Firefox 3: A Browser Odyssey

Nathan Edwards

Let us lay out a hypothetical situation for you: You’ve been driving that lumbering old Crown Vic since Ken Starr was culturally relevant. It’s clunky, not particularly fast, and prone to breakdowns, and it lacks any sort of sex appeal. But you’re used to it, and it’s not like you’re made of money, right? Suddenly your benevolent (and extremely wealthy) uncle calls you up and offers you a Tesla roadster. It’s fast, sleek, and technologically advanced, runs without gasoline, and is sexy as all get-out. And he’s giving it to you for free. Do you take it?

Hell yeah, you take it. And if Uncle Mozilla offers you a fast, light, open-source, wildly configurable, sexy web browser, you take that too. Internet Explorer’s a clunker, and if you’ve somehow managed to go the past four years without switching to the roadster that is Firefox, it’s high time to take a test drive. If you’re already a Firefox user, well, here comes your supercharger.

Firefox 3, the latest version of Mozilla’s champion web browser, is on the horizon, and it promises to make the best browser in the world even better. Firefox 3 brings to the table smart bookmarks, more efficient memory usage, a vastly improved location bar, tighter security, and more. Join us as we dig deep into Firefox 3 Beta 5 for a look at the future of web browsing; we’ll show you the features power users should care about and give you tips for getting all that you can from your new favorite browser.

Note: This article was written in late May for the August 2008 issue of Maximum PC , using the most recent release then available, Firefox 3 Beta 5.

Feature by Feature

Firefox 3 is packed with improvements, but here’s what we’re most excited about!

Security

By now we’re all familiar with the padlock that appears in the location bar to indicate that a site is safe. The trouble is that the symbol doesn’t provide much useful information, such as degree of security, and it can easily be faked—any nefarious site can use a padlock as its favicon (the identifying icon that appears next to a site’s URL in the location bar and tabs) to fool careless users.

The green Passport Officer indicates that a site is credited with maximum security.

In Firefox 3, the padlock has moved to the status bar, and a site’s security is now represented by color-coding—the area surrounding a site’s favicon in the location bar is colored gray, blue, or green for an at-a-glance security brief. Gray represents no security credentials and green represents the maximum. Clicking a site’s favicon brings up a dialog box containing a similarly colored Passport Officer and all known details about a site’s security: who owns the security certificate, the certifying body, etc. A More Information button reveals encryption level, times visited, what cookies the site has set, and more. In our tests, though, very few sites displayed full credentials—our Internet banking site, for example, didn’t rate a green stamp, even though it’s certified by VeriSign. Instead, we got the slightly less reassuring blue.

Firefox 3 also features a community-contributed database of malware and phishing sites, similar to IE7’s. Click a link to a site in the database and you land on a Firefox interstitial page warning you that the site you’re trying to visit has been deemed questionable. Community-based security is only as good as the community, of course, but it’s a nice addition. We don’t typically run into malware or phishing sites, but anyone who keeps a neophyte’s PC running is sure to appreciate this extra line of defense.

Interface Improvements

Firefox 3 packs a lot of interface and usability tweaks, both subtle and obvious. On the subtle end of the spectrum, you’ll notice tighter graphical integration with the OS. Firefox’s updated UI uses OS-specific text boxes and UI cues to emulate native applications. Nothing earth-shattering here for Windows users—indeed, the new keyhole-shaped back/forward buttons are the only difference we noticed. But Linux and OS X fans have reason to cheer—the browser is especially good looking on a Mac.

Session Saving, which allows you to preserve the sites you have open in your tabs and windows when you close Firefox, lets you save your browser’s state every time you close Firefox, not just when the browser crashes. When you close Firefox 3, you’ll be asked whether you want to save and quit or just quit. If you choose the former, you’ll return to the same tabs next time you open Firefox.

The Download Manager also gets a tune-up: Downloads can now be paused, resumed, and saved between sessions, and you can even copy a download link to the clipboard—useful if you want to send a link to a pal or redownload a file later.
We also like the less-obtrusive Password Manager. Now, instead of opening a dialog box when you input a new username/password combo, the Password Manager opens in toolbar form at the top of the page.

Bookmarks

While it isn’t apparent at first glance, the bookmark menu gets a total overhaul in Firefox 3. It’s designed for people who don’t count creating precisely cataloged browser bookmarks as one of their life goals. In short, bookmarks are now taggable entries in a database instead of untagged entries in a flat text file. Tag your morning trawl through the blogosphere with “mornings” and find them all at once. Tag your comics with “comics.” Tag MaximumPC.com with “awesome.” Bookmarking is easier, too—just click the star in the location bar to add a page to your bookmarks, then click it again if you want to edit the description, add tags, or sort it into a folder.

Firefox 3 also introduces Smart Bookmarks, which use the new Places library to group bookmarks automatically, similar to iTunes’s Smart Playlists. Default Smart Bookmarks include your top 10 most visited sites, recently bookmarked sites, and recent tags, but you can customize them to your particular tastes. Your top sites reset every time you clear your browsing history, which can be good or bad—nobody, least of all you yourself, should know the extent of your Perez Hilton addiction.

AwesomeBar

The new location bar is dubbed the AwesomeBar by users and developers alike. After mucking around with it for a while, we can confirm that it is, indeed, awesome. Your location bar is now a high-powered search bar—just start typing to see it in action! In Firefox 2, the location bar drop-down shows only page URLs and titles. In Firefox 3, results include favicons, tags, and bookmarks (as well as full URLs and titles).

Search results are sorted by “frecency”—a hybrid of “frequency” and “recency”—based on how recently you’ve visited the sites, how often you’ve visited, whether the sites are bookmarked and tagged, etc. You can even use multiword searches: Typing “vigilante penny comic,” for example, brought up a specific Penny Arcade comic we visited yesterday—based on the page title, the URL, and our bookmark tag for the site. For more on the “frecency” algorithm and how you can make it work for you, check out our power-user tips on the next pages.

Mozilla Puts an End to Memory Leaks

Previous versions of Firefox have drawn criticism for inefficient memory use—the longer Firefox was open, the more memory it used, reaching into the hundreds of megabytes. This was due to a number of factors: the increasingly large memory demands of JavaScript-rich pages like Google Apps and other AJAX sites; the automatic caching of forward- and back-navigated pages, images, and fonts; memory fragmentation; and straight-up memory leaks (caused when Firefox or its extensions would fail to release memory that was no longer being used).

With Firefox 3, Mozilla introduces a memory cycle collector that monitors and cleans up memory that’s tied up in self-referential processes, or cycles. Cached forward- and back-navigated pages now expire after 30 minutes, so if you’re the kind of person who visits lots of sites in the same tab, you’ll no longer be keeping dozens of pages stored in memory.

Compressed images are no longer stored uncompressed in memory for pages you’re not actively viewing, and animated GIFs are stored in a much more efficient format. Hundreds of memory leaks have also been plugged.

In our hands-on testing, we found that AJAX-dominated pages loaded much faster, and Firefox 3 Beta 5 drew about half the memory after prolonged use than Firefox 2 did in similar circumstances. We ran the same 15 tabs (with multiple pages in the history of each tab), including Gmail and Outlook webmail, for two hours in both browsers, and found that while Firefox 2 was using about 240MB of RAM, Firefox 3 had cut that down to 163MB. We still noticed some slowdown and heavy CPU usage when coming back to a long-inactive session that included multiple instances of Gmail and other complex pages, though.

For the most part, Firefox 3 Beta 5 is zippier and less leaky than prior iterations, and we expect to see even more improvements in the final version.

Breaking in the New Browser

You’re not a power user if you’re using Firefox 3 as-is. Here are some tweaks to get you started

Make it Mini

Don’t like the new “keyhole” arrows? Want to make Firefox even less obtrusive? Install the Classic Compact theme ( http://tinyurl.com/2eon5x ) and its companion, the Classic Compact Options Add-on ( http://tinyurl.com/49wz9g ). As the name suggests, Classic Compact trims the size of menus, buttons, and tabs, so you can concentrate on the pages you’re looking at—useful for smaller monitors like those on today’s ultraportable notebooks.

Maximize your screen real estate with the classic Compact theme/Add-on combo.

The Options Add-on lets you customize the Classic Compact theme, so you can create your own mix-and-match theme that’s as compact as you want it to be. Keep the keyhole, but shrink the tabs? Sure! You can even compress your menu bar into just one drop-down button.

Bookmark Smarter

Get creative with your tags. If you’re a baseball junkie, mark all your go-to sites (for us, that’s Deadspin, Viva el Birdos, Buster Olney, and Baseball Musings) with the same tag—say, something clever like “baseball.” Then open your Bookmark Library (Ctrl+Shift+B in Windows). Find “baseball” in your Tags folder, and drag it to your bookmarks toolbar. You’ve just created a Smart Bookmark. Now click “Open all in tabs” and enjoy your sports fix!

Early beta builds of Firefox 3 shipped with six default Smart Bookmarks, but they’ve been whittled down to three in Beta 5 and just one in the final release version. To restore the old Smart Bookmarks, go to about:config and search for browser.places.smartBookmarksVersion . Set it to 0 and restart Firefox. Presto! More Smart Bookmarks.

It’s possible to make even more nuanced Smart Bookmarks that take into account specific parameters of your choosing, such as sites visited that include the word “linux,” but you’ve got your work cut out for you. As of Beta 5, you’ll have to resort to manually creating more complicated bookmarks. You’ll need to go to Add Bookmarks, create a name, and then create a query string in the location bar (for example, the string for the “Most Visited” Smart Bookmark is
place:queryType=0&sort=8&maxResults=10 ). Hopefully, Mozilla or a third-party developer will create an easy Smart Bookmarks extension now that Firefox 3 has been officially released, but until then you’ll have to rely on sites like MozillaZine ( http://tinyurl.com/6dluoq ) for help.

Make the AwesomeBar More Awesome

First, the scoop on the AwesomeBar algorithm: The “frecency” algorithm weighs results based on a combination of frequency and recency, as mentioned before. But how exactly are they weighted? In short: Typed URLs are valued the highest, followed by bookmarks, then links you’ve manually clicked. After this, results are weighted by the “frecency” of your site visits. A site you’ve visited 10 times this week is weighted higher than a site you visited 10 times last week, for example. So the more often and the more recently you’ve been there, the higher “frecency” it has and the higher it’s rated.
We think the Awesome Bar rocks as-is. But if you want to tweak it more to your liking, we’ve got you covered.

  • Change the maximum number of results the AwesomeBar returns: Go to the almighty about:config page. Use the box at the top to navigate to browser.url.maxRichResults . The default is 12; we prefer 6, so we don’t have to scroll within the drop-down menu.
  • Only return results for URLs you’ve actually typed: Go to about:config again and search for browser.urlbar.matchOnlyTyped . Set it to “ true ” to limit results to those you’ve actually typed—find the pages you want without sifting through cruft.

If you just don’t like the AwesomeBar, we have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Mozilla scrapped the old location bar code. The good news is that there’s an Add-on (of course) called Oldbar that emulates FF2’s location bar. Find it at http://tinyurl.com/2ba79x .

Force Old Extensions

Tired of waiting for someone to update your favorite extension for Firefox 3? Good news: Many older extensions work fine in Firefox 3. You just have to disable the compatibility check. Point your browser to about:config, then create a new entry. Call it extensions.checkCompatibility and set its value to “ false .” Then restart Firefox. Presto! Your old extensions are back! Proceed with caution, though—some extensions (mainly bookmark extensions like Foxmarks, extensions related to the Firefox 2 location bar, and tab-related extensions like ChromaTabs) genuinely aren’t compatible due to changes in Firefox 3, so if you find Firefox is acting wonky, change this value back to “true” and hope your favorite extension developer gets up to speed.

What's Your Firefox Persona?

Want to add a little flavor to your Firefox toolbars without messing around with themes? Try Personas ( http://
tinyurl.com/4dwpc2
). This easy-to-use Add-On from Mozilla Labs lets you add custom graphics to your Firefox header and footer—just click the little fox-head logo in the lower left-hand corner and pick one of the available themes. If none of them catches your eye, make your own! Create a 3000x200 image for the header and a 3000x100 one for the footer, then point to them using the Preferences menu!

Three Must-Have Extensions

Add-ons, also known as Extensions, are what set Firefox apart from the crowd—be it the stuffy inflexibility of IE or the all-inclusive weight of Opera. You may not need built-in RSS, BitTorrent, or mail clients, or you might merely want the opportunity to pick the best available extras to construct your ideal browser a la carte. There are thousands of Add-ons for Firefox to suit every personality and preference. But there are three we think everyone can benefit from.


Shareaholic makes sharing links with your friends and social networks easy.

FireGestures : Once you’ve used mouse gestures to navigate, you’ll wonder what you ever did without them. There are many mouse gesture extensions out there, but we like this one the best, and it’s already Firefox 3 compatible.

Shareaholic : Share links on Digg, Reddit, del.icio.us, Facebook, and many other sites from a single drop-down button.

Foxmarks : Automatically sync your bookmarks between multiple computers. Supports Firefox 3, as well as profiles (currently in beta)—keep your work bookmarks and home bookmarks separate, but access them from anywhere.

Zoom In, Zoom Out


In Firefox 3, the whole page resizes, not just text—buy-bye, layout snafus!

Firefox 3 finally introduces full-page zoom. Previous versions of Firefox resized only text, breaking layouts, tables, and hearts. No longer. Press Ctrl- to zoom out, Ctrl+ to zoom in, or just hold Ctrl and zoom in and out with your mouse wheel. Firefox 3 even remembers your zoom preferences for each website—set it once and forget about it! Or if you’re old fashioned, disable full-page zoom by going to View > Zoom > Zoom Text Only.

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