REVIEW: Firefox 4

The browser wars continue to rage with Microsoft, Mozilla, Google and others all keen to have us use their products, and theirs alone, to access the wonders of the Worldwide Web. New versions are appearing thick and fast with, in March this year, two significant new releases—the first from Microsoft with Internet Explorer 9 (IE9) closely followed by Firefox 4 from Mozilla a mere week later. We’ve already reviewed IE9, now it’s the turn of Firefox, with a look at just what version 4 of the Mozilla browser has to offer.

What is it and who is it for?

One of the big differentiators compared to Microsoft’s browser is the availability of Firefox for use on Apple Mac and Linux computers as well as Windows PCs. Indeed, if you’re a Linux user you’re probably using an earlier version of Firefox already as it comes bundled with nearly all the leading open source distributions.

It’s also available for smartphones, with an Android implementation of Firefox 4 part of this latest refresh. Apple iPhone users, however, aren’t included as Apple doesn’t allow the use of third-party rendering engines. They can download and run an app called Firefox Home, but because this uses Apples rendering technology it’s not quite the same.

In terms of who uses it, time was when Firefox was the sole domain of techno geeks prepared to put up with its idiosyncrasies, while the majority took what they were given—Internet Explorer—and just got on with it.

In the past few years, however, compatibility issues have evaporated and, Firefox has got progressively quicker and easier to use while IE has lagged some way behind the curve. As a result Firefox is now to be found on lots more desktops, especially since the EU forced Microsoft to give Windows users in Europe a choice over what browser to run on their PCs, rather than having to like IE or lump it.

Google’s entry into the market has also shaken things up. Indeed, Internet Explorer 9 and Firefox 4 are widely seen as reactions to the minimalist interface and superior performance of Google’s Chrome browser.

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Pricing & setup

No money has to change hands in order to either download or install Firefox 4, and all updates are free. More than that, it’s hard to imagine anyone being able to charge for a browser these days, at least not while there are so many, equally good, alternatives available for nothing.

All you have to do to get hold of the Firefox code is browse to the Mozilla website (using the browser of your choice, obviously) and click on the big green download button. The setup program for your platform and language settings will then be retrieved automatically. Alternatively, you can navigate away to get a different platform implementation, translated into one of over 70 different languages.

On Windows setup takes just a few minutes which is a lot quicker than IE 9, but then Firefox isn’t integrated into Windows in quite the same way. Note also that you can run Firefox on older Windows XP machines, whereas IE9 is Windows 7 only.

You will, of course, be asked if you want to make Firefox your default browser (if it isn’t already) and given the opportunity to import bookmarks and other settings if another browser is found to be in use. Where an earlier version of Firefox is found it will be upgraded and any add-ons checked for compatibility with the option of upgrading these too if wanted.

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Does it do it well?

Mozilla makes big claims for enhanced performance with Firefox 4 and it does start up a lot quicker and load Web pages faster than previous versions. Whether it’s consistently up to 6 times faster—as Mozilla claims—we doubt, but in our tests it seemed to match what IE9 was able to do and most users will notice a real improvement.

More obvious are the changes to the interface with a cleaner, streamlined look designed to minimise the real-estate around the edges to leave more room for content. The, so-called Awesome Bar (otherwise known as the address or URL bar) remains the centre of attraction, now with one button to load, stop or reload pages.

The Home button moves over to the right and there’s a single Firefox button top left rather than lots of drop down menus, although you can still display the old menu bar if you want.

Tab headers now appear on top of the Awesome Bar although, again, you can put them back underneath if the shock proves too great. Unfortunately it’s not possible to pin Tabs to the Windows taskbar (as in IE9) but you can convert them to permanent App Tabs, displayed to the left of ordinary tabs with small icons as identifiers rather than lengthy titles. You can also organise and visually group tabs together using a new Panorama tool.

Other enhancements include a Do Not Track setting to stop sites displaying targeted advertising based on your browsing history. This, however, requires an opt-in by content providers to work and we certainly didn’t notice much difference in our tests.

We did, however, like the new Firefox Sync option which lets you synchronise browsing history, open tabs, bookmarks, preferences and passwords across multiple computers and even smartphones. An online Sync account is required to enable this to work but it’s easy enough to setup and, like Firefox itself, free to use.

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Where does it disappoint?

As with IE9 it takes a while to get used to the minimal new interface in Firefox 4. Not so much when you first start, but when you want to do something beyond simple browsing. Such as search for a word on a Web page, for example, when the tool you might be expecting is nowhere to be found.

OK, that’s a little unfair. The tools are all still there and can be found, but you have to go looking. Some of the new features, like App Tabs, also take a while to get to grips with and we found we had to use the online help and tutorials a lot. We also had a few issues with the Android implementation which wasn’t as quick as we’d hoped, and doesn’t include support for Flash. Neither was it as easy to use as we would like, although we found it worked well with the new Sync option.

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Would we recommend it?

It’s becoming very hard to differentiate between browsers with all virtually disappearing from view and little to choose between them in terms of features and functionality. As such it’s now commonplace to have more than one on the desktop and choose whatever fits your browsing habits best or runs your Web applications the most effectively. As such we certainly have no hesitation recommending Mozilla Firefox 4, either as a default browser or for use alongside IE9, Chrome or any other browser, as required.

Don’t, however, assume that this will be the last new version for a while. Firefox 5 is set for release at the end of June with some expecting Firefox 6 as early as August. Likewise, Internet Explorer 10 has been previewed and isn’t far off while Chrome users can download a beta of the upcoming v11 implementation. So, let battle commence. Or should that be continue?

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