File Under: Browsers

Fourth Firefox 4 Beta Adds ‘Panorama,’ Hardware Acceleration

Firefox 4 beta

Mozilla has released the fourth beta for the upcoming Firefox 4 browser. The latest pre-release version of Firefox 4 brings several new features including a new tab-organization tool, hardware acceleration in Windows 7 and support for the HTML5 video-buffered property.

If you’d like to help Mozilla test beta 4, you can grab Firefox 4 beta 4 for all major operating systems (and more than 30 languages) from Mozilla’s beta download site.

The big news in beta 4 is the Panorama feature (it used to be called Tab Sets, and Tab Candy before that — hopefully this name sticks). We looked at in depth when it hit the nightly builds.

Panorama allows you to group and quickly switch between related clusters of open tabs. Designed for those of us over-stimulated freaks who frequently have dozens of tabs (or more) open at one time, Panorama allows you to conquer tab chaos: for example, grouping tabs for work together and tabs for fun together, and then quickly switching between groups.

The feature works a bit like multiple desktops in your operating system — a la Expose on Mac OS X — except in this case it’s just web pages inside a single browser window. Here’s a video by Firefox designer Aza Raskin showing the latest version of Panorama in action:

Firefox beta 4 also brings what’s fast becoming the new hotness in web browsers: hardware acceleration. Like graphics-intensive games, the idea behind hardware acceleration is to shift some of the work from your PC’s main processor to the graphics card, which will speed up page-rendering, particularly text and graphics. The coming Internet Explorer 9 and future versions of Google’s Chrome browser will both take advantage of hardware acceleration.

Firefox is planning to do the same, but, as Mozilla’s Mike Shaver recently posted on Twitter, the hardware-acceleration features are currently disabled by default in beta 4. If you’d like to see Firefox take advantage of Windows’ Direct2D interface — regardless of the bugs that may exist — Mozilla has some instructions on how to enable it in beta 4.

The Mozilla road map still calls for the hardware-acceleration features to make the final release of Firefox, which presumably means we’ll see at least one more beta before Firefox 4 moves to the release-candidate stage.

The latest beta also brings support for HTML5 video’s buffering property, which means Firefox can accurately determine which time segments of a native web video can be played without having to pause while more data downloads. The end result is that the progress bar appears nonlinear and makes it easy to determine which parts of the video are available.

If you’d like to know everything that’s new in Firefox 4 beta 4 since the release of Firefox 3.6, Mozilla has put together a handy list of new features (including a few that aren’t quite finished). The list is quite extensive, and Firefox 4 is shaping up to be one of the biggest updates in some time.

While Mozilla still does not have a firm release date, Firefox 4 is expected to arrive in final form some time before the end of 2010. We’re expecting it in late October or early November.

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