Jun 11, 2012

Firefox 13

There's little that other browsers can do that Firefox can't. It has lots of HTML5 support, the best extension and customization capability, and its unique Panorama tab organizer. But for several years, Mozilla's open-source Web browser has been missing something found in every other major browser: a helpful new-tab page. Firefox 13 fills this gap, not only adding tiles for most-accessed sites on the new-tab page, but including lots more settings on the home page. And the new version isn't just about tabs: It also gets speedups for startup and browsing, and thriftier memory usage. Read on for a closer look at where Firefox has been and where it's at with this hardly unlucky version 13.

Earlier releases have brought bigger changes that will be welcomed by many users. In version 9, performance was improved Mac OS X Lion operation and appearance improved. We also got better "Do Not Track" privacy support, and improved HTML5 standard support. Firefox 7 added better use of memory, addressing one of the most common complaints I've heard about Firefox over the past few years. It also sped up startup times, in which Firefox has long trialed competing browsers.

It still holds true that the big interface changes all came along in version 4. Mozilla started emulating Google's Chrome (free, 4.5 stars) Web browser in JavaScript speed and minimalist interface, as competitors Internet Explorer 9 (free, 4 stars) and Opera 11.50 (free, 4 stars) have.

Firefox 13 can nearly match Chrome on JavaScript speed, and holds its own when it comes to HTML5 support and a trimmed down interface that gives the Web page center stage. But when compared side-by-side with Chrome, Firefox falls just a bit short in terms of HTML5 support and whiz-bang features like Chrome Instant, which loads pages from your history before you even finish typing their addresses or search terms in the address bar.

A simple 16MB download gets you the Firefox 13 Windows installer. When you run it you'll lose your old version of Firefox. The latest Firefox is available for Mac (30MB) and Linux (17MB) as well as for Windows 7, Vista, and XP—the last of which even Internet Explorer 9 (Free, 4 stars) can't claim. You can import bookmarks from any other installed browsers on first run, but setup is nearly as uncomplicated as it is for Chrome. Firefox also now makes it easy to choose a search provider other than Google, but surprisingly, not as easy as Chrome does. Mozilla also offers a Firefox with Bing version, which uses Microsoft's Web search built in.

Mozilla has been working towards silent updates for Firefox since at least the summer of 2010. And version 13 is the first to actually take advantage of this effort. The problem, on Windows, anyway, is the security need for the OS to display the User Access dialog upon making installation file changes. Google Chrome gets around this by installing in a non-standard, non program folder, which some consider a potential security risk. Firefox takes another route, using a "service" rather than a standard program process for the update to avoid the UAC dialog.

The first time you run Firefox, you'll see the "Select Your Add-ons" dialog. This is so that you can see any add-ons that may have been installed unbeknownst to you by another app you installed. After this first extension approval, the browser will no longer allow third-party app installations to install Firefox extensions without your approval.

Firefox's interface is in line with the trend of "less is more"—less space taken up by the browser frame and controls and more space for Web pages. The page tabs have moved above the address bar, and, as with Opera 11.60, there's just a single menu option in the form of the orange Firefox button at top left. You can re-enable the standard menus by hitting the Alt key.

Most of the current interface started with Firefox 4, but with Firefox 13 a key interface update arrives: Firefox's new new-tab page, as in a lot of other things, mimics Google Chrome most closely. As in Chrome and Opera, Firefox's new tab page shows thumbnails of your most recently and frequently visited sites.

And as in the other browsers, you can customize what's on these thumbnails, and they shrink and enlarge as you resize the browser window. You can also remove sites and pin and unpin them to the new tab page. But you can't specify which sites to include: They're chosen by frequency of your visits. It's not quite up to the level of Safari's beautiful 3D Top Sites page or Opera's Speed Dial, which even offers live information on its pinned tiles. But it's a start, and it's good to see that Firefox finally helps you out a little when you open a new tab. If on the other hand, you don't want this view, a button at top right turns it off, reverting to the plain white, blank page.

Where Google's browser only offers your most visited sites, Web apps, and recently closed tabs, the large icons on Firefox's new homepage give access to bookmarks, history, settings, add-ons, downloads, and sync preferences with shortcuts. If you've changed your home page, you can get to this new one by typing about:home in the address bar.

The Mac version of Firefox integrates well with Apple's latest desktop operating system, Mac OS X Lion. Mozilla's browser supports the OS's two- and three-finger swiping gestures for moving between apps and pages in full screen, and the theme design matches Lion's toolbar and icon stylings.

The Home button is to the right of the search bar, and a bookmark button appears to the right of that. That bookmark button only appears when you don't want the bookmark toolbar taking up browser window space. This gives you one-click access to frequently needed Web addresses. But I wish that, like IE's star button, Firefox also let you see recent page history. You can still call up the full bookmark manager, which lets you do things like importing bookmarks from other browsers, search, and organize.

Firefox is one of the last remaining browsers to still use separate address and search boxes, which is good for those who like to keep those two activities separate. That doesn't mean, however, that a search won't work in the address bar, aka the "awesome bar." That tool, which drops down suggestions from your history and favorites whenever you start typing, was pioneered by Firefox and copied by all other browsers. Another tweak is that when one of its suggested sites is already open in a tab, you can click on a "Switch to tab" link, preventing you from opening more tabs unnecessarily—a useful tweak.

As part of its leading extensibility, Firefox has always been the browser most open to allowing different search providers, including specialized search like shopping, reference, or social. It was one of the first to support the OpenSearch format. The other popular browsers now do so, too, but Firefox can automatically detect search services on a page and let you add them from the search bar. With version 8, the social search category was bolstered by the built in addition of a Twitter search, making it easy to follow trending topics or to find Twitter personalities worth following.

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