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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.

Firefox 3 is out in beta and better than ever, with usability enhancements that make the browser simpler and easier to work with.

The new version of Firefox fixes 300 memory leaks, and is based on the Gecko 1.8 Web rendering engine, designed to enhance performance and stability.

The Firefox 3 interface isn't too different, at first, from the current version. Differences emerge as you dig down.
(click for image gallery)

While new security features designed to protect against viruses, phishing, and other threats, are getting most of the attention, I'm skeptical that these features will actually do much to secure the Web. The most interesting changes to Firefox 3 are the numerous, small modifications -- and one big one -- that'll make Web browsing quicker and easier.

I tested the browser on three systems, with mixed results. Unfortunately, Firefox 3 Beta 1 is unusable on one of my test machines, a five-year-old Compaq laptop running the latest Windows XP. It ran like a pig, even though Firefox 2 works great.

But Firefox 3 runs great on my workhorse machine, an iMac running Leopard. I've been using it as my main browser for most of a day -- even though says it should only be used for development and testing. Firefox 3 Beta 1 also ran great on Windows XP on Parallels on the same iMac.

My mixed experience matches other reports. Some people trying out the software find it rock-solid stable, others find it horrendously unstable.

If you're eager to upgrade, make a copy of your profile, so that your bookmarks and settings are safe in case of disaster. Heck, back up your entire hard disk -- you should be doing that regularly anyway.

There Are Places I Remember

The big change in Firefox is a new tool that will make it easier to find pages you've been before. Firefox Places combines the bookmarks and history into a single package.

Firefox Places uses an SQLite database to store its data. Because it's a database, rather than a flat file, the next months will bring us a wealth of extensions that'll allow users to manage their bookmarks and browser history in all sorts of interesting and ways.

For now, Firefox 3 provides a views of bookmarks and history that are fresh and useful.

You can assign text tags to individual bookmarks, in addition to -- or instead of -- assigning them to a bookmark folder.

When you type text into the Firefox address bar, it automatically searches through your bookmarks and history based on keywords, tags, and text in the URL.

In addition to tags, bookmarks also support keywords, which is an old Firefox feature dating back to Version 1. I expect tags and bookmarks will be confusing the some users, since they sound somewhat similar. However, they're different: Tags are words you attach to a bookmark to aid in indexing it and finding it later. Keywords are nicknames you use to launch a bookmark.

Firefox also lets you "star" pages, which saves bookmarks to Places with one click. Starring a page silently adds it to your bookmarks -- the only feedback you get is that the star goes from white to pale yellow.

Click the star again and a small dialogue box pops up allowing you to edit the title and assign a folder, and tags.

I'm still poking around in Places, figuring out how it works.

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