Firefox 3.1 Beta 3 - Superb is too modest


Updated: March 16, 2009

You all probably know that Firefox is my favorite browser. It is fast, stable and extensible. It is also quite safe. And it looks good, too. Finally, you may also have heard that Firefox 3.1, the latest version of this phenomenal browser, is coming out soon, promising a revolution in usability and speed. In fact, Beta 3 has been publicly released just a few days ago.

Teaser

I felt it was my holy duty to check out what the new Firefox brings to the world!

Without too much idle talking, follow me for a splendid ride. Let's explore the new features introduced in the latest version of this great browser. Mozilla folks have always had a gift for making great things and 3.1 is no exception. So follow me!

Looks

Firefox retains the old, familiar, simple looks. You won't have to relearn using Firefox. The good stuff remains.

Firefox 3.1 beta

Embedded videos

Firefox 3.1 supports HTML 5 audio and video elements. This means you can watch multimedia from within the browser, without a need for external plugins and codecs. For now, non-proprietary formats like Ogg are supported, but more will come soon.

Embedded video

This feature really promises to turn the browser into a blended Web-desktop tool, blurring even further the distinction between local computer and the Internet.

New privacy features

Firefox 3.1 is all about making you feel comfortable with your browser. Two new major features are included: Private Browsing and selective Clear Private Data.

Private Browsing

When this mode is activated (Tools > Start Private Browsing), Firefox won't remember any bit of information you do for as long as the feature is running. This allows you to prowl the Web without leaving traces of your activities.

Private browsing

Private browsing running

Selective Clear Private Data

Until now, Clear Private Data (under Tools) was all or nothing. You could either keep everything or erase everything. Now, this utility is time-based. You can decide how far back in time you wish to delete the data: 1 hour, several hours, several days.

Clear private data

Drag & drop tabs

Tabs are no longer restricted to the browser window you're using. You can yank them off the tab bar; they will open in a new window. This is a bit like what Chrome and Prism do. Prism is another nifty Mozilla tool, we'll talk about it more in the future.

Notice the screenshot below: I've grabbed the current tab and pulled it off the bar. It shows as a small preview-style rectangle, hovering near my Dedoimedo avatar. When I release the mouse button, it will become an individual browser window.

Undock tabs

Much improved performance

Firefox 3.1 has a new Javascript engine called Tracemonkey. The introduction of this new technology has been one of the major gossips in the computer industry for the past six months. Will Firefox 3.1 be able to best its competitors when it comes to scripting? Can it outdo Chrome or Opera?

I can't say much about Chrome or Opera, but I did a quick test with the Sunspider Javascript benchmarking test. I compared my existing Ubuntu Firefox install (3.0.7) with the beta.

Current release:

Firefox 3.0.7 sunspider

Firefox 3.1 Beta:

Firefox 3.1 sunspider

A nice little graph:

Graph

Of course, this is just a quick, dirty, unofficial, inaccurate test, but it is a good indicator of what we should expect. As it turns out, Firefox 3.1 has an approx. 30% Javascript performance increase over the existing Mozilla flagship.

Compliance has improved, too

To see how well Firefox 3.1 meets the W3C standards when it comes to rendering of web pages, I ran the Acid3 test.

Current release:

Firefox 3.0.7 acid

Firefox 3.1 beta:

Firefox 3.1 acid

Firefox 3.1 is much better in regard to compliance. This means you should expect an even higher quality of web page rendering than what you're used to today.

Hyperlinks in web page sources

If you've ever looked at a web page source, it's a jumble of mainly HTML and some other languages. But until now, the source was a static jumble. Firefox 3.1 introduces clickable links!

All those links to other web pages, CSS files, XML feeds, and whatnot are now clickable. By clicking on them, you open them for viewing. No need to copy & paste into the address bar. The feature works for both relative and absolute links. Back and forward buttons work, too, allowing you to actually surf through sources. This is a very handy feature for developers.

Hyperlink source

I love it! How to install?

Well, the best part is - you can install it alongside your existing Firefox installation! It won't destroy anything. However, some extensions might not work. Even though it is beta, during my testing, Firefox 3.1 was stable as a rock. There were no glitches, unknown issues, crashes, or anything of the sort.

About

Conclusion

Firefox 3.1 is everything you expected - and then some. It's going to be a blast. It's faster, it's more compliant, it has improved privacy, and a range of new features that make a great product into a greater one. Audio and video tags are particularly interesting, as they open a world of new possibilities when it comes to Web and what it means to us. Throw in a whole bunch of excellent extensions and the options are virtually limitless.

I'm going to do more testing as time and opportunity permits. In particular, memory usage is an important aspect that needs to be tested, but it can't done just by crudely looking at numbers. And then, there's the issue of portability. PortableApps have already cooked a Firefox 3.1 version - this is another topic in the pipe. 

That's it for now. Oh man, I can hardly wait for the official release! 

Have fun!

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