Losing My Religion: Firefox 3

Wednesday Mar 12th 2008 by Kenneth Hess
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Confessions of a Linux Geek

Forgive me, Linux Community, for I have sinned. It has been forever since my last confession and I am prepared for my penance. The truth is that I have never particularly cared for the Firefox browser--not because there is anything wrong with it but just because I already have a favorite browser. No, it isn't the one you think it is. My favorite graphical browser is Konqueror and my favorite text-based browser was--and still is--lynx. Putting my own religious fervor and proselytizing nature aside, my task is to review the new Firefox 3 browser for you.

After trying for days to install from source and solve an endless list of dependencies, I gave up and downloaded one of the binary packages from Firefox 3 Beta Downloads. Here you will find a list of the latest stable beta version of the browser in about 50 different languages. The latest beta, as of this writing, is Beta 3 upon which this article is based. To use the binary package, you need to download, unzip, untar, and run the firefox executable. (See Figure 1 for a sneak peak at Firefox 3 Beta 3.)

Some of the new features are extremely useful (page zooming, text selection, and URL auto-completion while others are more esoteric (One-click site information and one-click Bookmarks). The developers have done a good job of listening and responding to user requests for features that exist in other browsers. The development team understands that if you want people to use, or switch to, your product; it must be at least as good as the competition.

While much of its new functionality occurs behind the scenes, you will have a more enjoyable Firefox experience because of these improvements. For one, Firefox offers a more robust and reliable data store for your bookmarks, cookies, history, and preferences so system or browser crashes won't cause you to lose your data. Firefox's speed improvements are due to some new internal programming but you may not notice the boost until you hit websites that use a lot of JavaScript. Finally, there have been hundreds of bug fixes made that correct memory leaks. Memory leaks caused the amount of memory that Firefox used to grow as you used it. If you used it for long periods of time, and depending on the severity of the memory leak, Firefox would crash often taking data (history, cookies, and bookmarks) with it.

Firefox 3 is still in beta development but many of the end user improvements look promising. The improved Download Manager makes it easier to find your files once you've downloaded them. This was a confusing point for newer users who couldn't find freshly downloaded files. The default location is the desktop. The files are easier to find but tend to clutter the desktop. The Download Manager also has a resumable download feature that requires no extra intervention by the user. Your failed downloads resume if you reopen your browser or when your Internet or network connection is restored.

One of the best new Firefox 3 enhancements, especially for an aging population, is the full-page zoom feature. To invoke the zoom feature, use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl+ or select View->Zoom->Zoom In from the menu bar. You can zoom in up to 4X. To zoom out, use Ctrl- or use View->Zoom->Zoom Out. You can zoom out two times--even from a standard page. To reset your browser to standard view at any time, use Ctrl 0 or View->Zoom->Reset. This new feature alone may be worth the conversion to Firefox or, at the very least for you Firefox user, an upgrade. See an example of a zoomed page in Figures 2 and 3. Figure 2 shows the linuxplanet.com site as it appears normally in Firefox 3 and Figure 3 is an example of a 2X zoom.

You can now select a single word of text by double clicking it and an entire paragraph by triple clicking. This particular feature is handy for quickly grabbing text to copy and paste into other documents. Being able to select text in this fashion is only half-new for Firefox. In the 2.x versions, you could select a single word with a double click but a triple click would only select a single line. For some users, this may be one of the more obscure qualities but it has existed for some time in other browsers.

Next: Interesting Security Enhancements »

For all the new improvements, features, add-ons, and reworking of Firefox 3, I find the security and privacy enhancements the most convincing for someone looking to explore new browsers. This new version warns you should you stumble onto a site that attempts to install any malware (viruses, trojans, spyware, etc.) on your computer. The harmful software never gets a chance to contaminate your computer due to this built-in warning system. See Figure 4 to view the warning that you'll receive.

There is also built-in protection against what is known as web forgery. Web forgery is perpetrated most often by emails suggesting that you need to click a link to claim a prize, fix your compromised bank account, or update other information that requires you to submit sensitive information about yourself. These attempts are very convincing and look official to the unsuspecting eye. Firefox protects you from falling prey to these attacks. When you are directed to a site suspected of being a web forgery site, you will receive a warning in your browser (see Figure 5) instead of the site's contents. By completely blocking the site from view, your browser, computer, and valuable personal information are safe.

Firefox also protects your computer against viruses by scanning downloads before they ever get to your computer. Since the use of floppy disk drives has fallen to almost zero, browser-based attacks and infected downloads are now the most common ways of acquiring viruses.

I don't like that when I visit a new site that has embedded Flash, or some other common web widget, that I have to download and install an Add-On (see Figure 6). I think there should be a standard set of technologies, like Flash, that are supported out of the box because of their ubiquitous use on websites. Third-party add-ons remove some of the security control in Firefox and therefore their use should be limited. Firefox 3 does disable older insecure add-on updates and only allows secure updates for currently installed add-ons.

Though I've spoken plainly in letting you know that I have not been a fan of Firefox in the past, I now find myself intrigued by it. I really like the security enhancements and virus protection that is now tightly integrated into the product. I also like the page zoom feature that makes fine print easier to read for my rapidly aging eyes. You can't please everyone and it's hard to convert to a new religion but Firefox 3 is a refreshing new beginning and it is definitely worth a look when the final production version is available.

Kenneth Hess is a freelance technical writer who writes on a variety of subjects including Linux, MySQL, SQLite, PHP, and Apache. You may reach Ken via his website.

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This article was first published on LinuxPlanet.com.

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