File Under: Browsers

Firefox Has Been Hitting the Gym — Version 3.6 Is Faster, More Capable

Mozilla has unleashed Firefox 3.6, the next version of the popular open source web browser.

The new and improved Firefox 3.6 is now available as a free download for Windows, Mac and Linux.

There isn’t much new to look at on the surface, but we’d strongly recommend you upgrade to Firefox 3.6, based on the work that’s been done to improve the browser’s speed and support for the latest web technologies.

Thursday’s release brings significant performance boosts and a number of new features like support for custom skins, full-screen support for native web video and much-improved font support for developers looking to use new fonts on their sites.

It arrives only six months after the previous version, Firefox 3.5. The shorter-than-usual wait between versions means that Firefox 3.6 doesn’t have quite as many new standout features as 3.5 brought to the browser when it debuted. But we don’t want to give the impression that Firefox 3.6 is only an incremental performance upgrade from the previous version.

A Nimbler Fox

The fact is that there’s quite a bit of new technology under the hood. Users who spend the bulk of their day 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. Much of the added speed is due to enhancements to TraceMonkey, Mozilla’s JavaScript-rendering engine.

Not only does the tweaked TraceMonkey speed up webpage rendering, it’s now available to speed up Firefox UI elements written in JavaScript. That change means the Firefox interface is snappier, and — when combined with the new version of Gecko, Firefox’s core rendering engine — there’s a noticeable improvement in Firefox 3.6′s overall performance.

In our testing of pre-release versions (the last of which were nearly identical to the final code), JavaScript-heavy sites like FriendFeed, Facebook and Gmail loaded faster, and the browser’s initial startup time was much better than with Firefox 3.5 — especially if you’re reopening a large number of tabs.

Also new under the hood is 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 of installed extensions, any user-modified preference settings, links to installed plug-ins, and other configuration details.

Fullscreen HTML5 Video

Firefox 3.6 now supports fullscreen video playback through native HTML5 video embeds. Just right-click a video embedded using the HTML5 video tag and you’ll see a new menu item for full-screen playback.

Currently video on the web is generally embedded using proprietary technologies like Adobe’s Flash Player or Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin.

Native HTML5 video will give users a way to watch movies online without the need of third-party plug-ins.

Firefox previously supported HTML5 native video but lacked the ability to play those videos in full-screen mode, an oversight that Firefox 3.6 corrects, putting open source video on largely equal footing with proprietary technologies like Flash or Silverlight.

Curiously, Firefox 3.6′s release comes only a day after YouTube announced it would begin supporting playback of embedded videos with HTML5, albeit using the h.264 codec which Firefox does not support, as it’s proprietary. Mozilla prefers the open source Ogg Theora video format instead.

More Web-Standards Support

Web developers and open-web proponents alike will be happy to hear that quite a few new features in CSS 3 have made their way into Firefox 3.6. Firefox now supports the background-size property as well as some cool tricks for handling background images with CSS. Designers can specify the size of background images on web pages, stretching them by dictating what percentage of the browser window’s width they take up.

There are also some new methods for applying gradients to page backgrounds, enabling designers to create more interesting, colorful backgrounds without using images at all, just by defining a few colors in their HTML.

Firefox 3.6 also supports the Web Open Font Format (WOFF), which allows developers to use server-side fonts to build better typography into their designs.

Personas

Firefox 3.6 brings built-in support for lightweight themes, which Mozilla calls Personas. Personas have been around for a while (you can even sync them across multiple browsers if you’re running Weave, Mozilla’s syncing tool), but installing Personas previously required a separate extension to manage them.

Now 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 full-fledged themes, they’re much easier to create and install. If you’d like to try out some custom themes, head over to the Personas site.

Improved Tab-Switching Previews

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).

Unfortunately for Windows 7 users, much of the Windows 7 integration — like Aero tab previews and jump lists — did not make the final release. Not officially, anyway.

According to Mozilla Director of Firefox Mike Beltzner, support for Windows 7′s Aero Peek tab previews — the page and tab previews available in the Windows 7 task bar — can be enabled in the about:config page. But the feature wasn’t quite ready to be switched on by default.

If you’d like to turn it on now, just be aware that sometimes the previews don’t render properly. Look for this one to be officially turned on by an incremental update in the near future.

Security Enhancements

Firefox 3.6 includes the ability to check for out -of-date plug-ins and will point you to the offending plug-in’s website to download the latest version.

The primary target here is the Flash plug-in, which previously had no update mechanism in Firefox and could leave Firefox users vulnerable to attack even if the browser itself was up-to-date.

Mozilla has also changed the way third-party add-ons integrate with Firefox. The Firefox components directory is now off-limits to third-party tools like Firefox add-ons. The move is mainly designed to make Firefox more stable by preventing add-ons from accessing lower-level tools that could cause crashes.

According to Mozilla, there are no features to be gained from accessing the components directory, so your favorite add-ons should not be adversely affected by the change.

Why the Long Wait?

Although the turnaround time for Firefox 3.6 was faster than its predecessor, Mozilla was still plagued by delays, and it released an unprecedented five beta versions to testers before Thursday’s final release.

However, while there were more betas than previous releases, according to Mike Beltzner, Mozilla’s Director of Firefox, the overall development time was actually shorter.

“We did something very different with betas this time around, and this has been one of the shortest beta periods in terms of calendar time that a Firefox release has ever had,” Beltzner tells Webmonkey.

“Once people have agreed to test a beta, it’s our responsibility to give them updates as quickly as possible. Instead of spending three to four weeks making changes and releasing a beta, for Firefox 3.6 we decided to create a beta version that would be updated every one or two weeks with the latest changes.”

He says that cranking out more betas at a faster pace made development smoother and allowed for more feedback from Mozilla’s community of over 600,000 beta testers.

Conclusion

Firefox 3.6 is not the radical overhaul that Firefox 3.5 offered, but the latest version is a worthy upgrade nonetheless. The welcome speed improvements combined with the UI changes and expanded HTML5 support make Firefox 3.6 a must-have upgrade.

We’re already looking forward to the next version of Firefox, tentatively listed as Firefox 3.7, which, with any luck will bring isolated tabs for application crashes (a la Google Chrome), integration of the Ubiquity add-on into the Awesome bar and of course, even more enhancements for HTML 5.

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