Firefox 4 beta tested: Reflecting Chrome's shiny example

Firefox 4 is now in its public beta phase, so anyone can download it and try out the new features. We give our verdict on its looks, performance and whether or not it's a Chrome-killer

When the history of the Internet is written, Firefox will be noted as the first browser to make people think about what they wanted from their Web-cruising software. We're excited, then, to get to grips with Firefox 4, which recently propelled itself into public beta. Many of the CNET UK team are avid fans of Google's Chrome -- will this new release be enough to tempt us back to the foxy side?

Looks

 

First impressions count, and our first impressions of Firefox 4 are rosy. This iteration sports a much 'rounder' look, with new shading on the icons along the top lending the browser a pleasant depth. If we were sceptical folk we'd be tempted to say the designers have taken a leaf out of Google's book -- those rounded edges definitely remind us of Chrome.

Borrowing a few design touches from Google's browser isn't such a bad idea -- it's hard to argue against its simplified, stripped-down interface. We would have liked to see some kind of animated visual indication when re-organising tabs -- in Firefox 4 a small blue arrow will appear to show you where you're about to drop your selected tab, but it can be hard to see and rather fiddly.

Performance and new features

We ran Firefox 4 through the Acid3 browser test, and it scored 97/100, which might sound good, but this partcular benchmark demands a score of 100 before it deems the test to be passed. Acid3 tests a browser's ability to comply to Web standards, particularly JavaScript. (If you fancy reading more on Acid3, we recommend the Wikipedia entry.)

 

We also ran the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark test, and Firefox 4 completed this test in a snappy 737ms, which is an impressive speed, but slower than Chrome's current 456ms. This is only a beta version though, so we'd expect a few bugs or snags at this stage -- we'll have to wait for the complete release before we can definitively test the browser's performance.

Benchmarks aside, how does Firefox 4 beta feel to use? It feels fast. Faster than the older versions, certainly, but we have to say it still doesn't feel up to speed with Chrome. Start-up times in our testing were generally between 2 and 4 seconds, which is fast, but still not as rapid as Chrome, which is up on our screens in under a second. In-browser, things are much the same -- the URL bar and tabs are noticably faster than older versions of Firefox, but Google still has the edge when it comes to speed.

WebM support

Brand new in Firefox 4 is WebM support. We tested out some video in the open, royalty-free media file format on YouTube and were impressed with the fluidity of the playback when we cranked the quality up to 720p. Whether or not WebM or HTML5 become standard fare in the future is miles up in the air right now, but it's encouraging to see the Firefox developers getting on board with new technology, and it working so well in this beta.

All told, our initial impressions are that Firefox 4 is looking great at this relatively advanced stage, and it's clear this is a huge improvement over earlier versions of the software, both in terms of speed and performance. We still reckon Chrome is faster in most everyday situations, but if you're a die-hard Firefox fan, we recommend you try it out for yourself. With that in mind, here's the install link.

Don't forget to let us know your own first impressions in the comments below. 

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About the author

Luke Westaway is a senior editor at CNET and writer/ presenter of Adventures in Tech, a thrilling gadget show produced in our London office. Luke's focus is on keeping you in the loop with a mix of video, features, expert opinion and analysis.

 

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