Six Fresh New Features in Firefox 4

Amber Bouman

We’re not gonna lie – we’ve always liked Firefox. While it still may not be faster than a potato gun , it IS extremely flexible and customizable and until recently, it got the job done just fine. However, both Chrome and Opera have surpassed the beleagured browser in speed - and they're catching up on the features side - leaving Firefox on the defensive.

The most recent beta version of the browser has been heavily overhauled to match up with Windows 7’s aeroglass design, and features an updated UI designed to gain cred from the Chrome-faithful. We spent the morning poking around the new features and designs . Here are the five heavy-lifters of the bunch.

1)    NEW TABBED INTERFACE

The MOST noticeable change to Firefox’s interface is the new default to tabs on top position ( for Windows users – OS X and Linux users won’t find this as their default choice). Since this is Firefox, you can always change it back, but the switch has already prompted a slew of comments from users – most of whom are now calling out the browser for being a Chrome-clone. Firefox was obviously anticipating some grief over this as they’ve set up an entire video justifying the decision to default to tabs on top. Their claim is that tabs on top results in a visual group of all the controls that will affect the state of the active tab, consolidating controls into an efficient location.

Users can also search across tabs using the “awesome” bar, and switch to that tab. In fact, the entire UI has become heavily tab-based as many items that were formerly located in windows now appear in tabs (such as the Add-On Manager). There is also a new feature called App Tabs which Firefox describes as “small consistent tabs placed on the left side of the tab strip” useful for “applications you like to leave open” such as Pandora or Gmail. This is something that various extensions have been doing for users already, but it’s nice to have it natively incorporated. Notification boxes for things such as http authentication, geo location, and password manager are now panel based and will pop up below the URL box in the tab; making it easier to notice, dismiss, and undo commands and tasks.

2)    FIREFOX/MENU BUTTON

Currently only available for Windows Vista and 7, the traditional menu button is now an orange pill-shaped Firefox key containing all essential commands. They’re not quite as integrated as Chrome, but most options (print, share, customize) are available with a single click.  Speaking of single clicks, the stop and reload button have become one and the bookmarks toolbar is also now a single button. Mozilla says this feature is by no means finished (it’s missing some commands and visual style) so if you find yourself frustrated by this one, just hit the Alt key to return options to their usual locations.

3)    HTML5

Photo Courtesy of To-teria'S

Mozilla is obviously looking ahead on this one, providing not only native support for HD HTML5 Web M video format, but also support for more HTML5 control forms and a new HTML5 parser. The new HTML5 parser replaces the existing, and aging, Gecko parser and should make Firefox faster and more compliant with forthcoming web developments. On the developer side, the HTML5 parser means the browser is now able to use SVG and MathML inline in HTML5 pages.

4)    CSS

While CSS transitions are only partially supported, :visited selectors have been altered in order to block websites from checking a users browsing history. Firefox 4 also features four fixes for flaws (whew!) in certain web standards that could potentially expose a user’s browser history.

5)    ADD-ON MANAGER

This already seems to be the most popular addition - since customization is crucial to Firefox fans it makes sense to provide them with a simpler way to manage add-ons. The Add-On Manager now opens in a tab instead of a window and has been designed to make finding plug-ins practically effortless. Beta users can also grab an Add-On Compatibility Reporter to test their favorite add-ons for compatibility.

6)    HONORARY MENTIONS

CRASH PROTECTION -this has been available to Windows users in previous builds, but it’s now being extended to OS X and Linux users as well. Using Out of Process Plug In (aka OOPP), this feature protects the browser and operating system from plug-in crashes, so a crash will only affect the tabs it’s in - instead of the entire browser.

WEBGL – although its default position is off, this open standard software helps Firefox to display 3D content. Again, Mozilla is looking to the future with this one, as 3D increases its presence across the industry.

7)    DEVELOPER BONUS

LAZY FRAME CONSTRUCTION - helps to speed up the rendering of dynamic web pages.

WEBSOCKETS - a low-complexity, bidirectional API which enables web-based applications to access servers using arbitrary protocols.

JETPACK SDK - designed to help create add-ons that don’t require a re-start for installation.

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