The long-awaited Firefox 3 reached its second beta release in December, and finally became widely available. On the surface little seems different in the new version. The browser look and feel is identical, still fast and with that pedestrian clean interface we like. Drill into the familiar functionality, however, and you find some very welcome changes.
Better Zooming and Smarter Address Bar
Firefox 3 adds some everyday niceties that make browsing and managing your bookmarks that much easier. Our favorite is the Zoom command (Ctrl and +/-), which now enlarges and reduces the entire page, including images, not just text. The biggest change is in the address bar, where typing in a URL now brings up a detailed drop-down review of your browsing history, including icons and descriptions of commonly visited sites. Better than just a raw URL, this approach lets you identify areas deeper within a previously visited site, so you can navigate to them directly.
Tagging in Firefox 3
On the toolbar you also get a Places feature, which includes a drop-down of Smart Bookmarks that keeps links to your most visited and recently bookmarked sites, as well as your recent tags. Tags, you say? Yes, Firefox now lets you tag new bookmarks for easier indexing. The wholly new Places Organizer window lets you sort through all your History and Bookmarks (by last access date, tags, visit frequency, and so on). For those with massive bookmark libraries, this is a wonderful improvement, especially when you are trying to search through your own browsing history. Other nice touches include a more-informative Downloads Manager window that gives you the URL source of the file, and a search box for finding old downloads.
Security has also been improved. The Page Info command now displays your surfing history for a site, whether it stores cookies, what passwords you have stored for it, and direct links. We never succeeded in triggering a warning in this beta version, but its new features are designed to detect sites that are known to pass spyware, malware, and adware to users, and alert surfers when they hit them.
Some Beta Drawbacks
Adventurous users will be happy to hear that this beta release is quite stable, even on our Vista test bed. In side-by-side comparisons we saw no performance difference in loading or navigating between Firefox Version 2 and 3, but of course the designers still have time to tweak. What you will lose is access to some treasured add-ons, including the Google toolbar, Foxmarks bookmark synchronizer, and many other plug-ins that are incompatible with the Version 3 beta for now.
Firefox 3 Verdict
We still would like to have our bookmark tree telescope more efficiently because it still doesn't automatically close one folder when you open a second. And we also prefer how Internet Explorer 7 integrates a more robust RSS reader with the History and Bookmark pane; Firefox's Live Bookmarks just drops down headlines. Those reliant on plug-ins will need to wait before trying Version 3, but otherwise this browser just keeps getting better with age.