Review: Firefox 3.1 Beta 1 -- The Best Is Yet To Come

Despite a potentially powerful new geolocation feature, users won't see much difference between Firefox 3.0 and 3.1 -- at least, not yet.



Has it already been four months since Firefox 3.0 shipped? Seems like only yesterday. It included exciting enhancements to make browsing the Internet faster and more convenient, including redesigns to the address bar, bookmarks and history, and zooming Web pages.




Its new location-awareness technology lets FireFox 3.1 know where you are.
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Now, Firefox 3.1 beta 1 is out, with a new geolocation service, a new, faster, JavaScript engine, enhancements to the tab-switching, and further refinements to the address bar. It's anticlimactic after the big Firefox 3.0 release -- but then again, it's only the first beta, and it's only a dot-release.

Potentially the most transformative new feature in Firefox 3.1 is the new geolocation service.

Geolocation is a JavaScript API that allows your browser to tell a Web page where you are. Right now, you have to manually enter your location into Firefox, but soon the browser developers plan to build in support for the Skyhook service, which triangulates your location based on detecting known nearby wireless points; and on-board GPS built into laptops.

To test Geolocation with Firefox 3.1 beta 1, you need to download and install the Geolocation Firefox add-on, and then use it to enter your location manually. Then go to FoodFinder, a Google Maps mash-up for demoing geolocation. The browser will ask for your permission to give out your location. You can choose whether to give your pinpoint location, or just your general neighborhood in a one-mile radius. Click the permission button, and FoodFinder will show you nearby restaurants.

Even in its current, limited form, I can see Geolocation being useful. If your computer is always in the same location, in your den at home or on your desk in the office, you can enter that location once into Firefox, and then save yourself the trouble of re-typing your address into every mapping application and store-finder on the Internet.

Geolocation will be even more useful with a notebook or handheld device running the new mobile version of Firefox, once integration into Skyhook and GPS is complete.

Another potentially dramatic improvement for Firefox 3.1 is the new TraceMonkey engine for speeding up JavaScript performance. JavaScript is the "J" in AJAX, it's the basis for Web applications including Gmail and Google Maps. Speeding up JavaScript performance will speed up the most useful pages on the Web.




TraceMonkey code is designed to speed up JavaScript performance in Firefox 3.1.
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TraceMonkey is disabled by default in the current beta, but you can enable it by going to the URL about:config and setting javascript.options.jit.content to true.

We tried it out on a test machine running Windows XP, and compared Firefox 3.1 Beta 1 performance with other browsers using the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark. We found that Firefox 3 Beta 1 with TraceMonkey switched on was significant faster than the nearest competitor, completing the benchmark in 1878.2 msec.

Second-fastest was the Chrome browser, finishing in 2697.2 msec.

Following Chrome was Firefox 3 Beta 1 with TraceMonkey switched off (2351.4 msec), then Firefox 3.03 (3495.0 msec), and Opera 9.6 (5731.6 msec).

Bringing up the rear, long after the other horses were in the stable, was Internet Explorer 7, which clocked in at 52,137.6 msec -- almost nine times slower than Opera 9.6!

The most visible feature of the new Firefox is the new way that it handles switching between tabs. When you rotate between open tabs by hitting Ctrl-Tab (on Windows or the Mac), you get a preview bar, similar to the one you see when you Alt-Tab in Windows, or Cmd-Tab on the Mac. The preview bar shows you thumbnails of your open tabs. It's a very useful feature. Tabs have a tendency to proliferate out of control, and the new preview bar is a good way to keep track of them.

You don't have to wait for Firefox 3.1 to get the benefits of the tab preview bar; the Ctrl-Tab extension to Firefox does the same thing.

Also in Firefox 31 beta 1: You can now drag tabs to your desktop to create a new window, and drag tabs between windows.

Firefox 3.1 Beta 1 refines the Smart Location Bar, nicknamed the "AwesomeBar." The AwesomeBar, introduced in Firefox 3.0, allows you to type text into the address bar and see a dropdown list of pages in your bookmarks and history that contain the text you were typing in the title, URL, or keywords and tags. The AwesomeBar like your own personalized Google.




In Firefox 3.1, special characters can be used to modify searches in the Awesome Bar.
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In Firefox 3.1 Beta 1, you can control the search with special characters. Start a search with ^, and it searches only your history; start with * to search only the bookmarks, start with + to limit the search to tagged pages, @ to search only URLs, and # to search only in page titles and the tags you can assign to a page when bookmarking it.

Other new features in Firefox 3.1 include support for video and audio HTML elements, with support for the OGG Theora and OGG Vorbis format on all platforms. The developers want to make it as easy to embed video in a Web page as it is to embed an image. And the release also includes support for other Web standards.

You can read in greater detail about what's in Firefox 3.1 Beta 1 on the Firefox 3.1 Beta 1 developer notes.

One major feature yet to come in later betas: "private browsing," nicknamed "porn mode." When private browsing is switched on, Firefox will forget the sites you visit and cookies you download. Beta 2 is due out in mid-November. But if you have a great privacy need, you can get porn mode on Firefox now with the Stealther extension.

In the past, I've made a habit of upgrading to the new version of Firefox as soon as the first beta came out, and using that beta as my production browser immediately. Firefox betas tend to be more stable than many other people's production software.

But this time, I think I'll wait. The new features don't change the browser experience much (at least not yet -- the geolocation feature has great potential but it's still immature). And switching to the beta would mean I'd have to give up a few Firefox extensions I've come to rely on -- in particular, Foxmarks, Tab Mix Plus, and Delicious Bookmarks. They're currently incompatible with the Firefox beta, although we can certainly expect that to change over the next couple of months.

So I won't be upgrading to Firefox 3.1 today. I'll wait. However, Mozilla is off to a good start with Firefox 3.1 Beta 1, and I'm looking forward to seeing where they take it.

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