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Firefox 3.6 Beta 1 Arrives: More Speed, Better Video, New Tab Tricks

Mozilla has unleashed the first beta release of Firefox 3.6, the next version of the popular open-source browser.

On the surface, it looks like incremental performance upgrade from the current version, Firefox 3.5, which was released in June. But anyone spending a great deal of time in JavaScript-heavy web apps — which these days is most of us — will notice faster page loads thanks to improvements to the browser’s rendering engine. This new beta also has better support for the latest emerging web standards like HTML5 and CSS3, better native video playback, a new plugin updating mechanism and some new tab behaviors.

If you’d like to test Firefox 3.6 beta 1, head over to the Mozilla downloads site and grab a copy. The final version is set to arrive sometime before the end of 2009. The relatively short six-month wait between upgrades is evidence of Mozilla’s promise to speed up its release schedule.Mozilla has slightly tweaked the way beta releases work. Now, if you download the beta, it will automatically upgrade to the release candidate, then the final release when it arrives.

One of the first things you’ll notice in the new beta is the performance boost. Firefox 3.6 features some tweaks to TraceMonkey, Mozilla’s own engine for rendering JavaScript on web pages . The new version of TraceMonkey in this release has been optimized to work within Firefox, meaning that, not only is TraceMonkey being used to speed up web apps, it’s now available to speed up Firefox UI elements written in JavaScript. That change should make the Firefox interface slightly snappier, and when combined with the new version of Gecko, Firefox’s core rendering engine, expect to some noticeable improvements in Firefox’s performance.

Mozilla hasn’t made any specific claims of speed boosts in Firefox 3.6, but in our testing, JavaScript-heavy sites like FriendFeed, Facebook and Gmail loaded faster, and the browser’s initial start-up time was much better than with Firefox 3.5 (especially if you’re reopening a large number of tabs).

But as with previously releases, Firefox loves to gobble up RAM. Perhaps not as much as pre-3.0 releases, but 3.6 still demands more overhead than Safari and Opera on our Macbook Pro.

The full screen support for native video embeds, which we told you about earlier this year, has arrived with the new beta. Just right click a video embedded using the HTML5 video tag and you’ll see a new menu item for full screen playback.

On the user interface front, the default tab behavior has been tweaked slightly. Opening a link by CMD-clicking now places the new tab right next to the currently open tab. That’s a significant change from previous versions, where the default behavior was to open new tabs at the far right side of the current window. Indeed if you just open a blank tab, it will be placed on the far right, but opening a link in a new tab will not.

Quite frankly, we found the new behavior frustrating and confounding — so much so that we’re unsure whether to call it a feature or a bug. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to get the old behavior back: head toabout:config and change the tabs.insertRelatedAfterCurrent setting to false.

Note: See Wired’s How-To Wiki entry on customizing Firefox 3.6 to add your own tips.

Also new on the tab front are the long-awaited preview thumbnails in Firefox’s built-in tab switcher, which have finally arrived — sort of. The tab previews have been in the works for quite some time and sadly, enabling the previews will still require a trip to about:config (set browser.ctrlTab.previews to true). Hopefully, by the time the final release arrives, preview icons on Firefox’s tab switcher will be turned on by default.

Firefox’s new tab-switching interface. Click the image for a larger view.

Firefox 3.6 beta 1 also supports Windows 7′s Aero Peek tab previews — the page and tab previews available in the Windows 7 task bar. As with other Win 7 apps, hovering your mouse over Firefox’s task bar icon will pop up previews of all your Firefox windows and tabs, making it quicker and easier to navigate between them.

Firefox 3.6 beta 1 brings built-in support for lightweight themes, which Mozilla calls Personas. Personas has been around for a while (you can even sync them through Weave), but previously installing Personas required a separate extension to manage them.

As of the new beta, Personas can be installed right out of the box, allowing you to tweak and theme Firefox as you’d like. Although Personas don’t offer quite the options of a full fledged theme, they’re much easier to create and install. If you’d like to try out some custom themes, head over to the Persona site.

The beta also features a new plug-in update mechanism which will warn you when, for example, your Flash plug-in is out of date and possibly vulnerable to attack.

Also new under the hood is the Web Open Font Format (WOFF) support we mentioned last month, as well as the new about:support page which offers a simple place to look up all the pertinent information about the current Firefox installation, including a list off installed extensions, any user-modified preference setting, links to installed plug-ins and other configuration details.

Read the full release notes if you want to see more about the nitty gritty bits.

As with any beta Firefox release, don’t expect all your favorite extensions to work right now. In our testing, Ad Block Plus and Weave were the only of our half dozen extensions that worked out of the box. You can help out add-on developers by grabbing the Add-on Compatibility Reporter, which will run all your extensions even if they haven’t been updated. Any resulting bugs or strange behaviors can be easily reported to the developers through the Add-ons Manager.

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