Firefox 3 Beta Boosts Usability, Security

Click here to see screenshots of Firefox 3When you first install and launch the beta of Firefox 3, the initial impression (especially for those who remember some of the earlier promises of a revamped user interface and increased Web 2.0 integration) can be a little disappointing, since it doesn't look much different from the current version of Firefox. But then as you begin to use it you realize that what Firefox 3 lacks in bells and whistles has been made up for in increased functionality and usability. To a certain degree, it almost seems as if Mozilla listened to all the most common complaints and gripes about its free open-source browser and decided to address them with this new version. With less than a day of initial testing, it's a bit hard to make a definitive call on this first beta of Firefox 3 (which became available Nov. 19). But so far it looks as if Firefox 3 should be welcome both for its many small usability improvements and for its under-the-covers Web rendering engine and security enhancements. When the main screen for Firefox 3 launches, almost nothing looks different from Firefox 2. The only new UI feature appears to be a favorites star added to the main address bar. But using the browser reveals many welcome improvements. Opening a group of tabs now appends them to existing tabs, rather than removing and replacing those that are already open. When lots of tabs are open, it is now easier to scroll through them, and when shutting down Firefox 3 now asks if the user wants to save the open tabs.

Click here to see screenshots of Firefox 3Firefox 3
When you first install and launch the beta of Firefox 3, the initial impression (especially for those who remember some of the earlier promises of a revamped user interface and increased Web 2.0 integration) can be a little disappointing, since it doesn't look much different from the current version of Firefox.

But then as you begin to use it you realize that what Firefox 3 lacks in bells and whistles has been made up for in increased functionality and usability. To a certain degree, it almost seems as if Mozilla listened to all the most common complaints and gripes about its free open-source browser and decided to address them with this new version.

With less than a day of initial testing, it's a bit hard to make a definitive call on this first beta of Firefox 3 (which became available Nov. 19). But so far it looks as if Firefox 3 should be welcome both for its many small usability improvements and for its under-the-covers Web rendering engine and security enhancements.

When the main screen for Firefox 3 launches, almost nothing looks different from Firefox 2. The only new UI feature appears to be a favorites star added to the main address bar.

But using the browser reveals many welcome improvements. Opening a group of tabs now appends them to existing tabs, rather than removing and replacing those that are already open. When lots of tabs are open, it is now easier to scroll through them, and when shutting down Firefox 3 now asks if the user wants to save the open tabs.

When logging into a password-protected site, Firefox 3 asks if the user wants it to remember the password after having successfully logged in, rather than prior to logging in when password mistakes may occur. In the download manager it is now possible to get location information for files that have been downloaded, and the Add-on management dialog now includes the ability to manage classic browser plug-ins.

Bookmark management falls short of the original promise of Web site "places," but it has been boosted considerably. Firefox 3 includes tagging capabilities for bookmarks, making it possible to sort and manage bookmarks by topic. And a new smart places folder in the bookmarks includes automated groupings of sites, such most visited pages, pages that have been starred as favorites and recently tagged Web pages.

The beta of Firefox 3 also includes a number of security enhancements. Clicking on the icon of a site in the address bar provides ownership information for secure Web sites. And when visiting a site that has an unsigned SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) certificate or a certificate that doesn't match the site domain, Firefox 3 puts up a much more noticeable warning page and users who want to continue on need to add the site to an exceptions list.

Also new in Firefox 3 is a feature that attempts to identify known malware and phishing sites and provides strong warnings when users attempt to visit them. The blacklists were not yet active when I did my tests, but Mozilla did provide test pages to see what the warnings would look like.

According to the Firefox 3 beta release notes, there have been multiple performance and memory management improvements in this version of the browser. In our initial tests performance and memory management seemed to be very good, but this will need to be tested over time and multiple versions of the browser.

Firefox 3 also includes a few promising new features that we were unable to test at this time as they rely on third-party developers implementing them. Chief among these is the browser's ability to run sites and applications in an offline mode, similar to the Google Gears application. Firefox 3 also makes it possible to use Web-based applications as integrated helper applications, so, for example, clicking on a document file could launch an online word processor and clicking on a mail link could launch a Web-based mail client. When applications become available that use these features we will update our reviews to reflect those tests.

Those interested in trying out the first beta of Firefox 3 can download it at http://en-us.www.mozilla.com/en-US/firefox/all-beta.html.