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Mozilla's Firefox 3 beta: Improved but imperfect

The widely used open-source Web browser gets boosts in security, bookmarking and history search, and color profiles.

Mozilla released Firefox 3 beta 1 on Monday. Mozilla

A few months later than had been planned, Mozilla released on Monday night the first beta version of an overhauled Firefox, the widely used open-source Web browser.

Firefox 3 beta 1 includes a number of significant features that Mozilla said should improve security, ease of use, rendering of Web pages, and location of previously visited Web pages. And for the new era of rich Internet applications, the browser can run Web-based applications even when the computer is disconnected from a network.

The software is available for Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux at Mozilla's download site in 20 languages. You can also download the English versions for Windows or Mac from CNET

Although Microsoft's Internet Explorer remains the dominant Web browser, the open-source rival has achieved a critical mass of users--Firefox has been downloaded more than 400 million times--and it's now common for designers to make sure their Web pages work with the browser. Even Microsoft has bowed to the reality, testing its Web sites with Firefox and helping with technical issues such as playing Windows Media files from Web pages.

According to the release notes, the core Gecko rendering engine--the component that interprets Web page instructions and draws text and graphics on your screen--has seen major changes in the upgrade to the new version 1.9 used in Firefox 3.

"Gecko 1.9 includes some major re-architecting for performance, stability, correctness, and code simplification and sustainability," the notes said. Those changes "put foundations in place for major performance tuning which have resulted in speed increases in beta 1, and will show further gains in future beta releases."

The Firefox 3 beta had been due to arrive in July, and there's no word yet on when the software will come out of beta. "The final version of Firefox 3 will be released when we qualify the product as fully ready for our users," the release notes said--a polite way of saying it'll be ready when it's ready.

The location bar automatically presents Web pages with the text you type. Mozilla

A quick test
A quick test of the new browser revealed that various important sites including eBay, Gmail,, and Icanhascheezburger appeared to work fine.

However, I got error messages at two, both with snazzier Web 2.0 user interfaces. Yahoo Mail threw errors and choked, and Adobe Systems' Buzzword online word processor told me the browser wasn't supported. On the other hand, others rich sites were happy, including Picnik and Flickr's Organizr.

Even in just a few minutes of use, I found the location bar's automatic search handy. It popped up lists of previously visited URLs and page titles that contained the words I typed into the location bar, trimming a couple steps out of a few searches.

Yahoo Mail wouldn't work for me with Firefox 3 beta 1. Mozilla

One of Firefox's chief merits is the large collection of extensions that can be downloaded to bring new abilities to the browser. Alas, all four of the ones I use--Fotofox, FireFTP, Delicious Bookmarks, and Foxmarks--don't yet work with the new beta. That's no surprise--the release notes warn such breakage is likely.

Another feature I've been eagerly awaiting is the support for color profiles, which lets people see photos correctly even when they're encoded with color systems besides the long-in-the-tooth sRGB standard. It's not enabled by default, but I switched it on and was delighted to see the test images in a CNET story displayed correctly.

New features
Besides Gecko 1.9, there are a number of areas of change for Firefox 3. Among them:

• Security. New features include the ability to integrate antivirus software with downloads; one-click Web site identity verification; automatic testing to make sure plug-ins aren't older versions found to be insecure and automatic disabling if they are; and support for Windows Vista parental controls.

The location bar indicates bookmarked Web pages with a star. Mozilla

• Ease of use. Touted improvements include downloading that can be resumed after the browser has been restarted or network connection reset; users can zoom in and out of Web pages in their entirety, including layout, text, and graphics; plug-ins can be managed centrally with the Add-On Manager; and mailto links can now launch Web-based e-mail applications such as Gmail, not just local applications on the PC such as Outlook.

• Personalization. Web pages can be bookmarked with one click and tagged with a double-click (though the interface looked rough to me); the aforementioned feature provides a list of possible matching Web pages based on what you type in the location bar; and a new Smart Places folder provides access to pages that are frequently visited or that have been recently bookmarked and tagged.