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Firefox 4 — a major update

By: 7 May 2011 12 Comments

Mozilla Firefox 4 was released out of beta on March 22 and is a significant update from Firefox 3.6 as it is, apparently, the company’s attempt to stay ahead of the competition that’s nipping at its heels and gain ground on Internet Explorer.

There was a time, indeed, when Firefox was the new kid on the block and won praise first for its innovative use of tabs and then for encouraging the development of add-ons that allowed users to customize the browser to suit their needs. Firefox is still the second most popular browser on the market, but it was starting to look a bit dated when compared to the likes of Google Chrome (a speed demon aggressively marketed by a company that knows a thing or two about the Internet), Apple’s Safari (a clean and fast browser) and even Opera (a great browser still in search of a market).

The numbers speak for themselves. According to Ars Technica, the browser with the most market share in April was Microsoft Internet Explorer with 55.11 percent and Firefox came in second at 21.63 percent of the market. Chrome came in third with 11.94 percent of the market, Safari had 7.15 percent and Opera had 2.14 percent.

Of course, Internet Explorer’s continued dominance has a lot to do with the fact that its the default browser for computers running Microsoft Windows. To be fair, Safari’s market share is buoyed because it’s the standard for Mac OS and Firefox is standard with more than a few Linux distributions. That being the case, the folks at Mozilla have watched Chrome eat into its market share due in large part to its popularity among Windows users seeking an alternative to Internet Explorer. The alternative of choice used to be Firefox, but Chrome has grown considerably since it was released in 2008.

In an attempt to gain back some of that market share and address some complaints about speed and a cluttered interface, Mozilla developed Firefox 4, released it into beta last year and worked on it steadily before declaring it “stable” and marketing it in March.

So, how improved is Firefox 4? That’s a highly subjective question, of course, but the latest version of Firefox 4 is — in my opinion — a great browser that boasts a lot of improvements. The most obvious change is the much cleaner user interface. The trusty menu bar has been condensed into one, single button that both saves screen space and is very easy to use after the user gets used to it and how it works — the absence of the menu bar that’s been at the top of the screen for years requires a bit of retraining, but it’s laid out well and becomes very familiar in a hurry.

Another major change has to do with the tabs — they sit on top of the browser now rather than below the address bar. The new layout, like the single “Firefox” button that accesses menu functions, makes a lot of sense but does require the user to make an adjustment.

The crew at Mozilla, however, apparently knows that some people like the way their browsers looked in the past and want their old menu bar and tabs back where they were. Simply changing Firefox’s preferences will restore those items to their familiar positions, but users might want to give the new features a chance — they just might come to like them better with time.

Another change has to do with the fact the “reload,” “stop” and “go” buttons have been merged into one button that changes as the situation demands. While a lot of users probably haven’t used the “go” button for years (just typing in an address and hitting return is enough to launch a site), it does take a bit of time to get used to the “reload” and “stop” buttons being merged.

All in all, the changes to the interface make a lot of sense and result in a browser that is a lot less cluttered and, with time, may actually prove to navigate around in than past versions of Firefox. While it can be a bit disconcerting to see such changes in an interface that has become very familiar to a lot of us over the years, those changes may be for the better.

During the beta test of Firefox 4, users may have found a lot of the add-ons they’ve come to rely on over the years didn’t work. While some of those add-ons still don’t work, the crew at Mozilla has restored functionality to most of them. It is too their credit that the beta test of the new browser involved the folks at Mozilla collecting data on which add-ons worked and which ones did not. It appears Mozilla made good use of that data and had modified the browser and/or worked with developers to iron out a lot of compatibility issues.

That’s a good thing as the add-ons are very important to users as it is possible to substantially change the way the browser functions. Take, for example, the Chrome method of merging the address and search boxes into one field. Those are still separate in Firefox and, frankly, I’m glad of that as the ability to quickly make the browser search in Google, Wikipedia, eBay, Amazon, etc. is very appealing. And it is very true that there is some search functionality already built into the address bar. However, some people would like to see that search functionality merged with the address bar so as to further reduce clutter. There’s an add-on for that in Firefox called Omnibar that adds that functionality to the browser. Once a user gets the hang of searching for add-ons and using them, the appeal of Firefox becomes very evident.

Speaking of add-ons, searching for them results in a separate, dedicated tab opening for that purpose rather than the smallish window one had to navigate to find and install add-ons in the past. That’s a very welcome change, indeed.

And tab management has changed, too. Thanks to the Panorama system, a user can group tabs that are normally kept open or just plain belong together in an attempt to keep things organized and save the “tab clutter” that can result from keeping a lot of things open in the browser. Honestly, this function is still in its infancy — grouping tabs together is easy enough and recalling them later is a breeze, but it’s far too easy to accidentally close the group and delete it. It appears one of the benefits of Panorama is the ability to save like tabs and open the group later, but the ease of killing that group entirely with one click can defeat that purpose. Again, the Panorama feature is a new one that — knowing Mozilla — will evolve in the months to come. It may be very useful one day, but it’s flawed in its current form.

A great feature that’s not immediately obvious is the “sync” function that’s built into the browser. Let’s say, for example, you’ve opened a bunch of tabs at work and you’d like to pull them open at home. The sync function will allow for that — simply follow that somewhat involved instructions to set up sync and you can pull those tabs open on another computer or mobile device later. Bookmarks can be relayed through the sync feature, too.  That all works very well for desktop installations of Firefox and those Google Android users who have the mobile version of the browser installed. The sync feature is a bit more complex for us iPhone users, however — the Firefox Home application can be set up to pull up synced content directly or through Safari and that works well enough. However, using an application that’s loosely coordinated with Safari just feels clumsy.

While the sync function works very well, setting it up on various devices can be difficult. The first thing to do is set up an account and then Firefox will generate a sync key that must be used every time you want to set up another computer or device. If you lose it, well, that’s too bad. The alternative is to have the device you want to sync with you and type in a code generated by the application — that’s a simple enough matter when we’re talking about a mobile device that is close at hand, but not so easy when you’re dealing with another computer that’s located a few miles away. Here’s hoping Mozilla makes it easier to sync devices in the future.

As for speed, Mozilla has made some very noticeable improvements to the browser on that front. Apparently, a new JavaScript engine is largely responsible for that boost in speed. For whatever reason, Firefox 4 is quite a bit faster than previous versions of the browser but still lags a bit behind Chrome. Most people, honestly, won’t notice much difference between the two browsers, but I tested each with a script-heavy WordPress plugin — CyStats — and Chrome handled that a little quicker than Firefox. Still, the speed boosts Mozilla has built into Firefox are noticeable and appreciated.

Does that mean all is perfect with Firefox? Not at all. For one thing, the “memory leak” problem under Windows still exits. While I’ve not run across that problem in Ubuntu Linux, I’ve noticed that problem still exists under 32-bit versions of both Windows XP and Windows 7. What am I talking about here? Let’s say you’ve got a lot of tabs open and they are hogging up a lot of memory under Windows. In the past, one could shut down those tabs and notice that the expected didn’t happen — Firefox wouldn’t give that memory back even if the tabs were closed. That problem still exists under the new browser, meaning it’s still best to restart it from time to time after heavy use. That’s a shame.

Here’s something to keep in mind — some readers have left comments saying they’ve not had the “memory leak” problem. Perhaps, then, the problem has less to do with Firefox than it does with certain operating systems and add-ons that are used. In other words, your mileage may vary, so don’t let that alleged problem deter you from either upgrading or downloading this very solid browser. It is worth mentioning that the memory leak problem I’ve seen is not nearly as bad as it was under Firefox 3.6, but it’s worth mentioning that I’ve seen the browser hog up quite a bit of memory and not let go of it once “heavier” sites are closed.

Also, it’s still annoying to have to shut down and restart the browser after certain add-ons are installed. Speaking of restarting, it would be great if tabs ran in a sandbox (for want of a better term). Some sites are just poorly coded and can freeze up a browser. It would be great to isolate that site, kill the tab in which it is running and go about your business. Under Firefox 4, you still have to take down the entire browser and restart it in order to kill the site that’s frozen your browser. Such isolation is possible under other browsers, so why is it not implemented in Firefox 4?

Finally, users can choose the option to search privately under Firefox 4, but that’s not a very safe option at this time. Why? Firefox 4 can be set to request sites not to track it, but not all sites recognize the standard Firefox uses for that request. While that safeguard might be useful in the future as more sites honor the request, it doesn’t do just a whole lot to protect users now.

In the final analysis, Mozilla has made some major improvements to an already solid browser. If you’re a Mozilla user, you’ll want to upgrade. If you used to be a Firefox user who grabbed a new browser because of concerns of speed or stability, it’s worth your time to have another look at Firefox. While Firefox 4 isn’t perfect, it is much improved over previous versions of the browser and contains a few features that, once fully developed, should prove very useful. It remains to be seen whether Firefox will continue to close in on Internet Explorer and stay ahead of Chrome, but the new version of the browser will at least give Mozilla a fighting chance of achieving both goals.

Want Firefox 4? Get it here.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

12 Comments »

  • aardmaat said:

    strange you still have the memory leak :S
    on my machine it gives back virtually all the memory

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    aardmaat — Odd! Let me ask you, are you running Windows 7, Vista or XP? 32-bit or 64-bit? Maybe Mac OS or some distribution of Linux? Also, do you have a lot of add-ons installed or are you running without them?

    I can’t help but wonder — if you’re not having that problem, could it have something to do with the OS, extensions or what?

    There are a ton of variables at work here, so perhaps the “memory leak” problem has been fixed in some instances and not others.

  • Sharan said:

    I’m going to download FireFox 4 soon. :)

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Sharan — You’ll be glad you did. Very improved browser.

  • AG Wright said:

    I’ve used Firefox for so long I remember when it was called Mozilla and then Foxfire.
    I’ve got Opera on both of my computers but seldom use it. I got Safari with Itunes, hated it and then uninstalled it along with Itunes and Quicktime. In other words I’m Appleless now on my Windows machines.
    I haven’t used Linux on a desktop lately but have the parts for a new computer and a Ubuntu DVD for OS installation. Firefox will be my browser.
    I haven’t noticed the memory leak lately on either Windows 7 or XP and I leave it open for hours on the Windows 7 laptop.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    AG — I’ve used it for a few years, too, and have always come back to it after trying out Safari, Chrome and Opera. It remains my favorite browser and the new version of it is great.

    As for the memory leak issue, I’m now puzzled — why do I still have it? All I can figure is that I’ve got some hefty add-ons such as Firebug that I use often. Perhaps the add-ons — and not the browser — are to blame.

    Still, I do hope no one will be deterred from giving Firefox 4 a try. It’s a significant improvement over the previous version.

  • Michael Blaine Curran said:

    Will not work on windows 7 starter. Had to go back to 3.6.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Michael — that surprises me, considering Firefox 4 was in beta for a long time. Hopefully Mozilla will get that problem sorted out soon enough.

  • Dan said:

    Firefox 4.x has huge memory leak problems. It seems to be related to Javascript and in particular AJAX. I have a simple AJAX callback running on a timer that leaks 30kB on every call. Try streaming NPR.ORG audio, and your PC will lock up within 30 minutes.
    No such problem with FF 3.6.17. I had to switch back after trying 4.1 on Win32 XP and 7 OS’s.

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