June 19, 2008

Review: The Newest Firefox Browser Delivers

By Edward C. Baig

Even if you're an active Web surfer you probably don't pay much attention to the browser you are using. By default, you likely employ Microsoft's Internet Explorer on a Windows machine, if only because Internet Explorer sits right there on your desktop. The Apple crowd typically sticks with Safari.

Still, many of us in recent years have been drawn to a feature-rich browser called Firefox from the non-profit Mozilla organization. This week Mozilla released a speedy and more secure new version called Firefox3.

I've generally had a very good experience testing Firefox 3 on Windows PCs and Macs. (It also works on Linux.) It's snappier than Internet Explorer and uses less memory. I had no trouble migrating from Firefox2. And Mozilla claims Firefox3 has more than 15,000 improvements, though I'll have to take their word for it because most of the action is under the hood.

Why go to the trouble of switching browsers? Through the years, Microsoft has been slow to innovate. Guess that comes with owning a monopoly share. It was late to the party with such features as tabbed browsing, which lets you keep multiple browser windows open at the same time. (The feature is there now.)

And for a while anyway, Internet Explorer seemed to have more gaping holes than Swiss cheese, though to be fair it's gotten a lot more secure in recent iterations. Still, the door was left wide open for more nimble rivals, including Apple's Safari (which now also works on Windows), Norway's Opera and, of course, Firefox.

I've long appreciated the "restore previous session" feature in Firefox, which opens the tabs and windows from your previous session should the browser unexpectedly crash -- neither Internet Explorer nor Safari has that feature. A Firefox pop-up blocker arrived early on. A built-in spell-checker is another core feature.

As "open source" software -- meaning the code is open to all programmers -- Firefox is also extremely customizable. Some 5,000 add-on programs have been made available, though not all of them are ready for version3. I was unable to load Google Send to Phone for Firefox because as a pop-up window warned, "It does not provide secure updates." Mozilla said about 75% of the most-used add-ons were compatible with Firefox3 in the days leading up to the launch; most of your favorites should catch up quickly.

Firefox3 is less of a hog on system resources than its predecessor or Internet Explorer. I opened a dozen popular sites in Firefox on a Vista machine and opened the same ones with Microsoft's browser. Firefox used a lot less memory.

Let's take a closer look at the latest version of the Mozilla browser.

*Easy navigation. Arguably the most useful new feature is the "Smart Location Bar," aka, the "Awesome Bar." Start typing and Firefox serves up a drop-down list of possible cyberdestinations based on sites you've already visited, bookmarked or tagged. It learns as you go. The words you type appear in bold, making it a cinch to find an appropriate match if there is one. Typing "Ru" brought up listings of sites I visited after Tim Russert died.

Firefox makes intelligent (and usually correct) guesses when you enter text. You won't always have to type in a complete Web address. When I typed "Mets" and pressed enter, I was transported to the official site of my favorite ball club. When I typed "onion," I was taken to the Onion humor site. On Internet Explorer, typing "Mets" and "onion" took me to search pages instead.

Bookmarking is also a breeze. A star icon appears to the right of the Web address in the location bar. Click the star once to save the location as a bookmark. Or double-click the star to tag and save the site to a particular location.

And you can click on a new Most Visited folder to check out the sites you hang out at most often, one of the available "smart bookmark folders."

*Security. You were warned in Firefox2, and for that matter Internet Explorer, when coming upon a "phishing" site. These bogus sites try ripping you off by masquerading as real financial (or other) institutions. With Firefox3, Mozilla broadens the alarm to include sites that attempt to attack your machine with viruses, spyware or other "malware." A pop-up appears with a "get me out of here" button; you can also click for an explanation of why the site is blocked.

Clicking on a tiny icon to the left of the location bar lets you determine if a site you are visiting is legit.

Mozilla's rivals aren't standing still. Opera just released its own new version with features that keep bookmarks and notes synchronized between the desktop browser and one on your cellphone. Microsoft is readying a new version of Internet Explorer, and the bet is Apple is doing the same with Safari. And the Flock "social browser" (which is built on top of Firefox technology) is in trials with a new test version of its own. The way it's going, you may even start paying more attention to the browser that you are using. <>