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Firefox 3.5 Improves Performance, Privacy, and Standards Support

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Mozilla has thrown back the curtains on Firefox 3.5, a significant update to the most popular Web browser that's independent of operating system makers. The tagline for the new browser is "Faster, Safer, Smarter, Better," and in initial testing, its new and enhanced features indeed appear to improve an already good experience.

Faster -- Firefox 3.5 includes a new JavaScript engine called TraceMonkey, which is supposed to provide up to twice the performance of Firefox 3.0, and over ten times the performance of Firefox 2. (I see hardly any visitors to TidBITS still using Firefox 2.)

Although Mozilla provides a chart comparing Firefox 3.5 with Safari 4, results on performance are not included. That leads me to believe that Safari 4 remains the current speed champ. Nonetheless, Firefox 3.5 does feel notably snappier when working with JavaScript-intensive sites like Google Docs. Even the TidBITS site feels faster, which makes sense, given our increasing use of JavaScript to add features and improve ease-of-use.

Page rendering in general is also faster, thanks to a new version of the Gecko engine with "speculative parsing" that can load resources (such as scripts) in parallel with the rest of the page. I wouldn't trust rendering speed benchmarks, since there are so many real-world bottlenecks that change the standard user experience, but in my short usage of Firefox 3.5, it definitely feels faster.

Safer -- Security is increasingly important on the Internet, and Firefox has long had a number of essential security features, including a pop-up blocker, a constantly updated database of phishing sites, automated updates to fix vulnerabilities, detailed site information (click the site's favicon in the address bar), and more.

New in Firefox 3.5 is a private browsing mode (Tools > Start Private Browsing) that avoids recording Web history, form entries and searches, downloads, passwords, cookies, and cache files (though bookmarks you create in private browsing mode are retained). Since it's easy to switch in and out of private browsing mode, there's little downside to using it when you wish to keep nosy kids from seeing where you were shopping for birthday presents. (Yeah, I know what people will really use it for, but this is a family publication.)

If you forget to turn on private browsing, you can still at least ask Firefox to forget where you've been. This feature, also new in Firefox 3.5, is a bit tricky to find. Choose History > Show All History, and in the Library window that appears, search for the site you want Firefox to forget. Once you find it, Control-click it and choose Forget About This Site from the contextual menu that appears. That site will be erased from your browsing history, though cookies (and possibly other information, like form entries) remain.

Firefox 3.5 also converts the previous Clear Private Data dialog to a Clear Recent History dialog (Tools > Clear Recent History), adding the capability to control the time span over which data will be deleted, perfect for clearing out what you've been doing on a public computer for the last few hours.

Smarter, Better -- It's a little hard to know what Mozilla was getting at with these words, but Firefox 3.5 reportedly improved the "Awesome Bar" (the address field, into which you can type nearly anything and get back something useful), the way you can tag bookmarks, and the extremely helpful session restore capability. It's unclear exactly what changes were made there. More concrete is the improvement to Firefox's tabbed browsing. You can now drag a tab out of a window to create a new window with that tab's contents, a notable omission in Firefox 3.0.

Firefox 3.5 also introduces location-aware browsing, an optional feature that allows Firefox to share information about your location with Web sites. Mozilla is riding on the coattails of Google, which developed the Geolocation API and submitted it to the W3C standards consortium. As with iPhone apps, you're asked each time a Web site requests access to your location so it's not a privacy concern.

Geolocation works both by checking your IP address and scanning for any wireless networks within range of your computer, so its accuracy will range from a few meters to a few miles (all it knows about me so far while I use a computer inside my home is that I'm in Ithaca, NY).

A Web site could request your location from your browser via JavaScript, but it's unlikely that a Web site would ask for this when you load a page. More likely, you'll click on a "Find stores" or "Where am I?" link. Firefox would then display the location request at the top of the page, much as it asks if you want a password to be saved.

I can't really see location-aware browsing being all that important, given that when I want location-specific information, I'm usually using my iPhone somewhere other than at my desk. And even when I'm travelling with my MacBook, I imagine I'd turn to the iPhone first for location-specific information. For those without location-savvy phones, this feature could be useful when you're using a coffee shop, library, or hotel network in an unfamiliar area.

Mozilla also put a lot of effort into Firefox's support for modern Web standards. Firefox 3.5 now supports downloadable fonts, HTML 5's audio and video elements, the HTML 5 offline resource spec, drag-and-drop within and between Web sites, CSS media queries for media-dependent style sheets, multi-threading for speeding up Web applications, and more. As usual, these improvements won't mean much until they're adopted by Web developers for sites you use, and such changes tend to happen slowly because of the large number of people who don't (or can't) upgrade from old browsers.

Comparing with Safari 4 -- Since I'm using a Mac, Mozilla's site showed me a comparison of Firefox 3.5 and Safari 4, rather than Firefox 3.5 and Internet Explorer 8. It acknowledges that Safari 4 does an excellent job with modern Web standards, but then gives Firefox the nod in speed of response to security vulnerabilities, number of add-ons, and adaptive capabilities.

That seems fair: security updates to Firefox do appear more quickly than updates to Safari; Firefox does have far more add-ons that extend its functionality; and Firefox's "Awesome Bar" really is far better than Safari's "Smart Address Field," simply because you can enter anything in Firefox's address field and it will do something intelligent (display bookmarks or recently visited sites, go directly to the correct site, or run a Google search). In contrast, typing in Safari 4's address field can access only your bookmarks and history, and only those by URL, rather than by name or content.

Although I appreciate Safari 4's speed, I stayed with Firefox 3.0 and am now happy to use 3.5. For my purposes, Firefox's "Awesome Bar" (I just can't bring myself to type those words outside of quotes) is the key differentiating factor. Being a writer, I think in words and I direct them through my fingers on the keyboard, so it's important to me to be able to navigate the Web via text. Also important to me is Firefox's capability to restore sessions automatically after relaunching. Safari offers a History > Reopen All Windows From Last Session command, but I don't want to have to remember to do that after every restart.

I recommend you take a look at Firefox 3.5. If nothing else, it's good to have multiple Web browsers around when dealing with badly coded sites. I also like using multiple browsers when testing how Web pages render and how a site behaves when I'm logged in versus when not.

But here's one suggestion. The main drawback that kept me from switching among browsers in the past was my bookmarks - I don't use a lot, but I rely heavily on those I do have. There's a free utility called Xmarks (previously known as Foxmarks) that backs up and synchronizes your bookmarks between Firefox and Safari (it also works with Internet Explorer). Thanks to Xmarks, I can be certain that Firefox and Safari always have exactly the same set of bookmarks across all my Macs, which makes it easy to use any browser at any time. Although Xmarks doesn't claim compatibility with Firefox 3.5 or Safari 4 yet, I was able to install it for Safari 4 on my MacBook and use it to sync bookmarks back and forth with Firefox 3.5. Your mileage may vary until Xmarks announces official support.

Firefox 3.5 for Mac OS X requires Mac OS X 10.4 or later. Note that a number of add-ons will be disabled by the update; in the past, add-on developers have responded quickly with updates. It's a 17.6 MB download.


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Comments about Firefox 3.5 Improves Performance, Privacy, and Standards Support
(Comments are closed.)

Steve Werner  2009-07-01 15:37
I was interested in the free utility called Xmarks that Adam recommended to sync bookmarks between Firefox and Safari. When I went to the website, it didn't seem list list compatibility with specific versions of Safari and Firefox. But when I searched the support forums, it seems that neither Safari 4 or Firefox 3.5 are officially supported yet.

I'm going to hold off installing this utility until they are supported.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-02 04:52
A good point, and I've updated the article to note that although official support is not available, Xmarks does appear to work for me with both Firefox 3.5 and Safari 4. It may be a bit flaky around the edges, but I think it's still worth a try. Just be careful to have a backup of your bookmarks first, in case it goes off the deep end.
Syaman  2009-07-02 04:34
Thanks Adam for the review.

Regarding the bookmarks synch, how do you compare the experience with something web-based like delicious?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-02 04:54
I've not tried, so I can't compare there. If anyone else reading this comment thread has, please weigh in! I will note that I really like the "Awesome Bar" and its ability to access my bookmarks when I type a few relevant characters. Since I presume I'd lose that with a Web-based solution, such an approach would be a non-starter for me.
John Slater  2009-07-02 07:42
Hi Adam. I work at Mozilla, and wanted to point out one small thing...we serve up that comparison chart depending on which OS you're using, so anyone on a PC will see a similar, yet different, version for IE8. We're equal-opportunity comparers!
Thanks for the very thorough review.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-02 08:38
Well, that's downright sneaky, John! But clever, of course, and I've updated the article to correct this.

Now to see if I can fool Mozilla's site into showing me the IE8 comparison chart too.
Charlie  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2009-07-02 11:01
Whenever I try to use Firefox my reaction is always the same: "God this is ugly", and I immediately go back to using Safari. I'll put up with ugly programs if they have unique capabilities that help me work better. At least for *me* Firefox doesn't fall in that category, although I know that for others it does. I keep it in my tool kit just to see how sites I'm working on appear in Firefox. I also use IE (via Parallels) for the same reason.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-02 11:43
I've certainly had that reaction to other programs in the past, but I've used enough browsers over the years that Firefox just looks like another browser to me. The fact that the main interface involved is always at the Web sites I'm visiting helps me ignore the window chrome. Perhaps the main non-Mac-like thing it does that bothers me is using its own password manager instead of the Keychain.
Charlie  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2009-07-02 13:12
I agree with your comment that the main interface is the web site you're visiting. I'm sure I could quickly get used to Firefox, after all I used IE on a Dell for years and years at work. In fact, I also was a Firefox user during this time and I recently recommended it to my Windows using brother. I just haven't yet felt the need to use it on my Mac. If there was a compelling advantage I'd switch in a heartbeat.
Dainius Blynas  2009-07-04 01:21
I am just not interested in firefox at all. Why use that when default choice is (at least) not worse a bit.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-04 05:41
If you're not interested in it, then there's no reason at all. :-) But for me, and for many other people (about 20% of the population), Firefox offers enough of a different take on how Web browsing should work to make it worth using. I like some features in other browsers, like Safari and OmniWeb, but for me, at the moment, Firefox offers the best combination of features and performance.

And what everyone should appreciate is that the more innovation from browsers like Firefox, the more that Apple and Microsoft must improve Safari and Internet Explorer to compete.
Steven Fisher  2009-07-06 12:40
I like your writing on this article, but I don't buy the last argument in your comment. While innovation comes from everywhere, the idea that competing browsers is necessary for motivating Safari and Internet Explorer development is weak.

The WebKit guys have been doing some amazing things, and as far as I can see they're not doing them to catch up, but because they make for a better browser. If Firefox adds a good idea, of course that'll lead to WebKit doing something similar, but "must"?

Note also that Firefox has caused so little movement out of Internet Explorer as to not be significant. So the other example in the argument doesn't hold weight either.

If correlation and inspiration is not causation, it certainly isn't compulsion either.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-06 13:07
Perhaps I overemphasized for effect, but I do believe that fields in which there is competition are more likely to evolve quickly than those in which there is no competition. (I say this in part because I watched the near-daily betas of Netscape and Internet Explorer back in the late 1990s when the competition was especially heated.) That's especially true when the primary entrants have huge advantages (bundling). Whether a change in Firefox will result in a response from IE or Safari is another story, but it's certainly more likely than if there was no Firefox.
Thanks for the article, Adam. I have found that Firefox 3.5 is faster than Safari 4, and Safari 4 seems a little slower than 3.2. No scientific data to support this conclusion, but just the feel of each program. Thus, I have begun using Firefox more often, although Safari is still the default.
Jim Wickman  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2009-07-06 16:23
When is Firefox going to come of age? It ignores an awful lot of Contextual Menu items and Services -- both strong features on the Mac platform.

I'm still waiting -- should I give up hope?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-06 17:44
There are certain platform-specific technologies that Firefox is unlikely to implement because they aren't useful on the other platforms it supports. That's part of the point of Camino, which uses the same rendering engine and is meant to be a Mac-specific browser.

That said, I haven't run into this because I've not found any service or contextual menu item that's useful enough to insinuate itself into my workflow. Your mileage may vary!
Dennis B. Swaney  2009-07-06 16:40
My experience has been that Safari is far slower than Firefox. I've used both (currently FF3.0.11 and Safari 4.0) for years. In fact just this morning after ANOTHER "Safari Not responding" message, I changed my default browser from Safari to Firefox. With the addition of Xmarks, I will be able to use my extensive Safari bookmarks with Safari.

Addition to the above.

While I was able to get Xmarks working with Firefox on my G5 iMac running Mac OS 10.4.11, I can't use it with Safari because Xmarks says it will only work with Mac OS 10.5! Excuse me? If that is so, then why is it working with Firefox?
Robert  2009-07-06 17:18
I wonder whether Firefox 3.5 fixes the support for AppleTalk. Firefox 3.0 broke it, making external url managers, like Alco's URL Manager Pro, not being able to track visited pages or save addresses properly.
Sebastian Hagedorn  An apple icon for a TidBITS Supporter 2009-07-07 00:45
Just a small correction, you mean AppleScript. AppleTalk was a network protocol ...
Robert  2009-07-07 09:29
Yes, indeed, I meant AppleScript. I gather that nobody checked that out so far...
Wagner  2009-07-06 22:11
I've tried previous versions of FF, only to revert to Safari after a few minutes. This time I gave it several days, but still went back.

I like the flexibility that FF offers in terms of plugins and history management.

I didn't like that if I try to manage cookies more thoughtfully, it keeps asking me time and again for approval, even though I checked the option to "do as I just did".

But the thing that killed it for me more than anything else is the absurd lack of support for changing keyboard shortcuts.

There are 3 ways to move back to the previously visited page. I only need one, one that *I* would like to set.

Worse, though, is that one of those 3 is cmd-left-arrow. Now, imagine typing into a text field much like this one I'm now using. Imagine wanting to move the cursor to the start of the line. On most mac programs, you'd use cmd-left-arrow.

Now imagine typing a long message, then hitting cmd-left-arrow. BOOM! You're in the previous page, and your text is gone. GONE!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-07 05:10
Unless you're seeing something I'm not, the Cmd-Left Arrow issue isn't a problem. When you're in a form field in Firefox 3.5, Cmd-Left Arrow takes you to the beginning of the line, just as you want. If you're not in a form field, Cmd-Left Arrow moves you back a page, yes, but if you use Cmd-Right Arrow to move forward again, your text is still in the form field. So nothing is lost.
Wagner  2009-07-07 17:21
Hi Adam,
thanks for addressing my comment. I am surprised by what you said, because the behavior I described happened consistently and reproducibly during the entire time I tried Firefox.
Just as a sanity check, I will try again and will report back the results in a few minutes.

Update: it is a site-dependent behavior. In the site I was using Firefox the most, it behaved (and still does) as I described. Here it behaves as you described. Safari works fine in both sites, in that respect.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-07 05:18
I spent a little time looking into Firefox's keyboard shortcuts. First off, there's a list of them here:

Second, although Firefox itself doesn't provide any way to change them, there are two basic approaches to doing this.

First, use a macro utility like Keyboard Maestro. I do this a lot to make similar programs like Web browsers use the same shortcuts.

Second, there's an extension for Firefox called Keyconfig that brings this capability directly to Firefox. It's quite confusing to configure, though.
Wagner  2009-07-07 17:35
Yes, but don't you think that requiring the user to use 3rd-party products for something that should be built-in is a bit too much to expect from users? After all, OS X has a standard and built-in facility for changing kb shortcuts. I cannot, in all honesty, consider FF to be an OS X application if it doesn't support something so basic. And it's not as if it's something really hard to implement, anyway. (I speak out of experience, in that regard).

A similar argument could be made about supporting storing secure data in the key-chain, but that's another separate issue and a bit harder to implement, as far as I know.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-08 12:13
Firefox isn't a great Mac OS X application - no two ways about it. It's just too cross-platform for that. That said, very few applications let you modify their keyboard shortcuts internally, and although Mac OS X does have the system-wide approach for doing it, my experience is that it doesn't work in enough apps that I always use something like Keyboard Maestro instead.
JohannesBB  2009-07-07 00:52
The most disturbing bug inside Firefox 3: printing problems; in some cases it prints only a part of a webpage. Because I don't trust it anymore, I began to switch to another browser each time I want to print anything. Do you know, whether Firefox 3.5 has solved any of these printing problems?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-07 05:19
I don't, sorry. I seldom print anything from a Web browser, and when I do, I always click the Preview button and verify that what shows up in Preview is what I wanted, since printing from browsers is always a little haphazard.
Graham Allsopp  2009-07-07 05:58
After using FF as my primary browser for perhaps 18 months, I've returned to Safari with v4.

To be honest I find little difference between them, and Xmarks competently manages my bookmarks between S4 and FF3.5 on both my home and work computers. Safari 4 just feels a little more 'comfortable'.

The one FF feature I do miss in S4 is the ability to save login details AFTER you've logged into a page - my keychain is littered with incorrect login details saved through Safari. Guess I've just got too many passwords!
Bill Hardie  2009-07-07 14:22
I do not want the "feature" of "not allowing redirecting to a new page" that started with Firefox 3.5. One of my applications requires redirection to efficiently complete an action.

I can't find this option in the preferences and now want to go back to 3.4 or whatever. How?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2009-07-08 12:11
I think the checkbox you want is in Preferences > Advanced > General > Warn me when Web sites try to redirect or reload the page. Try turning that off.
Bill Hardie  2009-07-09 16:38
Thanks Adam for your reply.Yep, that did the trick to stop the unwanted action. There is still a problem with my web site that reserves start time at my golf club. When I click on a time I want to reserve the load starts but never finishes. The older version worked just fine as does the new Safari. I keep getting beat out for the starting times I want.

I guess that I still would like to revert to a previous version of Firefox and will go to their site to check it out. Thanks again.Bill
philcig  2009-07-15 10:19
1. Passwords - one if the reasons I've always preferred FF is its password manager. Our family has one Mac and when we go to Gmail or the public library website, for example, one click in the username field drops down a list of our names, selecting one enters the password. Safari doesn't do this.
2. Printing - I, too have found FF frequently not printing the whole page or only printing 1 page of several - checking Preview shows me when this is going to happen, so I then open the page in Safari and it prints fine.
3. Copying and pasting from FF to a word processor always loses the formatting so I always get the processor's default font. Safari does much better - the fonts from the page show up as does most of the formatting.