If you buy a new Windows Vista PC, it comes with a decent built-in Web browser, Internet Explorer 7. If you buy a new Macintosh computer, it comes with a decent built-in Web browser, Safari 3.0. So why would you want or need a different Web browser?
That is the question that Mozilla, the nonprofit organization that makes the leading alternative browser, hopes to answer this month when it releases version 3.0 of its Firefox Web browser. In some tech-industry circles, Firefox already is preferred over Microsoft’s (MSFT) Internet Explorer and Apple’s (AAPL) Safari, but it still isn’t used by most people, and Mozilla is hoping to broaden its appeal.
The new version will be released simultaneously for Windows and the Mac’s OS X operating system, as well as for Linux. While each of the three editions will have the visual style of the operating system on which it runs, all three will have the same features.
I’ve been using prerelease versions of Firefox 3.0 for months, and have recently been testing a near-final version and comparing it closely to IE and to Safari. I have tested it on multiple Windows PCs and Macs, on desktops and laptops, over slow connections and fast ones. I have tried it with well over 100 Web sites.
My verdict is that Firefox 3.0 is the best Web browser out there right now, and that it tops the current versions of both IE and Safari in features, speed and security. It is easy to install and easy to use, even for a mainstream, non-technical user. It can be downloaded, free, at mozilla.com by clicking on “Firefox 3 Sneak Peek.”
This situation may change. Microsoft is working on a new version of IE, scheduled to be unveiled later this year, with some impressive new features. And Apple is always working on new iterations of Safari, though it is secretive and hasn’t disclosed its plans. But for now, in my view, Firefox 3.0 rules on both Windows and Mac.
I couldn’t find any significant downsides to Firefox 3.0. Every page I tried rendered properly and rapidly on both platforms. I ran into only one glitch, in a preference setting. That problem appeared on only one of my four test machines and was fixable with the help of Mozilla, albeit via a geeky method.
In the one or two cases where Firefox lacked a feature I thought important, such as the “auto fill” feature in Safari that can quickly fill out an online form, I was able to find an add-on that did the trick from Mozilla’s vast library of add-ons, which are written by people all over the world. (One caution: Some existing add-ons won’t work with the new version until their authors update them.)
When Firefox first came out, it was the fastest browser, but it lost that title over the years. However, in my tests, this new third version of Firefox regained the speed crown. It beat IE 7 handily on my test Windows computers and edged Safari slightly on my test Macs.
For example, using a new Dell (DELL) XPS One desktop, I opened identical folders containing the same 16 bookmarks on both IE 7 and Firefox 3.0. IE took 37 seconds to completely display the 16 pages, but the new Firefox did it in just 23 seconds. On a new Apple iMac, I did a similar, but more daunting, test — opening identical folders containing 24 bookmarks. Safari rendered all of the pages in 36 seconds, but the new Firefox finished the job in 32 seconds.
The latest Firefox has a number of new and improved features. If you type any word or phrase into its address bar, the browser instantly searches your history and bookmarks for a possible match, to save you from typing or combing through your bookmark list.
The whole process of managing bookmarks has been vastly simplified. Every Web address is accompanied by a star icon at the right. To bookmark the site, you just click the star once. No other action is required. To specify where to file the bookmark, you click the star twice. You also can remove bookmarks by clicking the star. And you can tag bookmarks with key words, to make it easier to find them.
There are also smart bookmark folders, which gather your most visited sites, or most recently bookmarked sites, automatically into folders. You also now can more easily back up and restore your bookmarks, complete with tags.
Security is also improved. The old version of Firefox would warn you when a site you were visiting appeared to be a fake, designed to steal your identity. (IE has a similar feature, though Safari doesn’t.) But Firefox 3.0 now warns you about sites that are known for trying to plant viruses, spyware and other malicious software on your computer, a warning the other big browsers don’t yet provide.
With one click, Firefox 3.0 also provides details about who owns the site you’re visiting, and whether it’s encrypted, if the site owner has adopted a special type of security certificate.
My bottom line: Even though you already have a built-in browser, Firefox 3.0 can improve your Web experience.