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8/29/2012
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Firefox 15: Better Graphics, Painless Updates

Mozilla's revamped browser utilizes new Web standards for better gaming, improved memory management and developer support, and best of all, less disruptive updates.

If you've ever frantically fired up Firefox to send an eleventh-hour email, you're no doubt familiar with the frustration of its update process. Good news: Firefox 15 alleviates the hassle by moving the update process to the background.

Here are five of the most noteworthy additions to Firefox 15:

1. Invisible Updates. Current Firefox users will be safe from intrusive upgrades as soon as they install the newest version. The improved updater runs behind the scenes, downloading and installing improvements and seamlessly implementing the changes when the browser is next launched. New users can download the browser from the Firefox download page and need never know that ostentatious upgrades were ever part of the package.

2. Sophisticated Graphics and Gaming. Firefox 15 takes advantage of new standards that allow Web applications to display 3D graphics and complicated textures. These standards help developers craft multimedia experiences of all sorts, but browser-based gaming is likely to be a standout. Mozilla has released two games as demos: BrowserQuest and BananaBread.

Firefox 15's graphical enhancements mesh well with support for new full-screen APIs that make it possible for individual HTML5 elements to use an entire display. Present in Firefox since version 10, these APIs are just starting to show their true potential. Useful for games and videos, the full-screen interface is triggered only by a user action, mitigating the potential for abuse from pop-ups and other pests, according to ArsTechnica.

[ Read about how Google is using a JavaScript benchmark test to measure browser speed. See Google Adds Octane To Measure Browser Speed. ]

3. Opus Integration. Firefox 15 also offers support for Opus, a relatively new open-source audio codec. Benefits, according to the Mozilla Hacks blog, include superior compression relative to MP3, Ogg, or ACC formats; quality well-suited to both music and speech; dynamically adjustable bitrates; and support for both pre-recorded and live, interactive applications.

4. Improved Memory Use. Mozilla has made concerted efforts to reduce Firefox's memory footprint, even forming a dedicated "MemShrink" team. A Mozilla news release explains that improvements go "beyond optimizations of Firefox code itself, and have now plugged the main cause of memory leaks in Firefox add-ons."

A Mozilla blog post from July notes that more than 85 percent of Firefox users use at least one add-on, and more than 3 billion add-on downloads have been transacted. Firefox 15's fix for the memory leak problem, which is described in detail in Mozilla developer Nicholas Nethercote's blog posting, has resulted in meaningfully fewer crashes, according to CNET.

5. More Robust Developer Tools. Finally, Firefox 15 offers enhancements for not only average users but developers as well. Chief among these is a JavaScript Debugger. According to a Mozilla Hacks post, the tool features several UI enhancements for quickly isolating code snippets. Interface improvements also include a "Responsive Design View" that allows users to resize projects without impacting other windows. This helps address inefficiencies such as pulling out a smart phone or tablet to test how a mobile-intended application is running.

Productivity is further boosted because the utility itself runs faster than many similar tools; Mozilla claims JavaScript apps running with the Debugger open will operate nearly as fast as they would with the resource disabled. For added flexibility, the JavaScript Debugger also includes remote access.

Firefox 15 is available in both a standard, Web-based flavor and a new, slightly stripped-down mobile version that works on both Android-based phones and tablets. Full release details for both versions are available at Mozilla's website.

Writing apps is expensive and complex. Cross-platform tools can help, but they're far from perfect. Also in the new, all-digital Develop Once, Run Everywhere? issue of InformationWeek: Why the cloud will become a more accepted development environment. (Free with registration.)

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