Mozilla has dropped the eighth beta release of Firefox 4. Originally intended as a quick update to fix some issues on beta 7, Firefox 4 beta 8 actually brings over 1,400 bug fixes, some improvements to the new add-ons interface, better syncing and more hardware accelerated WebGL support. There’s also a beta update for Android and Maemo mobile phones, which we’ll look at later.
If you’d like to take Beta 8 for spin on your desktop, head over to the Mozilla beta downloads page. It’s been a very long development cycle for Firefox 4 — the final version is still a couple of months out, since once the betas are done, Firefox 4 moves into the release candidate stage. However, the enhancements being made over versions 3.5 and 3.6 are substantial, and these releases are stable enough to use in day-to-day browsing, so it’s not like we’re waiting a long time for nothing. We can reap the rewards well before the official release date.
The improvements to Firefox’s new sync feature — which syncs bookmarks, browsing history, user preferences and open tabs between both desktop and mobile versions of Firefox — make signing up and starting sync easier for new users. Most of us use multiple screens every day — one or two computers, and at least one smartphone with a web browser — keeping it all in sync is increasingly difficult. That’s where Firefox’s sync tools come in and the streamlined sync interface makes it even easier to pick up where you left off, no matter what device you’re using.
The sync updates in Firefox 4 beta 8 coincide with similar improvements in Firefox Mobile 4 beta 3 for the Android and Maemo mobile platforms.
Firefox 4 beta 8 now supports WebGL on more graphics cards across both Mac and Windows operating systems. WebGL bridges the gap between HTML5 tools like the new Canvas tag and OpenGL, an OS-native graphics engine, to speed up HTML5 web apps and animations. If you’d like to see the new WebGL support in action, grab Firefox beta 8 and head over to the Flight of the Navigator demo page, or check out the release notes page which has a video of the demo.
The latest beta isn’t just faster with HTML5 graphics either. Although Mozilla hasn’t released any precise speed figures, in our testing, the start up time was faster than beta 7 and general browsing felt snappier as well.
Firefox 4 beta 8 refines the main add-ons page (which is now a page, rather than a separate window, a nice improvement). The URL bar has been removed for the add-ons page, and the button design has been revamped. Although the new, slicker-looking buttons do make the interface a bit nicer, add-ons are still variously referred to as “extensions” and “add-ons.” You can see which “extensions” you have installed, but then you “Get Add-ons.” Firefox veterans aren’t likely to even notice the difference, but it could be confusing for new users.
The list of bug fixes for this release is extensive, but Mozilla’s nightly builds have already been renamed to beta 9, which means we’ll see at least one more, possibly two more beta releases before Firefox 4 arrives in final form. Mozilla hasn’t set an official release date for Firefox 4 yet, but it’s expect to arrive sometime in early 2011.