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First Look: Firefox 3.1 Beta Offers Speed, Better Searching and More

beta1 logoAs we mentioned Tuesday, the first beta release of the new Firefox 3.1 browser has arrived. Firefox 3.1, which will land in final form near the beginning of 2009, promises speed improvements, a more refined search bar and support for new and emerging web standards. The browser will also contain a slew of small features that didn’t make the cut in Firefox 3.0.

While not all of the improvements are in beta 1, there’s enough to whet your appetite for the final release.

Probably the most anticipated change coming in Firefox 3.1 is the new TraceMonkey JavaScript optimization engine, which should improve the speed of Ajax-heavy web apps. If you downloaded the beta you may be wondering where the performance boost is out of the box, Firefox 3.1 beta 1 feels much the same as Firefox 3.0.

The answer is that TraceMonkey is still considered unstable and is turned off by default. To enable it, you’ll need to type about:config in the URL bar and then search for the javascript.options.jit.content setting. Change that setting to true and restart Firefox.

However, even after enabling TraceMonkey, we still didn’t see a huge speed difference. Sites like Gmail, Google Reader, the Zoho suite and other JavaScript-intensive apps were moderately faster, but not enough to give to inspire a forehead-smacking “wow.” Of course this is only the first beta, and we remain optimistic about TraceMonkey. Hopefully future releases will show a more marked speed boost.

If you’ve been playing around with the recently released Geode geolocation add-on for Firefox 3.0, you’ll be happy to know that the same API is baked into the first beta of Firefox 3.1. The beta implements it a little differently, but the same W3C-sanctioned Geo API is used behind the scenes.

As the Mozilla developer blog explains:

People who want to try out Geolocation in Beta 1 can install Doug Turner’s Geolocation add-on which adds a fixed Geolocation provider. Once you’ve installed it you can visit p to get your location and update the preference in Tools -> Add-ons -> Geolocation with your latitude and longitude. There are a number of examples of the API you can try on the Geode Labs Welcome page.

If geolocation services aren’t your bag, fear not. Firefox 3.1 offers several user interface improvements that promise to improve your day-to-day web browsing experience in very tangible ways.

The most obvious improvement in the Firefox 3.1 UI is the new tab switching behavior. The tab switcher now offers a page preview, which makes finding the tab you’re looking for somewhat easier. To see it in action, hit the keyboard shortcut Alt-Tab (Ctrl-Tab on the Mac).

tab switcher

It’s worth noting that tab switcher is nonlinear; it flips through the most recently viewed tabs in order, rather than simply moving from left to right across the window. Some will no doubt prefer it this way, but it does take a little while to get used to if you’re expecting the other behavior.

Also improved in Firefox 3.1 is the ability to drag a tab to a new window. In current versions of Firefox, dragging a tab to a new window will create a new tab in that window and then reload the tab. In the beta, the tab simply moves to the new window, no reload required.

Another significant improvement to the Firefox UI is the new support for wild card characters in the URL search bar (also known as the “awesome bar”). As we outlined in a previous post, the awesome bar now allows for special modifiers to narrow or expand your search results.

url barIt’s also worth noting that the you can permanently exclude sites from awesome bar searches by tinkering with the settings in about:config. The blacklisting capabilities should help eliminate some privacy concerns and ensure that your friends won’t discover you’ve been secretly watching the new 90210 when they borrow your laptop for a quick e-mail check.

Web developers will be happy to know that Firefox 3.1 has a number of HTML 5 improvements including support for the <audio> and <video> tags, which promise to make embedding media somewhat easier. These containers can display Ogg Theora encoded videos or play back Ogg Vorbis encoded audio, so you’ll be able to feature movies and music on your pages without a plug-in.

There are also some new CSS selectors included, like support for the @font-face rule, which gives designers a bit more control over a site’s typography. Using the @font-face declaration, web designers can specify true-type fonts and escape the tyranny of Arial, Times New Roman and the other “big five” fonts that dominate the web. [Note that @font-face support works in Windows and Mac, but not Linux for beta 1. Linux support will arrive before the final release.]

Firefox 3.1 also supports CSS transformations and SVG effects for HTML elements, meaning you can blur, rotate, scale and perform other transformations on page elements with only a couple lines of CSS.

What’s missing? The private browsing feature (aka “porn mode) isn’t in this release, though we expect it in the future. Also, the tab-specific selective session restore dialog isn’t fully developed yet, so we’re waiting on that feature as well.

Firefox 3.1 is obviously still a beta release, and we don’t recommend ditching Firefox 3.0 just yet. If nothing else, very few add-ons have been updated (of our dozen or so “must-haves”, only NoScript works with the 3.1 beta), but beta 1 is definitely worth a test drive to see much of what’s in store for the final release. It’s still a bit rough around the edges, but Firefox 3.1 is shaping up to be a very nice upgrade once the polished version arrives.

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