Firefox 4 had a rough time in its early development, but those days are over. The browser that you can download now is in the same speed category as its competition; offers many similar features (stronger in many areas and slightly weaker in others); includes broad, cross-platform support for hardware acceleration and other "future-web" tech and standards; and is a must-have for Android users.
Installing Firefox 4 was a fine, quick experience. Beta users, who toiled for 10 months using betas of varying stability and quality, might be disappointed that Firefox 4 doesn't clean up the beta detritus left behind. That's the cost of using a beta, though.
Firefox 4 does not include automatic updating the way that Opera and Chrome do, although checking out the About option under Help in the menu will automatically start updates downloading and then ask you to apply them. Firefox 4 has gotten significantly faster at restarting and the process that used to take several minutes this time took less than a minute on our test computers. Note that this is for updates after you've already installed Firefox 4. Updating from version 3.6 to version 4 is likely to take several minutes, because of the significant code changes that have been made.
Careful Firefox observers will notice that the browser no longer ships with a separate icon for Safe Mode. Simply hold down Shift; when you click on the Firefox icon to open a box you will be allowed to customise which settings carry over to Safe Mode.
Firefox automatically installs a Windows 7 taskbar icon if you choose it as your default browser. Uninstalling the browser does not leave behind any icons or folders if you choose to remove your settings at the same time.
If you're a big Firefox fan, you'd better hope that you're either not very attached to the version 3.6 look or you're extremely taken by the new design. Firefox 4's main interface is completely different from what's come before, retaining only the larger back button that debuted in version 3. Not surprisingly, the new design also brings the browser significantly closer to the minimalist style first adopted by Google Chrome in 2008, although it looks most similar to Opera 11.
The menu bar has been squished into an orange button on the upper left, with menu options spread across two columns. Nearly all the sub-menus have been redesigned as well, although the hot keys remain the same, so the learning curve isn't particularly steep. In fact, the menu redesign makes it much easier to get to bookmarks, add-ons and history, as they now all live on one menu pane. The menu button is not available to Mac users.
Besides the major changes to the menu, smaller changes have greatly improved usability. For example, there's now a Get Bookmark Add-ons link in the Bookmarks sub-menu. The History sub-menu now has Recently Closed Tabs and Recently Closed Windows sections.
Tabs are now on top by default and while the forward and back navigation buttons haven't moved, the stop and refresh buttons are now attached to the right side of the location bar, next to the bookmark star. When you're typing a URL, the "Go" button appears in green. While resolving a URL, the box changes from the "Go" arrow to an "X" for the new Stop button and the green changes to red. The visual cues are minor but help to highlight their new location in the interface. Returning the Stop and Refresh buttons to their Firefox 3.6 locations can be done via the Customize option. What little colour remained in the default interface, mostly the green Back button, has been leached out for a muted grey. You can customise the Firefox skin with the restartless Personas add-ons, added in Firefox 3.6.
Right of the location bar lives the traditional search box, with its drop-down list of search engines. Above that on the tab bar there is a new button that lists all your open tabs and you can add a button to access the Tab Groups feature. For some reason, the final version of Firefox 4 doesn't ship with the button by default, although the betas often did. You can add the button by right-clicking on the interface and choosing Customize, then dragging and dropping the Tab Groups icon next to the List All Tabs button. We don't consider many customisations to be essential, but this one is.
The Status bar that lives at the bottom of the interface is now hidden by default, again in keeping with the minimalist philosophy and the competition. There's a new Add-on bar as well, also hidden by default, to which extension icons can be added if you want to keep add-on icons easily available but out of the way of the main interface.
One of Firefox's singular strengths is its capacity for customisation, which remains unparalleled and is accessible even to novice users. While the competition does offer add-ons and extensions, Firefox remains far ahead of all of them in interface customisation.
Features and support
Firefox 4's features are robust and generally competitive. There is some minor functionality missing in a few cases where the browser remains behind the competition, but Firefox is generally one of the most progressive major browsers available, an early adopter if not always an innovator.
The most important new feature in Firefox 4 is Sync. As with many recent Firefox features, it started off as a rough add-on and often deleted data. If you were scared off by its early bad behaviour, you'll be glad to know that Mozilla has worked out the kinks: Sync now smoothly syncs your Bookmarks, Passwords, Preferences, History and Tabs not only with other computers, but also with your Android version of Firefox. (There's also Firefox 4 for Maemo devices. It doesn't yet support syncing add-ons, which is one of those frustrating missing functions mentioned above.)
To use it, click on the Menu button and choose Set Up Sync from the left column. That will take you to a window where you can connect an existing Firefox Sync account or create a new one. Within Firefox Sync, there are two important security points. One is that Firefox encrypts your data before sending it over an encrypted connection to its servers, where it remains encrypted. Mozilla says that the company would not be able to access it even if somebody there wanted to. The second is that you have the option of setting up your own personal sync server. In an age when private data stored by corporations gets hacked and stolen with shocking regularity, setting up a personal sync server is one way to ensure that you bear the responsibility for your own data.
Another big feature in Firefox 4 is support for restartless add-ons. These add-ons are written differently from standard Firefox add-ons and are expected to become the format for add-ons in the future. As such, not many restartless add-ons exist — only about 115 at the time of writing this review, compared with the thousands of "standard" add-ons. This will continue to pose a big problem for Mozilla, as older add-ons become a bottleneck for Firefox that other browsers, with their newer add-on frameworks, don't have to manage.
Firefox 4's add-on manager has been completely overhauled and now includes support for the aforementioned restartless add-ons. There's a lot of useful new technology here, as compared with the version 3.6 add-on manager. Not only can you search for add-ons from within the add-on window using the search box in the upper right corner, you can add them without having to jump to the external Mozilla Add-on website, also known as AMO. The manager calls out the AMO add-on collections, which you can create more explicitly in the Get Add-ons tab. The add-on manager also allows you to browse Personas, the restartless Firefox themes. It's slightly annoying that clicking on an add-on group or collection opens the page in a new browser window, whereas clicking on a specific add-on opens that add-on's download page within the add-on manager. That's a very minor criticism, though.
Other changes to the add-on manager include forward and back buttons specific to the manager, in the upper left corner and left-side navigation tabs for specifically focusing on Extensions, Appearance and Plug-ins. Meanwhile, two little improvements to the manager will impress keyboard junkies. There's a new hot key for pulling up the add-on manager, Control-Shift-A and you can type about:addons directly into the location bar to access the add-ons manager in a tab.
The tab-grouping feature seems to be suffering a bit of an identity crisis, though its functionality is untouched. Originally called Tab Candy, then renamed Panorama and now known as Tab Groups, it presents your tabs as an array of thumbnail images. The thumbnails reside in rectangular boxes that constitute a group. Tabs can be dragged from one group to another and groups can be named and moved as well. You can add a tab to an existing group or create a new group by right-clicking on the tab and choosing Move to Group. The hot-key combo Control-Shift-E will also jump between the main interface and the Tab Group window.
The overall idea is to make it easier to switch from one tab to another, to group or regroup related tabs and to get a global view of what's going on with your tabs. It's potentially a big improvement in browser usage, compared with aiming a mouse at an ever-skinnier tab, cycling through a list with alt-tab keystrokes or pecking at a drop-down menu to reach the tabs that overflowed off the deep.
The bookmarks and history menus have been redesigned and now the hot keys open them by default as sidebars. Go through the Menu button to get the full menus. We were actually quite impressed with the layout of the menu button options for bookmarks and history, finding it much more useful with quick access to recently closed tabs and new bookmark tags. This is probably the most useful in-browser bookmark manager around, especially if you enable Sync and use it with your Android phone or tablet.
Firefox 4 supports App Tabs, which reduces the width of a tab to its favicon and pins the tab permanently on the left. The tab will glow when updated, a useful indicator for things like webmail. And when you start typing into the location bar, one of the search choices will be related open tabs so that you can quickly switch to an existing tab.
There's a decent list of other, smaller changes to Firefox that are worth pointing out because they'll enhance your workflow in the browser. One of these is Switch to Tab. Open a new tab, start typing the name of an already-open tab and the URL will appear in the drop-down with "Switch to Tab" beneath it. Select that one, and the new tab closes and you're whisked to the pre-existing tab. It's a great trick for cutting down on the amount of time it takes to sift through 45 open tabs and removes the chance of having the same tab accidentally open twice or more.
The location bar, or as Mozilla calls it, the Awesome Bar, retains the features introduced in Firefox 3.5, such as the options to search your history and bookmarks and to tap your default search engine to provide you with quick results. However, the "feeling lucky" instant jump to what it thinks is the website you're most likely to be looking for has been disabled because of internal Mozilla concerns about accidentally sending personal information to the search provider.
Private browsing reflects the browser's faster start-up and shut-down times so that it jumps between standard browsing and Private Browsing mode significantly faster than in version 3.6.
The new Do Not Track feature indicates via a header notification that you want to opt out of targeted advertisements. However, it requires that the website you're viewing, and therefore that site's developers, respect the header itself. While this is great for future-proofing the web, as implemented at the time of writing, not many websites have taken notice of it. While that doesn't mean it won't eventually have a big impact, that time is not now, and it's better to install an add-on like AdBlock Plus to get more complete ad-tracking protection.
There are two smaller yet important changes to the way that Firefox protects you. One is the implementation of the Content Security Policy, which is designed to block one of the most common types of browser threats, cross-site scripting attacks, by allowing sites to tell the browser which content is legitimate. Though CSP also places the burden on the site developers, it's backward-compatible and aimed mostly at well-known sites hosting immense volumes of data and content.
Another security improvement is the implementation of HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS). This prevents your log-in information from being intercepted by telling Firefox to automatically create a secure connection to a site's servers.
The new feature set alone makes it worth upgrading to the latest version of Firefox. While some older Firefox users may feel that these features add unnecessary bloat to a browser that offers add-ons specifically so that you can customise your browsing experience, Firefox 4 is actually dramatically faster than Firefox 3.6. We address the browser's behaviour in the section below.
As mentioned earlier, Firefox 4's performance has been greatly improved by the addition of graphics processing unit (GPU) hardware acceleration. It allows the browser to shove certain rendering tasks onto the computer's graphics card, freeing up CPU resources while making page rendering and animations load faster. These tasks include composition support, rendering support and desktop compositing.
One interesting publicly available benchmark is the new JSGameBench from Facebook, which looks to test HTML5 in real-world gaming situations. The Firefox 4 beta was the fastest tested without WebGL and was the second fastest with it.
Note that to effectively use hardware acceleration, you must make sure that your graphics card drivers are up to date.
In hands-on experiences, one of the best performance differences between Firefox 3.6 and the current version is that Firefox 4 crashes far, far less. That's due in no small part to improvements made to the plug-in crash protection, which prevents plug-ins like Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime and Microsoft Silverlight from dropping the browser dead. If one of them crashes, simply reload the page.
Definitely a worthy heir to the Firefox name, Firefox 4's one drawback is that, like its competitors, it uses massive amounts of RAM. Don't expect that to change as the browser is relied upon to perform more and more tasks that once occurred in other programs. It will also be less of a problem as hardware improves.
Firefox 4 faces a much more challenging field of competition than Firefox 3 did. Some people have probably abandoned the browser for the significant speed differences between version 3.6 and Google Chrome. However, the competition has forced Mozilla and others to put out better browsers in order to thrive. Firefox 4 is arguably the best browser on the market today.