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Firefox 3.6 Adds Trendy Shiny Stuff (But Is Still Good)

For the record, I like Firefox. I like the way you can type anything in the address bar and get good results, I like the way it can automatically reopen tabs after being quit, and I like the fact that its searches look inside textarea fields in Web apps. It's my main Web browser.

So when Firefox 3.6 was released last week, I happily went looking for release notes, hoping to find something that would make Firefox even more useful to me. The good news is that Mozilla claims that Firefox 3.6 is 20 percent faster than 3.5, form autocomplete now lists items in order based on a combination of frequency and recentness, and tabs opened from links can (but don't have to) appear next to the current tab. I'll have to see if this final feature is worthwhile, but when you have a lot of tabs open, having a new one appear way off to the right-hand edge of the tab list can be awkward. Nice stuff, but not game changing.

A couple of features should make Firefox 3.6 more secure, most notably the program's capability to alert you to out-of-date and insecure plug-ins. (Plug-ins, not to be confused with extensions or themes, make it possible for Firefox to display an otherwise unsupported type of data, like QuickTime movies, or communicate with external hardware, like the Garmin Forerunner GPS watch.) When you click Find Updates from the Plugins view of the Add-ons window, Firefox sends you to the Plugin Check page, which displays the status of your plug-ins. The only problem is that Firefox was unable to determine the version of six of my ten plugins, even though three of them had the version number in the name, rendering it relatively useless. And although it claimed the other four plug-ins were up to date, two of them (Silverlight and Shockwave Flash) actually had minor updates available when I clicked the Up to Date button. My confidence is not inspired.

Other changes are aimed at Web developers, who can now indicate that scripts should run asynchronously to speed up page load times, and can now specify downloadable Web fonts using the new WOFF font format. Firefox 3.6 also includes support for new CSS attributes such as gradients, background sizing, and pointer events; plus support for the new DOM and HTML5 specifications. Those last two should enable Web apps to incorporate both drag-and-drop and access to the local filesystem, further blurring the line between Web and desktop applications. Finally, Firefox 3.6 eliminates a legacy method that third-party software could use to tie into the program to reduce the incidence of crashes caused by that software.

Then there were changes that I'm sure someone will appreciate, but which I personally can't see myself using, such as Full Screen mode, which might be useful in kiosks. Ogg/Theora videos can now be viewed full-screen as well, though I'm not sure I've ever run across one of those. And while I guess it's nice that the private browsing feature now removes TEMP files, that seems largely of utility on public and shared systems.

Personas -- All of these features probably sound pretty minor, and indeed they are. But Mozilla apparently decided it needed something sexier for the Firefox 3.6 release, and so came up with "personas." As you may or may not know, Firefox supports themes, a way of changing the visual appearance of the program. In Firefox 3.5 and earlier, finding and installing themes worked much like finding and installing extensions - you had to find the theme somewhere on the Web (possibly in Mozilla's add-on directory), click an install button on the page, and restart Firefox. User-friendly it wasn't.

So with Firefox 3.6, Mozilla has introduced personas, which, as far as I can tell, are simply a graphic that replaces the standard gray background behind toolbars, tabs, and other window dressing at the top of the Firefox window. Personas appear to be minimal themes; you can manage them in the Themes view of the Add-ons window, but they don't modify Firefox's button types or dialogs, which themes can do. And where full themes still require that you jump through the install/restart hoop, personas can be previewed simply by moving your cursor over a thumbnail and don't require that you restart Firefox (presumably because it's really easy to change the look of a window, but much harder to modify buttons and the like).

Now, I don't want to come off as a complete fuddy-duddy, but after previewing 30 or 40 personas, I can't see anyone who relies on toolbar buttons and tabs using them. Mozilla advertises that there are over 30,000 designs in the Personas Gallery, but a few minutes of testing makes it clear that it's nearly impossible to find a persona that looks good without obscuring text in toolbar buttons and tab titles. Awkwardly, many personas need the vertical height afforded by additional toolbars showing - I have the 1Password and Google toolbars - but all that extra text offset against an image just exacerbates the readability problem.

For example, the Fractal Elemental persona, which is an undeniably cool image, renders the text on my toolbars nearly unreadable. And the Martin Luther King Day "Keep Climbing" persona is barely visible at all if I turn off my Bookmarks, 1Password, and Google toolbars. I didn't have to search hard for examples that fail; these two were both featured on the main page of the Personas Gallery.

The Personas Gallery reports how many people are using each persona, and some of them are quite popular, with thousands of active users. (The most popular persona had 208,000 users when I first drafted this article, and the next one had 54,000 users; three days later, those numbers have fallen to 176,000 and 46,000, and the overall popularity numbers drop off fast from there.) Regardless, the massive usability problems caused by personas make painfully clear just why Apple has never embraced themes in Mac OS X. I'm not saying there couldn't be good personas, or even that there aren't, among the 30,000 that are available. But the fact that there are so many thousands of personas guaranteed to cause visual conniptions shows just why professional interface designers can find jobs.

My advice? Feel free to try out some personas, but unless you quickly hit on one that's both attractive with whatever vertical space your toolbar choice affords while not horribly obscuring toolbar and tab text, give the feature a pass.

Otherwise, Firefox 3.6 seems like a fine update to an already capable Web browser, and if you already use it, I see no reason to put off upgrading. (Well, as is always the case with Firefox, a new version will require some extensions to be updated, so if you rely on a particular extension that hasn't yet been updated, like Google Gears, you might want to wait for that.) But Firefox 3.6 is certainly nothing so special to make a happy Safari user want to switch. Personally, I'm running Firefox, Safari, and Chrome all simultaneously now, and you know what? They're all pretty much fine, with minor strengths and weaknesses but no glaring differences.

Firefox 3.6 for Mac OS X is a 17.6 MB download, at least in the English (US) version, and it requires Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger or later.


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Comments about Firefox 3.6 Adds Trendy Shiny Stuff (But Is Still Good)
(Comments are closed.)

Glenn Fleishman  2010-01-22 15:08
Useful to point out the plug-ins check for updates page: I didn't realize I had so many plug-ins installed that I wasn't using, some of them ancient. I've now updated one, and disabled 10!
Stephen Cox  2010-01-22 17:26
heh. The second persona I tried worked for me. It's lovely and I see all the buttons. It's called "Yoga Journal Lotus". Check it out.

I LOVE this new feature.
"Firefox 3.6 has been downloaded...
6,285,313 times since January 21, 2010" -
Carsten Mrau  2010-01-23 02:49
After realising the same readability issues the category Solid in the Personas gallery caught my attention. These Personas provide sometimes even better readability than the standard metal theme.

And my current favourite "Dream of Waves" now allows me to better distinguish open browser windows between Safari and Firefox which are often running side by side.
Bill Parkins  2010-01-23 05:55
Try the Yosemite persona, so far I've found it to be the best match of colors and doesn't obscure as much as the others. Also be sure to check out the following add-ons: Ad Block Plus, BetterPrivacy, FasterFox, FlagFox, Ghostery, Morning Coffee, NoScript, NoSquint. RequestPoicy and GoogleSharing too. Take control of the web!!
David Weintraub  2010-01-23 20:29
Apple is doing right by not using themes. The whole idea of a user interface is to make things easy for a user to do. About 99% of the custom themes make that hard, and the other 1% don't do a thing.

Think of it: The user interface that everyone says is the best in the world is Mac OS X's GUI (is it still called Aqua?). And, yet unlike Linux and Windows, doesn't have themes. The first thing Apple did when they bought SoundJam in order to create iTunes was get rid of the themes.

That should tell you something.
Edward Borland  2010-01-24 04:10
The interface is the brand! Agreed.
Something about 3.6 is messed up -- my toolbar add-on is completely missing in the browser window. It's just a black space now!
problems while accessing farmville. Firefox is consuming too much memory
Bad update for me!
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-25 06:37
This is truth in gaming - having grown up on a farm, I can say with some experience that you should get used to hard work and constant setbacks, all for a vanishingly small income. ;-)
Thanks for the news. 3 items:

1) has v3.6 fixed the "Server not found" issue that I experience too often with 3.5.x? Was so bad I went back to 3.0.x

2) I am not a fan of adding cute UI distortions to my apps... (shades of Kaleidoscope back in Classic Mac OS days - yuk) - I just want it to work, and look clear and easy. As Carsten's comment kind of illustrates - "doesn't obscure as much". Though as Bill points out, some may help in some cases. So if my #1 issue is fixed, I may give it a try.

3) Please stop using the word "Shiny" in your articles, as if that word implies a good thing. (a) software cannot be "shiny" (b) ever since the MacBooks and iMacs dropped anti-glare and went to shiny screens I have been loathe to buy or recommend the glossy screens... and "shiny" just brings up my own pain about the issue... sorry, hot button there... ;)
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-25 05:09
To alleviate your pain, Bruce, just remind yourself that the word to worry about is "glossy," not "shiny." This is one of the few times we've used "shiny" in a slangy way; pretty much all the others I see in recent articles were used to mean that the thing in question really did shine in some way. ;-)
goodbyeplanet  2010-01-25 02:28
forever in love with firefox no matter what the people say especially becoz firefox foundation respect and love the end users and they really work hard to try and consult end users on how they can improve their browser..

VIVA firefox
Adrian Segar  2010-01-25 10:49
Aaagh! Firefox 3.6 has broken Eudora's ability to open a link embedded in an email. Mozilla support's response: "consider a different email program to use in the future".
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-25 11:27
I don't see how this has been broken - it works fine for me. I even Option-double-clicked a URL in Eudora to reassign Firefox as the http URL handler and it still worked.
Adrian Segar  2010-01-25 11:41
Thanks for checking on this Adam. (Some people have all the luck!) Here's a report to Mozilla support from "Dick" of the identical problem I'm having.

Alas, neither does option-double-clicking work for me.

When I double-click on a link, Firefox becomes the active app, but the link doesn't open.

Mozilla says "There was a security change made in Firefox 3.6, related to opening hyperlinks from an external program, that is probably causing that problem with Eudora."

I wish I knew why it works for you. Any ideas?
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2010-01-25 12:04
The only thing I can think of that's odd about my setup at the moment is that although Eudora is still set to open URLs in Firefox, I have Chrome set as my default Web browser, so it handles URLs from almost all other sources.
Adrian Segar  2010-01-26 04:25
Apparently there's a bug in FireFox 3.6 that causes this behavior if there's a space character in the file name.

Here's the Mozilla support thread with more discussion:
The thing I love about Firefox (and why I don't use safari or chrome) is that you can override a web page's font selection with your own (see for the config check box(in this case, from my XP machine at work)). Personally, I think this is Firefox's single most compelling feature, and I do not know why safari doesn't have it too. Long may it stay.
May I ask why Firefox still fails to render print versions of website appropriately? As an example, articles from the NY Post are rendered in Safari very nicely but are unreadable in Firefox.
Flash Sheridan  2010-01-26 09:24
Do they care about their Mac-only user interface failures yet? E.g., ("Option (alt) dragging text within text fields doesn't copy the selection")