Walt Mossberg

New, Lean Firefox 4: Re-Built to Play Catch-Up

In the long browser wars, Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has been the leader. But the sentimental favorite was Mozilla’s Firefox, mostly because it was faster, hewed better to Internet standards and offered an unmatched array of third-party add-ons that enhanced its functionality.

In recent years, however, Firefox has slipped. It lost its speed dominance to Google’s upstart Chrome browser and to Apple’s Safari. And as its rivals stripped down their interfaces to make more room for Web content, Firefox remained saddled with lots of toolbars and menus.

This week, Mozilla is striking back. It released a sleeker, faster new edition, called Firefox 4, for both Windows and Mac.

After testing it, my verdict is that this new version is an improvement, but many of its new features are catch-ups to those present in other browsers.

Mozilla, a Silicon Valley nonprofit organization, this week also released a new mobile version of Firefox for phones running Google’s Android operating system. I took a quick look at the Android version, which seems good, but this review is focused on the computer version.


Google on the Firefox browser

Though Mozilla doesn’t say so, I believe one reason for the revamp is to try to win back the hearts and minds of those techies and influential users who shun IE and once swore by Firefox.

My anecdotal observation is that these folks have been shifting gradually to Chrome. In addition, the big gun, Microsoft, last fall released a new version of IE that is faster and slicker than prior editions.

I tested Firefox 4 on three Windows PCs and two Macs, and compared it with its three main rivals (for IE, I was able to do this comparison only on Windows, as it lacks a Mac version).

Snappy Handling

I found the new Firefox to be snappy. It easily handled video-heavy sites and “Web apps,” including Web-based email programs, simple games, productivity sites like Google Docs and the like. Some of these more complex sites use a new and evolving Web standard called HTML 5, which Mozilla has strongly supported. The new browser didn’t noticeably slow down for me, even when many tabs were opened.

But, in my comparative speed tests, which involve opening groups of tabs simultaneously, or opening single, popular sites, like Facebook, Firefox was often beaten by Chrome and Safari, and even, in some cases, by the new version 9 of IE, which has ramped up its own speed.

I should stress that these tests, which I conducted on a Hewlett-Packard desktop PC running Windows 7, generally showed very slight differences among the browsers. Their speeds are converging. But Firefox 4 won only a couple of them.


Options for the synchronization feature
Sleek Features

Still, speed isn’t everything. The main new features in Firefox 4 do a lot to streamline the browser. As with its rivals, the tabs have been moved to the top.

In the Windows version, the menu bar functions have been consolidated into a new orange “Firefox button” at the upper left, though you can turn the menu bar back on if you like. In another streamlining move, bookmarks are now accessed through a single button, though you can turn back to the familiar bookmarks toolbar.

Taking a cue from Chrome, Firefox now lets you permanently “pin” tabs for favorite sites to the tab bar. These appear as small icons to the left of the bar, and are always open. They are called app tabs, because Mozilla assumes they’ll be used primarily for app-like sites such as Web email, which you check frequently.

If something changes on a pinned site, such as a new email arriving, the app tabs notify you with a slight glow effect. (IE embeds icons for favorite sites right in the Windows taskbar.)

Favorite Sites Fast

Another nice new feature is called Panorama. It allows you to group thumbnails of tabs representing favorite sites, name the group, and then open its contents in tabs at once. For instance, you might use this feature to get quickly to all your favorite news or sports sites.

I also successfully tested a synchronization feature, which allows you to view on one PC or Mac the bookmarks, history and open tabs from a copy of Firefox running on another.

It even worked when I tried it on the Android version of Firefox. This ability to synch with mobile devices is likely to be a bigger deal as Web surfing continues to shift away from PCs.

However, like a similar synchronization feature in Chrome, the one in Firefox doesn’t work across different browsers. An add-on program called Xmarks, which I use daily, does.

Privacy Option

Like IE, the new Firefox also includes an emerging, optional privacy feature called Do Not Track that sends a signal to websites to stop tracking your Internet activity. However, the tool won’t be fully useful unless a large majority of sites agree to obey it. The idea, though, is getting traction among some advertisers and publishers.

If you are a Firefox fan, the new version will take some getting used to, but I recommend upgrading, at mozilla.com.

If you currently rely on another browser, Firefox 4 is worth a look, but you aren’t likely to see lots of big features you haven’t seen before.

Find all of Walt’s columns and videos at the All Things Digital website, walt.allthingsd.com. Email him at mossberg@wsj.com.

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