File Under: Browsers

New Beta Release Gives Firefox a Shot of Jäger

A new beta version of the next Firefox browser has arrived.

Mozilla released Firefox 4 Beta 7 on Wednesday. Unlike the last couple beta releases which mostly just tidied things up, this release is a substantial step forward. Most notably, it includes a new JavaScript engine called JägerMonkey that give the browser a performance boost on script-heavy sites.

It has better support for web graphics and fonts, and it has been deemed complete enough for add-on developers to begin porting over their creations from older versions of Firefox.

If you’re a beta tester already, you’ll see an automatic update today or Thursday. If you’d like to download beta 7 for Windows, Mac or Linux, you can do so from Mozilla’s beta site.

Wednesday’s release comes on the heels of the recent announcement that Firefox 4 won’t be ready until early 2011. Mozilla’s release dates have always been somewhat loose, but the last update was over a month and a half ago, and we were originally expecting the browser to arrive some time between October or January. Now, it looks like Firefox 4′s release date could stretch out as far as the second quarter of next year. It’s a blow to fans of the open source browser, especially since Firefox is seeing increased competition from Chrome, which shifted to an accelerated release schedule earlier this year, and from Internet Explorer 9, which entered a public beta phase in September.

The silver lining here is that it’s looking like Firefox 4 will be much different than 3.6, the current version, and that the update will be worth the wait. Also, the beta releases have been remarkably stable, and, with very few exceptions, are capable enough for every day use.

For the full list of what’s new, check out the release notes. Here’s what has us the most excited.

The enhancement sure to make the biggest splash is Firefox’s new JägerMonkey just-in-time JavaScript compiler. Complicated, JavaScript-heavy sites like Facebook and web apps like Gmail will be more nimble, and you should see a big speed increase on games and demos that previously only impressed those running Chrome or Safari. JägerMonkey is new code that works in tandem with the same TraceMonkey JavaScript code that powered previous versions of Firefox (love the naming convention, by the way) and you can read more about the change on Mozilla engineer David Mandelin’s blog.

The new Firefox release has expanded support for 3D graphics in the browser using WebGL and some more hardware acceleration (if you have the right hardware).

Something else to look forward to in this beta is more support for the OpenType, a font format that allows for richer, more “book like” typography on the web. For years, magazine designers have been moaning in their Rob Roys about the limitations of type on the web. And while super-pretty print-quality type treatments on web pages are still a ways off, OpenType is one of those technologies that’s getting us a whole lot closer. OpenType supports some really fancy stuff, like ligatures and swashes. If you’re not a type nerd, this post from John Dagget will give you a good overview of why OpenType is blowing minds and breaking hearts. Or, just visit this page and play around with the text — click on a word and start typing.

Firefox 4 beta 7 also has an Add-on API that’s stable and reliable, so Mozilla has given add-on developers the green light to start updating their add-ons to work in Firefox 4. If you were waiting to join the public beta program because of that one add-on you can’t live without, you’ll want to keep your eyes open, because now is the time the serious add-on update work begins.

Finally, Mozilla engineer Josh Aas tells us about some crazy voodoo going on in the Mac OS X version of Firefox using the operating system’s native tools.

This post was updated to correct a technical point explaining how JägerMonkey and TraceMonkey work together.

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