Firefox 3.5: The Technologizer Review

The browser that reignited the browser wars is back--and still the most well-rounded one around.

By  |  Tuesday, June 30, 2009 at 4:06 am

firefoxreviewWas it really fewer than five years ago that Firefox 1.0 debuted? Its arrival ended the dismal period in which only one browser–Microsoft’s mediocre Internet Explorer–seemed to be viable. With Firefox, Mozilla proved that millions of people were itching to adopt a better browser. And today, we find ourselves with multiple better browsers:  Not just Firefox, but also Google’s minimalist Chrome, Apple’s flashy Safari, the ever-inventive Opera, the highly social Flock, and even the no-longer-calcifying Internet Explorer 8.

All of which means that Firefox 3.5–which Mozilla plans to formally release today–is no longer a shoo-in for the distinction of being the favorite browser of browser fans. (As I write, Firefox 3.5 hasn’t replaced 3.0 yet on the Firefox home page, but the Windows and Mac versions are live on Mozilla’s FTP site.)

After having spent months with various pre-release versions of 3.5, though, I’m convinced that The Little Browser That Could remains the best choice for the widest array of folks. That’s as much for the virtues that Firefox has possessed for years as for new stuff: Version 3.5′ s improvements are about better speed, useful tweaks to existing features, catchup with other browsers, and early support for emerging Web standards. In other words, the browser sports no knockout new features. But the moves Mozilla has made are smart, and they’re more than enough for Firefox to keep pace with its fast-evolving rivals.

After thr jump, a look at what’s new in rough order of importance.

Speed

In many ways, today’s browser race really is a race: The single biggest trend in recent browser updates is an emphasis on speed. More specifically, an emphasis on optimizing JavaScript, the programming language that’s used on virtually all Web sites and which gives sophisticated Web apps such as Gmail much of their power. For Firefox 3.5, Mozilla created a new JavaScript engine, which it calls TraceMonkey. I used the industry-standard SunSpider benchmark, and found that TraceMonkey is zippy–2.6 times faster than the old Firefox JavaScript engine, essentially tied with Safari for second place, and just a smidge behind Google’s Chrome 2.0.

Here are SunSpider results for Firefox 3.5, Firefox 3.0, Internet Explorer 8, and the newest Chrome and Opera betas–they’re the average of three passes performed on a Lenovo ThinkPad SL300 with a 1.8-GHz Core 2 Duo and 2GB of RAM, and are in milliseconds. Shorter bars are better:

I don’t want to exaggerate the importance of fast JavaScript–it’s only one factor that determines whether a browser feels snappy or not, and you’d be nuts to make it your primary criterion when choosing a browser. (I still wish Firefox 3.5 launched faster, and the Release Candidate version, at least, can still bog down if you open too many tabs.) But JavaScript performance is a big deal, and TraceMonkey gives Firefox a noticeable speed boost.

Privacy

Firefox 3.5 introduces a private browsing option–often called a “porn mode” and usually touted by browser companies as having many other uses, such as letting you hide the holiday shopping you’re doing for your family or borrow a friend’s browser without messing up his or her history. (Then again, Microsoft seems to have given up and is running an IE ad pitching InPrivate as a way to avoid seeing your spouse’s nauseating fetish porn.)

Mozilla calls its private browsing feature…Private Browsing. It’s largely similar to its counterparts in Chrome, IE, and Safari, except that Firefox closes all your open tabs when you begin to browse privately, then restores them when you’re done. It’s a logical way to demarcate things, and probably helps remind you to leave private mode when you’re finished, although reloading your tabs can take a while if you’re as much of a tab freak as I am.

Firefox Private Browsing

None of these browsers’ privacy features are exactly foolproof–the video-downloading feature in RealPlayer, for instance, helpfully keeps on logging all of the videos on pages you visit even when you’re in a privacy mode. Keep that in mind if you’re paranoid about keeping your online wanderings under wraps.

A new “Forget About This Site” option is a sort of retroactive form of Private Browsing that lets you remove evidence you’d visited a site after the fact. But it’s pretty buried: I could only find it by pulling up the History browser, then right-clicking on a page.

Firefox 3.5 Forget

Rather than making erasing your browser’s cookies, cache, and other items an all-or-nothing affair, version 3.5 lets you delete changed for just the past hour, two hours, four hours, or day. Only Chrome does something similar, but its time frames are less useful, since the smallest one is “last day.”

Firefox Clear Recent History

Minor New Features and Tweaks

Firefox 3.5 adds a bunch of small new features and refinements to existing tools, most of which feel like they’re aimed at advanced types. You can now drag a tab out of the window to turn it into a new window of its own, and reverse the process by dragging a window back into tab form. The excellent Awesome Bar address bar, which lets you do search, pull up bookmarks, and retrieve pages from your history, has rid itself of a slight lag it sometimes suffered. It’s also added a really geeky power-user feature: filters that let your refine results as you type by entering “world #”, for instance, to show only pages from your history.

Two new options on the History menu let you re-open tabs and windows you’ve recently closed. I’ve been known to zap a tab by mistake, so if I can remember these items are there, I’ll use them.

Firefox Recently Closed Windows

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25 Comments For This Post

  1. Evan Says:

    Nice review. Do current extensions work, or do they need to be updated.

  2. Rimantas Says:

    Safari 10 beta? What’s that?

  3. Anon Says:

    hahaha Safari 10?

    Safari 4 on my machine got around 550 in Sunspider, FF3.5 got around 1100.

    In V8v4, Safari 4 got around 3000, FF3.5 got around 300.

  4. Rafael E. Belliard Says:

    “Two new options on the History menu let you re-open tabs and windows you’ve recently closed.”

    FYI, the ability to open recently closed tabs has been on firefox at least since Firefox 3.0. Great review, though. :)

    http://img269.imageshack.us/img269/2523/firefox3recentlytabs.jpg

  5. Don Clark - Atlanta, GA Says:

    The only reason that I (and many of my coworkers) havent switched to chrome is that we have grown so attached to the Add-ons for Firefox. I did have a love affair with Opera for a couple of years, but I have been happily engaged to Firefox for over 5 years now.

  6. Rafael E. Belliard Says:

    Agreed with Clark. Firefox add-ons are its real killer-app. Adblock, Mail managers, Foxmarks, Firebug, Flashgot, et al. That’s why Opera never stood a chance with me.

  7. Spellcheck Says:

    sorry to nitpick, but the proper spelling is “shoo-in,” not “shoe-in”
    (see: http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shoo-in and http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/shoo-in)

  8. AMSR Says:

    Safari 10 beta? You mean Safari 4 Release? /confused

  9. John Baxter Says:

    On the Mac where I’ve been gently kicking the 3.5RC series’ tires, the browser seemed to convert itself automatically to 3.5 when I started it this morning.

    Being the nasty suspicious type that I am, I downloaded a fresh copy. which turned out to be a few thousand bytes smaller. I’ve replaced what was there with the downloaded form (which stayed the same size when launched and quit.

    I suspect that is a distinction without a difference, though.

  10. Tonio Loewald Says:

    I just tried Sunspider on my XP SP3 32-bit machine with the latest Safari 4 and Firefox 3.5 and got *dramatically* different results: overall — Safari 4 1.5x faster. Are you perhaps running a 64-bit version of Mozilla against a 32-bit version of Safari?

  11. Harry McCracken Says:

    @tonio: Nope, 32-bit versions of Firefox 3.5 and Safari on a 32-bit OS (Windows XP). I’ll keep an eye out for what others report…

    Thanks,

    –Harry

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  15. jagraham Says:

    Just installed the new 3.5 update and I haven’t noticed a huge difference in speed, a little faster perhaps, but on average it doesn’t seem to be 2.5 times faster. I do like some of the little tweaks though; the ‘awesome bar’ seems a little smoother and the ‘private browsing’ matches that of IE8. The time Firefox takes to start up is a bit of a pain still though and it still uses quite a bit more RAM than IE, but that’s something I can put up with.

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    Anyway, here’s a more in-depth review.Thanks

  18. Slym Says:

    This is really a great review and beneficial too.
    I will work on it and explore it further. firefox nowdays is an essential utility to surf internet in easy and fast way. I am lovin it

  19. Prakash Says:

    Hello people,
    I have been using the FF 3.5 since two weeks. While it is a faster browser than the previous one, it is at the same time not so stable. Like i am using the google mail and it does not load the editor window while composing a mail. In this way the previous version was better.
    Hope the programmers fix this problem with the next version.
    Except that i thank the mozilla team for their great service.

    Prakash

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    Many visitors complain that my sites slow down or that the browser ‘freezes’ when visiting my site, in addition to multiple security warnings. I now realise that most of these visitors experience this because they are using the default IE browser. Once they switch to Firefox or Chrome, these problems disappear!

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