Firefox is back with a vengeance. The upstart Web browser that’s given Microsoft’s Internet Explorer a run for its money returns with a number of exciting and useful features that further expand its functionality. Firefox 3 makes managing bookmarks, navigating Web pages, and surfing securely easier. In short, it’s the best browser on the block.
New Look, Easy Customization
Upon downloading and installing Firefox 3, the first thing you’ll notice is that the browser matches the color scheme of your operating system: The Windows version blends in well with Vista’s Aero interface; the Linux version features a light-brown color scheme reminiscent of Ubuntu; and the Mac version reflects OS X’ familiar gray-silver combo. Mozilla has revamped the Forward and Back arrow buttons, which are larger and more stylish. Overall, the new browser’s default appearance is more attractive than the drab-looking ones look of past iterations.
Firefox 3 now makes finding and installing add-ons infinitely simple. By clicking Tools > Add-ons, we were able to dive into the Add-ons manager, which contained star-rated, recommended tools (with descriptions and photos) that we installed with a few clicks. If you’re looking for an add-on that isn’t recommended, a handy search box will dig up what you want.
Smooth Bookmark Management
With Firefox 3, managing bookmarks is smoother than ever. Clicking the star in the address bar bookmarked our favorite sites instantly. Clicking it a second time let us edit the bookmark name, save it to a particular folder (the default Bookmarks drop-down menu or the Bookmarks Toolbar, which displays your favorites in a horizontal strip), and tag sites with keywords.
Tags are an important element of the incredibly handy Smart Bookmarks feature, which groups together similarly identified bookmarks. When we clicked on the Sports tag we created, Smart Bookmarks displayed links to ESPN.com and MLB.com, as well as an “Open All in Tabs” option that launches all bookmarks in that tag with one click. You can also see your most recently bookmarked pages, as well as your most frequently visited bookmarks.
We also liked Firefox 3’s full-page zooming (activated by pressing the zoom-in/zoom-out options under View, or using the keyboard shortcut Ctrl and +/- keys) that let us take a closer gander at on-screen content. As with previous versions of Firefox, the upper right corner of the browser has an integrated search engine that combs Google, Yahoo, Amazon, eBay, or Wikipedia; you can even add or delete other engines.
Revamped Address Bar
Firefox 3’s Awesome Bar (the hyperbole-laced name for the new address bar) includes two evolutionary, but not revolutionary, features. When you key in an URL, the autocomplete list now displays complete page titles and logos over addresses, which makes them far easier to read. (In earlier versions of Firefox, page titles were to the right of the URL, which sometimes were cut off if the name was too lengthy). Autocomplete also returns bookmarked pages, which are identified with a star. These design changes combine to make finding previously visited URLs a snap.
The new download manager lets users pause and resume file downloads, so there’s no need for Firefox 3 to completely finish before you disconnect. On our tests, we started downloading OpenOffice 3, paused it, and restarted our PC. When we relaunched Firefox 3, the download manger automatically opened, and we resumed the download.
The Need For Speed
Overall, we were pleased with Firefox 3’s surfing speed. We pitted the browser against its main competitors, Internet Explorer 7 and Safari 3, to see how it fared loading three content-heavy Web pages: CNN.com, Foxnews.com, and Hulu.com. On our tests, Firefox 3 outpaced its rivals by loading CNN in just 4.6 seconds (IE 7 and Safari notched 5.2 and 5.7 seconds, respectively). The Mozilla browser placed last in loading Hulu, at a relatively poky 6.1 seconds (5.8 seconds for IE 7; 2.7 seconds for Safari 3), but finished in the middle of the pack with a 5.4-second load time when we visited Fox News (6.3 seconds with IE 7; 5.6 seconds with Safari 3). Firefox 3 loads Web pages faster than its predecessor: Firefox 2 loaded CNN in 4.8 seconds, Fox News in 6.9 seconds, and Hulu in 6.8 seconds.
Security and Stability
Mozilla hasn’t overlooked security in Firefox 3. The address bar now identifies a site’s legitimacy, which will help defend against phishing attacks. Visiting PayPal, for example, displays the company’s logo and name in a portion of the address bar (it will turn green if the visited site supports Extended Validation SSL), which when clicked, shows the site’s owner as well as the company’s physical location. This handy tool, which checks if the Web site is encrypted or storing your cookies, is hampered only by the fact that some sites don’t supply identification information, so you still have to be vigilant. Firefox 3 also honors Vista’s Parental Controls, so you don’t have to worry about children circumventing the barriers you’ve set up.
If you access a site containing malware, Firefox 3 will deliver a full-size browser message as a warning. The browser keeps an updated list of hazardous sites, so you have nothing to update or maintain. Firefox’s integrated pop-up blocker returns, which prevented ads from bombarding us.
New Password Manager
In previous iterations of Firefox, it was the norm for the browser to ask you to save a password when logging into a Web site, but in the latest version, Firefox 3 waits until after you log in to prompt you to save the password. This is a significant improvement because it will eliminates the chance of a user entering the wrong password and accidentally saving it to memory.
Firefox 3 Verdict
In our weeks of Web surfing with Firefox 3, we experienced only one crash, which bears the mark of a solid build. With stronger security, better bookmarking, and a cleaner look, the browser offers several major improvements over its predecessor, Internet Explorer 7, and Safari. We wish that Firefox 3 had an integrated “Merge Windows” option à la Safari, but with its new features and enhanced customization, Firefox remains the browser to beat.