In the new tradition of rapid browser evolution, both Google and Mozilla have recently released new beta versions: Chrome 4.0 and Firefox 3.6, respectively.
Looking at the version numbers, one would expect that Firefox 3.6 would have minor changes and Chrome 4.0 would be a major upgrade. However, based on my tests of the betas, neither is a major upgrade, and the Firefox 3.6 beta actually showcases more new features than the Chrome 4.0 beta.
Chrome 4.0 Beta
In fact, the only really significant new feature I could find in the beta of Chrome 4.0 is Bookmark Sync, which enables users to sync their bookmarks with a cloud service and have the bookmarks be automatically synced to any other Chrome browser they use on another system. However, while this feature is new in Chrome, it's not new. Opera has a similar feature (that also works with the mobile version of the browser), and something akin to Bookmark Sync can be traced back as far as old Netscape browsers.
But, of course, the big advantage that Chrome Bookmark Sync has is Google. Instead of using a special cloud service, Chrome Bookmark Sync uses Google accounts, which most people probably have either through Gmail or Google Apps.
Count me among the throngs that already have a Google account, which made it very easy during my tests to get up and running with Chrome Bookmark Sync and have my bookmarks available on multiple systems. I also liked that the synced bookmarks could be viewed on the Web within Google Documents.
However, users should keep in mind that Chrome's Bookmark Sync could be a problem on shared systems. If multiple users all use the same user account on a system, then bookmarks of other users could sync across the browsers of everyone who used that system.
Firefox 3.6 Beta
There are no major new features in Firefox 3.6, but there's more new in this beta than there are in the Chrome 4.0 beta.
One new Firefox 3.6 feature is integrated Personas. Personas were available before, but only through an extension.
Personas are basically browser themes, using images and different colors to change the look of the Firefox browser.
With the Version 3.6 beta, Personas were easy to apply--if I saw one I liked on a Web page, just one click implemented the Persona on my browser. Users can change and remove Personas from within the Themes tab in the Firefox Add-ons manager.
In the beta of Firefox 3.6, traditional plug-ins are now managed and tracked in much the same way that Firefox extensions are. This means that the browser will notify users if they are using an outdated version of the plug-in and will make it simple to update the plug-in with a centralized Plugin Check Web page.
With this beta, support for the forthcoming HTML 5 standard is also improved, especially in the area of treating video as a native application within the browser (much in the same way browsers handle images without need for a plug-in or third-party application). New in Firefox 3.6 is the ability to view videos in full-screen.
Both Mozilla and Google are boasting about the speed increases in their new browsers.
In preliminary tests, both the Firefox 3.6 and Chrome 4.0 betas were a bit faster than previous versions of the browsers. Neither browser was in any way slow, and both performed well on a wide variety of Websites and applications.
For more information or to try out the betas of these browsers, go to http://www.google.com/chrome or http://www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/all-beta.html.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.