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Firefox 3.6 beta tested in-depth

The next major revision of Mozilla's Firefox Web browser is version 3.6. Mozilla promises speed boosts and many new features. We've been testing the beta for a few days

The next major revision of Mozilla's Firefox Web browser is version 3.6. Mozilla promises speed boosts, built-in support for Persona -- its skin-like personalisation feature -- and better compatibility with new Web technologies and open font format WOFF. We've been testing the beta for a few days to see how good it actually is.

Speed boosts

We love taking speed. For a test drive inside a Web browser, that is. Obviously. Mozilla reckons Firefox is faster to start up and faster to render JavaScript. It's absolutely correct. We ran the browser through a bunch of tests and can confirm it's the fastest version of Firefox ever, at least in terms of processing JavaScript.

But first, load times. Firefox can be a dog to load. On a brand-new netbook we had knocking around with a clean installation of Windows XP, the current stable version of Firefox 3.5.4 took 4.5 seconds to load using default settings.

Version 3.6b1, however, was a whopping 6 per cent faster! It took only 4.2 seconds to load. Did we notice the difference? No, not really. It is technically faster, but until it shaves or waxes a full second or so, we're not bowled over with excitement.

Next, JavaScript. The new version raced through the SunSpider suite of benchmarks a full 14 per cent faster than Firefox 3.5.4. It completed the test in 1,210ms compared to the older version's 1,412ms. Although an improvement, it's not so much a revolution as an evolution, and Google Chrome is still a shedload faster (the current version completed the test in 644ms).

New features

Although the Personas feature has been available for months, it was in the form of a normal add-on to previous Firefox versions. With Firefox 3.6, the feature is built right into the browser itself.

Simply put, Personas are 'skins' for the browser that change its overall look, without changing physical characteristics such as the shape of icons or the size of menu bars. They can be installed from Mozilla's Persona's Web site in just one click. Building an add-on into a native feature does not a good browser make, but it is a decent add-on, so we'll cut it some proverbial.

Outdated plugins can potentially leave your computer open up to security threats. To help, Firefox 3.6 aims to discover outdated plugins and warn you to update them. An admirable move, but in our tests our outdated Silverlight and VLC plugins were not flagged by the browser as needing updating. Perhaps we did something wrong. Perhaps it's due to a beta-release bug. Who knows?

Another new feature you probably won't see exploited for a while takes advantage of laptops with accelerometers -- those things that make your iPhone know which way it's being tilted. MacBooks, for example, all have accelerometers (test yours out with this fun app) so Web developers can code parts of their pages with new code, called 'MozOrientation', to allow it to detect, and take advantage of, the orientation of your computer -- probably tablets in the main.

You can check out the beta at your own peril here. The final release date has not been confirmed.