First Impressions of Firefox 3

This is a good upgrade to a good browser, but it's not the godsend many make it out to be.

Firefox 3 is finally here. I've been testing the betas and release candidates off and on and there's no doubt it's an improvement on Firefox 2, probably a big improvement. I'm moving over to it. Click here to read a gushing review of Firefox 3.

For me, the biggest improvement in Firefox 3 is that it no longer (at least not yet in my testing) consumes huge amounts of memory. As I work right now, with four tabs open including some Flash content, it's consuming 130MB, which is the most I've ever seen. Firefox 2 regularly consumed several hundred megabytes on my systems, and usually much more than Internet Explorer 7. Mozilla seems to have solved that problem.

But not everything about it is wonderful. Even if I'm basically happy with it, there are a few things I definitely don't like about it.

For example, I use the Clear Private Data feature now and then, which clears the browsing history (when you use the drop-down in the address bar), among other things. You can select Tools-Clear Private Data or press Ctrl-Shift-Del. When you do this in Firefox 3, it does not clear any browser history where the domain is in a bookmark, so your address bar drop-down may still have addresses in it. This seems wrong and confusing, and I bugged it in Bugzilla during beta. To the developers, it's one of those "It's not a bug, it's a feature" things, and they provide no way to turn it off in about:config or anywhere else. I think this was a bad choice. [Update: Thanks to reader D from LA for pointing out that there is a Firefox Add-On Hide Unvisited 3 which addresses this problem.]

I don't think the developers' decision to show address bar colors only on a section on the left of the bar is correct, either. The point of these colors, such as green for EV-SSL (Secure Sockets Layer) sites, is to be conspicuous, and these seem easy to miss. The area at the left is basically an expansion of the favicon. Opera does the same thing, and the developers told me that their testing was unclear, but that some people had trouble understanding address bars that were green throughout (which is the way IE 7 does it). I still disagree, but perhaps they have some evidence on their side. I've seen testing to indicate that the green EV-SSL bar does instill confidence in users and that they are more likely to complete a transaction where it is present. It would be interesting to run the same testing with the small green bar in Firefox 3 and Opera 9.5.

On the other hand, Firefox 3 makes great use of that expanded favicon. Warnings show up here for phishing and malware sites. You can click it in any number of situations and it gives you useful information. It's just that you have to know to click it.

Firefox 3's support for CRLs (certificate revocation lists) is lame, as it was in Firefox 1 and 2. The browsers don't download them from certificate authorities and check automatically; you have to manually import them, which of course nobody does. On the other hand, they do now support OCSP (Online Certificate Status Protocol), a new and better standard for revocation checking. On balance, from the perspective of certificate revocation checking, this makes Firefox 3 a much better option than Firefox 2. I have no doubt that the CRL problem has caused problems for people, but it's such an obscure issue that it's basically gone unnoticed.

I'll also point out that I've had problems printing with Firefox since Version 2 came out, and Version 3 is no better. I'm in the habit of selecting text on a page and printing the selection, and Firefox messes this up all the time. IE is generally a better printing browser.

Most of the other problems I have with Firefox 3 will probably go away eventually. For instance, today I still have problems with some plug-ins. Obviously, this will improve over time.

Incidentally, if you plan to stick with Firefox 2, don't plan on doing so for very long. Mozilla has a policy of providing security updates for old versions for only a few months and then you're on your own.

So by all means upgrade, soon if not immediately, to Firefox 3. I use both Firefox and IE all the time, and I expect things will be better with Version 3, not just for browsing, but for my system overall, since that much more memory will be freed up. It's a good day for Web users.

Security CenterEditor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

For insights on security coverage around the Web, take a look at Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer's blog Cheap Hack.