Firefox uses memory. Recovering from crashes is less time consuming, and regular system memory can be reclaimed more quickly.

Since Firefox 4 Beta 8, I have found the browser to be very usable with few stability issues. The few issues that remained up until the final release — notably Netflix not wanting to work well on the Mac — have been resolved in Firefox 4. In the 24 hours I have been testing Firefox 4, I haven’t had the browser seize or crash. It’s rare that I don’t have to invoke “force quit” for Firefox 3.6.15, so this is a great sign.


Add-ons


Mozilla has restructured how its add-on system works. Add-on installation and browsing now takes place in a designated browser window, rather than a pop-up menu. This is much more easy on the eyes and makes finding and installing or removing add-ons and browser themes more fluid.

Most major Firefox add-ons now work with Firefox 4. Users may run into situations where an add-on is incompatible. But most developers seem to have answered the call. If your favorite add-on isn’t updated in the next week or two, it might be time to look for a replacement; it probably indicates developer abandonment.

Firefox is continuing to move towards lighter weight extensions like those for Google Chrome, Safari and Opera. These add-ons can be built using HTML, CSS and JavaScript and tend to use less memory and resources. They also tend to have less of an impact on overall browser performance and stability.

Still, at this stage, most major Firefox add-ons still use the traditional add-on API and require a browser restart when updated, installed or uninstalled.

I have long said that add-ons and extensions are Firefox’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. The impact that the extensibility these add-ons added to the browser on overall user adoption cannot be understated. It’s equally true, however, that the performance impact some popular add-ons can have on the browser has hurt Firefox’s image as a whole.

Even with Chrome, users have to battle how many extensions are installed versus the performance impact on the browser. It’s a tough line to straddle between utility and performance. But from what I understand about the Firefox add-on APIs and toolkits, it is an area Mozilla has spent a lot of time working to make better.


Overall


So is Firefox 4 good enough to lure back old users and to keep existing users satisfied?

For me, the answer is yes. While I don’t anticipate using Firefox as my primary browser (I tend to use Safari), keeping Firefox running on my computer is no longer something I fear.

The new user interface is fresh and inviting. Panorama is something I could see using on a regular basis, and the memory and performance improvements live up the expectations.

Firefox fanatics are going to love it. Developers that test in multiple browsers are going to be very pleased. Still, I don’t know if being on par with the competition is enough to bring old users back.

I’m going to continue to use Firefox 4 more over the next few weeks. For me, that’s an important development. Since Google Chrome officially came to the Mac in December of 2009, I have used Firefox primarily only to access certain websites behind a VPN. It’s great to actually enjoy using the old girl again.

Let us know your thoughts about Firefox 4 in the comments.

More About: Browsers, chrome, Firefox, Firefox 4, Internet Explorer 9, mozilla, reviews, safari

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