Way back in October, the Mozilla Corporation released Firefox 2.0, the third major release of its award-winning Web browser (1.0 and 1.5 were the previous milestones)s. As a long-time Firefox user--I was using the product back when it was originally called Phoenix--you might have expected me to jump all over Firefox 2.0. But the truth is, Mozilla really let me down with this one. Unlike its major competitor, Internet Explorer 7 (see my review), Firefox 2 doesn't include any truly major new features. And its graphical overhaul is ugly, especially in Windows Vista. Most egregious, however, is Firefox's pathetic new anti-phishing feature, which is almost laughably bad.

A lackluster Firefox upgrade doesn't signal the end of times. But coming as it did right as Windows Vista development was winding down, Firefox 2 was a bit of bad timing for me. The problem was, I needed to test Vista features like IE 7 regularly, and since IE 7 was so good, I had little reason to jump ship to a new version of Firefox that, frankly, was rubbing me the wrong way. Had IE 7 been a dog like previous versions, or had Firefox 2 been a bit more exciting, things would have gone differently. As it was, I was surprised to see myself evolving into an IE user over the last few months of 2006.

Ultimately, old habits do die hard. I kept installing Firefox 2 for compatibility testing, and though I had primarily switched to IE 7, I would occasionally fire up the new version of my old favorite and see how things were evolving. Since October, Mozilla has issued at least one minor update to Firefox 2, bringing it up to version 2.0.0.1 by the time of this writing. And I've found ways to work around some of my bigger Firefox 2 problems.

So I've been remiss in not reviewing this browser, but I'm going to make up for it now. Firefox 2 still represents a viable and even desirable alternative to IE, even though the latest upgrade didn't add any exciting new features. If you can get over the lack of progress, you might be happy to discover again, as I did, that Firefox is a neat product that still deserves your attention.

What's new?

Mozilla provides a long list of new Firefox 2 features, which makes it appear as if there were a lot going on in this release. Don't be confused. With rare exception, none of these new features are particularly earth-shattering. Some are useful. Some are, well, pointless.

New user interface

In Firefox 2, Mozilla has inexplicably replaced the default user interface theme with a muddy and ugly new theme (Figure). The icons in this new theme look horrible on any operating system, but they're particularly nasty looking on Windows Vista thanks to a perfect storm of the poorly-designed icons and an ill-conceived blue-gray background color. Thankfully, this is Firefox, so there are plenty of downloadable themes from which to choose, including one that makes the browser look just like Firefox 1.5. (Well, almost. It still retains the ugly background color that makes Firefox 2 look nothing like any of Vista's built-in applications.)

Mozilla says the new theme "improves usability," but it's unclear how that could be true (or what that even means). On the flipside, at least Mozilla wasn't silly enough to completely change the browser's UI, as Microsoft did--poorly--with IE 7.

Add-ons manager

Previous to Firefox 2, Mozilla's browser had separate but similar dialogs for managing extensions and themes. This time around, they've been combined into a single, easy-to-use Add-ons manager, which is available from the Tools menu (Figure). I like what they've done here, and you can enable, uninstall, and configure extensions from the Extensions tab and enable and uninstall themes from the Themes tab as you'd expect. This is a simple, logical arrangement.

Redesigned Options dialog

Anyone who's ever actually taken the time to step through all the options available in a Web browser like IE or Firefox quickly realizes that there are way too many things to configure, leading to some interesting design choices. In IE, you get the Advanced tab, where Microsoft basically just gives up and presents every remaining option in a massive list. In Firefox 2, we get another take on the same problem, but Mozilla has decided that it will instead embed tabbed user interfaces inside of tabbed user interfaces. You can see this on the Advanced tab, naturally (Figure). It would have been funnier on the Tabs tab. But seriously, folks.

Phishing Protection

In Firefox 2, Mozilla adopts an important security feature that Microsoft first added to IE 7, a phishing filter called Phishing Protection that helps protect against malicious Web sites that masquerade as banks, e-tailers, and other sites that might store financial data. Unlike with IE 7, Firefox's phishing filter is enabled by default, which is of course a good idea. There's just one problem: The Firefox Phishing Protection feature isn't very sophisticated. It uses a blacklist of known dangerous sites, which isn't an effective protection against modern electronic attacks that rely on social engineering as well as technical vulnerabilities in the underlying products you're using online. What you need is something that can adapt to threats and update itself automatically.

Alternatively, Firefox lets you enable Google's phishing filter, which is more effective because it is updated regularly and provides more advanced functionality. On the minus side, the terms of service for Google's phishing filter literally explain that Google will violate your privacy if you use this product: "Google will log your action and the URL of the page [you visit]," the agreement reads. "It is possible that a URL sent to Google may itself contain personal information" (Figure). Hey, we all trust Google, right? And can you imagine the uproar that would occur if Microsoft did something even remotely this anti-privacy? Meanwhile's Google's phishing filter hasn't caused any concern. Unbelievable.

In previous versions of Firefox, I used Netcraft's toolbar to help protect against phishing attacks. And while I appreciate that Firefox now offers two integrated anti-phishing solutions, neither is particularly good and neither is as good as what Microsoft offers in IE 7. That's a shame.

Incidentally, Mozilla initially responded to news that their solution was ineffective by publishing a paper on its Web site that seeks to prove that Firefox Phishing Protection is, in fact, more effective than IE 7's Phishing Filter. However, a third party study--commissioned by Microsoft--had already reported this not to be true. So who's right? Here's what I know to be true: Blacklists are not effective and Google admits it probably will collect your personal information. Neither of those seems very good to me.

Now, since publishing this review, Mozilla has contacted me and told me that their blacklist is updated "regularly," which is quite a bit more frequently than I previously understood. With phishing attacks, you need protection that is regularly updated, so this is at least acceptable.

Search box evolution

Like most modern Web browsers, Firefox includes a handy Web search box in its default UI (though, unlike with IE 7, you can actually remove it if you don't want it). In Firefox 2, Mozilla added search suggestions, which appear in a drop-down box as you type. (And isn't that a curiously Microsoft-like feature?)

So how does it work? Pretty well, actually (Figure). If you type in "xbox," for example, you'll see suggestions like xbox cheats, xbox live, xbox games, and xbox.com. Type in "apple" and you'll get applebees, apple ipod, apple.com, and apple store, among others. Note, however, that search suggestions only work when you're using the Google, Yahoo, or Answers.com search engines.

Firefox also includes a new Manage Search Engines List dialog, which features Google, Yahoo, Answers.com, Creative Commons, and eBay by default, but not Microsoft. Given Microsoft's relative success with Live.com and MSN Search, this is a bit disingenuous. And if you visit Mozilla's Add-ons site, you can add MSN Search, but not Live search. OK, we get it: You hate Microsoft (Figure).

Tabbed browsing improvements

While Firefox 2 doesn't include any truly innovative tabbed browsing features like IE 7's Quick Tabs, it does include a few useful enhancements to an admittedly mature technology. First up is tab reordering: Using standard drag and drop skills, you can now rearrange tabs in Firefox 2 as you wish. Even more useful is Firefox 2's default behavior of opening links in new tabs instead of new windows. That's right: Anytime a link is configured to pop-up a new window, a new tab will display instead. I think that's a killer option, frankly. (It's optional in IE 7.) Finally, tabs in Firefox 2 now all include their own close window button; in Firefox 1.x, there was a single close window button in the far right of the browser's UI. I like the new arrangement better.

Spell checking

If you're a blogger like me, you'll really appreciate this feature: Firefox 2 includes inline spell checking for Web forms, allowing you to find misspellings as you go (Figure). This is a truly nifty feature, and given Microsoft's ownership of both IE and Word, you'd think there'd be some kind of killer functionality like this in IE by now. But there isn't.

Recapping my issues with Firefox 2

With the possible exceptions of the new Options dialog and the Add-ons manager, virtually all of the new features in this release could have been added to Firefox 1.5.x via Extensions. And that, ultimately, is why Firefox 2 doesn't qualify as a major upgrade. (Why isn't it called Firefox 1.6?) What this browser needs is a major overhaul of its Bookmarks system and some truly innovative features, such as the Quick Tabs feature Microsoft added to IE 7. I don't see anything like that in Firefox 2.

Final thoughts

I think it's important to remember that Firefox 2 includes all the good stuff from previous Firefox versions. That means it has tabbed browsing, a nicely customizable user interface, inline find, and all the other features I've loved all along in Firefox. No, none of the new features in Firefox 2 are really all that exciting, and for that reason, I can't give this product a great overall rating. It just doesn't deserve the 2.0 moniker. But Firefox 2 is still an excellent alternative to IE, even the newly minted IE 7, especially if you're still not convinced that Microsoft can be trusted. Too, I give credit to Mozilla for not rearranging all of the graphical elements in the UI, as Microsoft did with IE 7: There's something to be said for respecting muscle memory.

In the end, Firefox is an excellent product even if the latest version, Firefox 2, is nothing to write home about. It's recommended, as always, but with qualifications. Understand that Firefox is still at least the equal of IE 7. It's just that the new version is a bit of letdown from an upgrade perspective.