updated 12:05 pm EDT, Mon June 23, 2008
First Look: Firefox 3
For years, Internet Explorer defined the standard for web browsers. After years of neglect and security flaws however, the browser grew less popular, prompting the release of a number of rivals. Perhaps the most successful competition has been the open source Firefox browser, which emphasizes security foremost. Now with version 3, the browser also boasts faster speed along with a host of other improvements.
The most obvious of these is its new native user interfaces. In the past, Firefox looked identical whether running on Linux, Mac OS X or Windows. Although this made Firefox easier to use across multiple operating systems, it also made the browser look clunky and ugly on all platforms. With its native interface options, the browser can finally blend its appearance into whatever OS it's running on, without losing its standard controls.
Another handy interface feature is that the Back button is slightly larger than the Forward button. Though the asymmetry may be a little disconcerting, since more people use the Back button than the Forward button, it does makes the program more intuitive.
The Address Bar features an icon that lets you view the details of the currently displayed page, such as how many times you've visited it, whether the page is storing a cookie, and if you're viewing it using encryption. This information can be handy when you're typing in your credit card number, particularly since it helps identify scam sites tricking you into sharing valuable information.
If you type directly into the Address Bar, the program displays a drop-down list of previously-visited sites that match the text you've entered. So if you type in the letters "wi," you might see a list showing that you've once visited Wired magazine, a story about wine, or an article about Windows. This feature can be great for tracing your steps without wading through a History file. To view a complete list of your last-visited sites, you just click on the downward-pointing arrow on the far right of the bar.
The Address Bar displays a list of previously-visited sites based on the characters you type
The bar also includes a special one-click bookmark icon. Instead of bookmarking a page through pull-down menus, you can now click on this button and save a page right away, though it stores entries in a special unsorted folder. Later, you can move bookmarks into the toolbar or a pull-down menu to make them easier to locate.
Another highlight of the browser is a built-in password manager. Rather than torture yourself by memorizing multiple passwords, you can opt to have them kept within Firefox. The next time you visit a site, then, the browser will insert your passwords automatically.
Since many pages cram text onto a screen, you can zoom in or out. To prevent graphics from enlarging at the same time and crowding out a display, you have the option of enlarging both text and graphics or text alone.
System crashes are a fact of life regardless of what OS you're using. To reduce frustration, the browser has long offered an option to retrieve the last pages you were viewing before a crash. Now, though, if you were downloading a file, the download manager lets you resume transfers, so you don't have to download a file from the beginning.
If you're already a Firefox user, then the upgrade to version 3 will likely be worth it. If you're already using another browser like Safari 3.1, download and test Firefox 3 to see how it compares to your favorite. The latest version may not be the fastest choice available, but it could offer enough compelling features to convince you that your new favorite should be different.