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Review: Firefox 3 Beta 1 -- Packed With New Features And Rock Solid

Firefox 3 Beta 1 sports usability enhancements that make it a big step forward over previous versions. It's proven stable enough to use as a production browser -- on some machines. On other machines, it's a pig.

The browser significantly improves the way page-magnification works. Firefox 3 zooms in and out on the whole page, not just the text, as was the case in previous versions of the browser. This is the way Opera has been handling page magnification for many years, and it's nice to see Firefox catch up.

If you change the zoom on a page, Firefox remembers the setting between sessions, and uses the same zoom setting the next time you come back -- not just on that page, but site-wide.

Before exiting, Firefox 3 prompts the user whether to save open tabs.
(click for image gallery)

If you close the browser while multiple tabs are open, Firefox asks you whether you want to save the tabs, which will re-open next time you open the browser; or just close the browser, in which case next time you start the browser, you'll start with a fresh session.

On the down side, none of my extensions work in Firefox 3. That's not surprising; the first beta of a new version of Firefox usually breaks extensions, and developers revise them to be compatible in the coming months.

I've been using Firefox 3 as my production browser for most of a day, with only one crash. After the crash, Firefox came back flawlessly and restored my previous session. That's more stability than I expected from Beta 1 software.

I've used the new Firefox to access Google Reader, Gmail, InformationWeek, a couple of our competitors, and, oh yes, I Can Has Cheezburger and the Internet Movie Database. I've clicked on links from Google Reader to a dozen or so blogs and Web periodicals. They all render flawlessly on Firefox 3.

Firefox Security

Some of the most high-profile features of Firefox 3 are security enhancements. It includes built-in warnings for forged pages, phishing pages, integration with anti-virus software, and warnings when going to a page where the SSL certificate is found to be invalid.

You can click on the favicon for a page and see an information box on who owns the page.

Firefox also integrates with Vista Parental Controls.

While anti-virus integration is great, I'm skeptical whether the rest of the security updates will prove useful. Some perfectly legitimate sites and pages have mis-matched SSL certificates, so those warnings will prove unhelpful. Warnings against fishing and malware distribution will prove to be only as good as the database they're based on, and those sites move around fast.

As for clicking the favicon to find the owner: I tried that out on both InformationWeek and Google, and found no owner listed.

Ultimately, the only protection against phishing, forged Web pages, downloading malware, and other threats is the technology located between the user's ears. Smart users already know how to protect themselves against these threats: Don't download and install software from unknown sites, and don't give away confidential information on any site you reached by clicking a link you received in e-mail. Dumb users won't heed any amount of warnings and safeguards.

But the database supporting many of the security features isn't yet available. When it is, we'll see how powerful they are.

Until then, Firefox 3 Beta 1 is definitely worth a try. New features significantly enhance usability. The beta is very stable on some machines, and highly unstable on others. Make your backups and give it a spin.

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