It's been over a year and a half since the Mozilla Corporation shipped its last major Web browser update, Firefox 2 (see my review). For cloud computing companies like Mozilla, that amount of time is an eon, and equivalent in many ways to the amount of time Microsoft took to ship Windows Vista. But one thing that hasn't changed for Firefox since the first version shipped in November 2004 is that this impressive browser is still the one to beat. Microsoft can make a lot of noise about Internet Explorer 8 (see my preview) and Apple can muddy the waters with its unnecessary (and dishonestly distributed) Safari browser. None of it matters. When it comes to Web browsers, there's Firefox and then there's everything else.

And I think it's important for you to understand exactly how partisan I am when it comes to Firefox, because the criticisms I made of Firefox 2 in my review and more recently of the pre-release versions of Firefox 3 on the SuperSite Blog have been completely misconstrued by a growing legion of Firefox fanatics. I don't complain about Firefox issues because I somehow aim to take the browser or its makers down a notch. No, I champion this product as a user and advocate, and I want it to be as good as it can. I use it every day and, in fact, use it more than any other application. (See my Wakoopa profile for proof.)

Think about that for a second.

This usage pattern will only become more pronounced over time: As we move forward into the inevitable cloud computing future, browsers are becoming far more important than other applications, because they form the shell around our Web- and cloud-based experiences. Firefox is how I'm going to get there. I recommend you take this path as well.

Put simply, I take Firefox very seriously. And while some may feel that I can be overly harsh, well, too bad. It's called tough love, and I care too much about this product and use it too much every single day to worry about that kind of baloney. I care deeply for Firefox, and Firefox 3 is the best version yet of Mozilla's suddenly mature product. Let's see what's changing.

Visual refresh

Each time Mozilla has debuted a major new Firefox version, the company has provided users with a thoroughly overhauled user interface. I wasn't a fan of the original Firefox 1.0 or Firefox 2.0 UIs when they first appeared, preferring at the time the UIs of their predecessors. And my initial reaction to the Firefox 3 user interface--called Strata (Figure)--was similarly negative. But one of the benefits of this product's lengthy development time is that I've grown used to the interface even as it's matured and evolved. Ultimately, the Firefox 3 UI, while not exactly what I was hoping for, is actually quite attractive. It is unfortunately inconsistent, however, once you move past the main browser window.

According to Mozilla, the primary goal of the UI refresh in Firefox 3 is to visually integrate the product on its primary platforms, which are Windows Vista, Windows XP, Mac OS X Leopard, and Linux. But this exciting vision was usurped by the more strategically important goal of making Firefox consistently branded across three of the four first-tier platforms. (Curiously, the Linux version instead uses native navigational controls because "there is less of a need for [Mozilla] to establish a visual presence" on that platform. I'm not sure why that's so.)

On both versions of Windows and on Mac OS X, Firefox 3 utilizes a new "keyhole" navigational control that replaces the previously separate Back and Forward buttons (Figure). In this control, the Back button is quite a bit bigger than the Forward button (and all other buttons in the main navigational toolbar), ostensibly because it's used the most often. And by combining Back and Forward into a single control, Mozilla can utilize a single Recent Pages drop-down list that applies to both buttons (Figure). More important, this unique looking control establishes the Firefox branding: Regardless of which platform you're using (Vista, XP, or Mac OS X), the theory is that you can immediately identify you're using Firefox.

Fortunately, Mozilla has made some concessions to the unique look and feel of the underlying platform. On Windows XP, for example, the keyhole control buttons are green, so they look sort of like XP buttons. On Windows Vista they look like blue gell caps, similar to the buttons you see in applications like Windows Media Player 11 and Internet Explorer 7. Overall, the Firefox 3 UI is reasonably attractive but only passingly like a truly native application, at least on the two Windows versions I tested.

More problematic, the Firefox 3 UI is inconsistent across its many sub-windows. This is particularly notable on Windows Vista, where some adherence to the translucency and Aero effects possibilities of that platform could have resulted in a particularly beautiful Firefox version. Instead, the opaque main browser window is visually distinct from key sub-windows, like Add-ons and Library (Figure).

Despite this, I'm actually OK with the Firefox UI overall, and the availability of certain extensions (like Glasser and Hide Menubar) can give this browser the Vista-ification it should have had to begin with (Figure). Certainly, Firefox 3 arrives with the most attractive UI yet seen in any Mozilla product, and the browser's single most important feature--pervasive customizability and extensibility through its Add-ons functionality--has already risen to the challenge of addressing my quibbles. And heck, you can always replace the theme if that irks you. Try doing that easily with Internet Explorer.

In addition to the look and feel changes, Firefox 3 is also decidedly simpler looking than its predecessors. For example, the "Go" button has been removed from the right of the address bar (though it reappears temporarily when you start typing a Web address). Meanwhile, convenient Bookmark This Page and Subscribe to this Site icons appear in the address bar when needed, and the previously separate "throbber," which provides a visual cue during page loading, appears to the left of the address bar, and much closer to the Stop/Refresh button you might be using at that time. If you're not happy with the default toolbar layout--which is logical and obvious, in my opinion--you can of course customize the toolbar as always, adding buttons like Print, Bookmarks, History, and many others.

Extensibility improvements

As noted previously, one of Firefox's biggest strengths is its extensibility model: Mozilla allows developers of all stripes to build off of Firefox in three key areas: plugins, extensions, and themes.

Plugins add specific functionality to the browser, such as the ability to display PDF files, play QuickTime or RealPlayer media files, or utilize Flash animations. The plugin model is also used to supply new search engine compatibility to Firefox's Search bar. (Microsoft uses the Firefox plugins capability to add compatibility with its Office 2007, Office Genuine Advantage, Silverlight, Windows Genuine Advantage, Windows Media Player, and Windows Presentation Foundation technologies.)

Extensions are related to plugins but are a bit different: According to Mozilla, Firefox extensions modify or add to existing browser functionality. That's technically true, but I think of it this way: While plugins are used to add low-level changes to the browser, extensions are used, literally, to extend the capabilities of the browser, often in very dramatic ways. I previously mentioned the Glasser and Hide Menubar extensions; together, these extensions dramatically change the look and feel of Firefox 3. Other popular extensions include Adblock Plus (for blocking Web-based advertisements) and the Google and Yahoo toolbars.

Themes are used to change the browser "chrome," or user interface. As you might expect, most themes are absolutely horrible looking, but a few gems can be found if you look hard enough. Old-timers may also enjoy themes designed to make Firefox look like older Firefox and Netscape browser versions.

The only problem with this level of extensibility, and it's a doozy, unfortunately, is that it can lead to stability issues. During my months-long testing of beta and release candidate versions of Firefox 3, I experienced an alarming number of Firefox application crashes--sometimes on an average of over once per day--which I eventually linked back to the use of the Hide Menubar extension (see my original blog post about this topic). While I'm happy to report that the core browser wasn't responsible for these crashes, this situation is untenable: When anything goes wrong in Windows, users blame Microsoft, even when fault may really lie with a buggy non-Microsoft device driver or other third party software. Likewise, when an application crashes, we blame the application and its makers, right or wrong. So if Mozilla is going to promote its extensibility as a selling point, as it should, it too much shoulder the blame, at least partially, when things go wrong. In other words, a Firefox crash is a Firefox crash. It won't matter to most that the blame might more accurately be directed toward a poorly-written, if free, add-on.

All that said, extensibility is obviously a good thing and I prefer Mozilla's open model to the utterly closed world of Safari and the partially extensible world of Internet Explorer. (And to its credit, Mozilla requires that add-ons be installed with digital signatures or over a secure HTTP connection, which should keep out a lot of the rif-raf.) But you're going to want to be careful with add-ons: Some are buggy, and it seems like loading the browser down with multiple add-ons can be both buggy and resource intensive (though Mozilla has done work to mitigate that latter issue in Firefox 3). My advice is to install add-ons one at a time and use each for a few days before moving on to the next.

With regards to Firefox 3 specifically, all of this extensibility functionality existed in previous versions of the browser. What's changed in the new version is that the Add-ons window has been substantially overhauled (Figure). It now offers the ability to browse recommended add-ons right in the window, and has links back to Mozilla's (much improved) Add-ons Web site if you need a larger view. A prominent Restart Firefox button appears in the windows's information bar when required, letting you quickly begin using new functionality you've just installed (and thanks to Firefox's excellent recovery features, any open browser windows will automatically reappear and navigate to the correct pages when you restart the browser).

'Awesome' new location bar

The Firefox 3 location bar (what Microsoft calls the Address Bar in IE) has unofficially been nicknamed the "awesome bar" by Firefox fans, thanks to it?s a fairly dramatic update. I think of it as the Firefox equivalent of Windows Vista's under-appreciated Start Menu Search feature because you can basically search your history and bookmarks in place by selecting it and typing in words. As you do so, search results appear in a large drop-down list with detailed info about each site it finds (Figure).

As with Start Menu Search, the new Firefox 3 location bar will require you to change your habits a bit, but as you do, you'll quickly grow to really appreciate this update. And it's easy to make the change because it works logically. If you remember you were looking at a Web page about a particular topic, just select the location bar (CTRL + L) and type the name of the topic. Voila! It should come right up.

But the location bar's improvements don't end with the, uh, awesomeness. Mozilla has also consolidated a number of features directly into the location bar, but instead of making the UI control more unwieldy, they actually serve to make the browser more streamlined overall.

First, bookmarking has been integrated into the location bar, courtesy of a new star icon that you'll see to the far right. If you click this star icon once, it will bookmark the current page and change the star to a yellow color (Figure). (Non-bookmarked pages will display a white star.) To remove the bookmark, click the star icon again.

In a small bit of complexity, Mozilla for some reasons supports two main areas for storing bookmarks, the Bookmarks menu and the Bookmarks toolbar. And of course you can create sub-folders off of either of these locations, so if you'd like to have more control over where this icon-based bookmarking featue actually stores you bookmarks, you can instead double-click the star icon: When you do, an Edit This Bookmark pop-up window appears, letting you change the name and location of the bookmark (Figure). You can also apply any number of meta-data tags to the bookmark, ostensibly to make it easier to find related bookmarks. This is a laudable approach, but let's be honest here: The failure of tags in digital music and photo solutions suggests that people simply aren't ready to manually tag content they save. A better approach would be for Web sites to agree to a standard for this information and supply it themselves to all browsers.

Firefox 3's location bar also sports a new Site Identity button. This button appears on the far left of the location bar and displays a Web site's favicon if available. Click this button, and the Mozilla "passport officer" appears, and provides information about the Web site. Or it would, if that information was available: Most Web sites don't (yet) supply identity information (Figure). But even in the most typical cases, where no information is provided, Mozilla supplies some information about the site that's actually pertinent to you: If you click the More Information button, you'll get a a Web Site Identity window that explains how often you've visited the site, whether the site is storing cookies on your PC, and whether you've save a password with the site. You can view any available cookies and saved passwords.

In the rare cases where a site does provide information, the Site Identity button will be colored blue, and when you click it, you'll actually some useful information (Figure). In cases where even more information is provided--such as with an encrypted, password-protected Web site--the button will turn green and provide the name of the site owner and other information (Figure).

Finally, the previously separate Go button has been integrated into the location bar. Normally, it's invisible, because you only need it when you're typing in the location bar. Start typing, however, and you'll see a blue arrow icon appear (Figure). This is the Go button: You can click it to load the address you've typed (you know, if tapping Enter is too complicated.)

Bookmarks + History = Library

Mozilla has replaced the old Bookmarks Manager window with a new Library feature that's sometimes (and confusingly) referred to as "Places." The Firefox Library (Figure) is basically Mozilla's version of the Favorites Center from Internet Explorer 7: It provides a central place to manage bookmarks, history, and tags, the three organizational elements that Firefox provides for Web locations you've visited and saved. (Put another way, it just combines the old Bookmarks Manager with History and Tags management.)

In the previous section, I mentioned the confusing way Firefox has historically had two main areas for storing bookmarks (the Bookmarks menu and the Bookmarks toolbar), and Firefox 3 messes things up a bit more by adding a third default location, the Unsorted Bookmarks folder. This is where bookmarks will be saved if you just click the location bar's new star icon.

A while back, the Library was going to be one of the big bang bets for Firefox 3, but I don't see what the big deal is. I don't personally spend a lot of time managing the Web sites I've visited or saved, and I have a hard time imagining anyone else does either. But if you're an old-school Bookmarks management nut, Library works exactly the same way Bookmarks Manager did in Firefox 2. No big deal.

That the Library window looks absolutely nothing like the main Firefox 3 browser window is a bit of inconsistency that I find troubling: It shows a lack of attention to detail that is surprising in a Mozilla product.

Malware protection

Whereas Firefox 2 added simple phishing protection functionality via a whitelist, Firefox 3 adds malware protection, again using whitelists. If a site is known to distribute malware, Firefox 3 will block it and display a prominent warning (Figure). It's designed for sites that are trying to exploit operating system, application, or Firefox add-on vulnerabilities, and as with any whitelist-based system, will need to be constantly updated to be effective. Behind the scenes, this feature uses Google Safe Browsing, which used to be available via a Firefox add-on. Now its standard.

Download manager improvements

The Firefox download manager (called Downloads) has always been superior to the stripped-down downloading functionality offered by Internet Explorer, but it gets even better in Firefox 3. It's been improved in Firefox 3 with Play/Pause and Cancel buttons next to each active download, a handy Clear List button for clearing out all of the previous download entries, and even a search box so you can search through previously-downloaded files (Figure).

You can also right-click individual downloads in the list to see choices like Open (find the already-downloaded file and open it), Open Containing Folder, Go to Download Page (on the Web), Copy Download Link, Select All, and Remove from List. It's pretty much everything you'd ever want from a download manager, and Mozilla continues to make IE's bizarre 1990's style downloading scheme look incredibly old-fashioned by comparison.

Mozilla has also added a new Downloads pane in bottom-right of each browser window if there's a paused or in-progress download. Click this and you'll be returned to the Downloads window.

Other improvements

In addition to the major new features described above, Firefox 3 adds a number of smaller but very useful enhancements.

Page zoom improvements

In Firefox 2, page zoom only changed the size of text, not graphics, often with horrific results (Figure). Influenced by the dramatically better page zoom feature in IE 7, Mozilla has done the right thing: Now, when you zoom in and out, graphics scale right along with the text. The results, predictably, are excellent (Figure) and virtually indistinguishable from IE 7.

Save open tabs

Firefox was the first browser intelligent enough to warn you when you were about to close a browser window that had two or more open tabs. But Firefox 3 takes this a step further with a new Save Open Tabs feature: If you attempt to close a browser window with two or more open tabs, Firefox will actually prompt you to Save and Quit, Quit, or Cancel (Figure). Save and Quit will save the Web locations to which you've navigated so that when you re-start Firefox at a later time, those exact tabs and locations will reappear. This feature is particularly handy in the event of a crash (or an unscheduled Windows reboot): When the browser comes back up, your content will come back with it. Amazing.

Improved password management

I wasn't too impressed when Mozilla blatantly copied the Information Bar feature from Internet Explorer, but since then the company has really run with the idea, combining the inline nature of the browser's Find toolbar with the information bar to create the new Password Bar (Figure). Any time you have to enter a password for the first time at a site, Firefox 3 will prompt you with this inconspicuous bar, instead of the previous pop-up window. It's in keeping with the streamlined nature of the browser from a visual standpoint, and because you're not getting interrupted by a pop-up, you can keep doing what you were doing and deal with the prompt when you want to. Nicely done.

Discontinuous text selection

As with recent versions of Microsoft Word, Firefox 3 now lets you multi-select discontinuous text on a Web page (Figure) and then copy and paste it accordingly. As with Word, you multi-select text by first selecting a block of text and then holding down the CTRL key to select the next block. This is sort of a power-user feature, but it's a nice addition.

Improved font rendering

I feel that Windows users should avoid Apple's Safari browser like the plague, and one of the least-obvious reasons why is that browser's horrific font rendering. By default, Safari renders fonts in an overly-blurry, overly-contrasty way that is sure to induce vision problems in heavy users. (Apple marketing explanation: "Safari smoothes fonts so that they're easy on the eyes but also remain as faithful as possible to the chosen font." Uh-huh.)

Font rendering on today's mainstream browsers ranges from good (Firefox 2) to excellent (IE 7, which uses ClearType by default). In Firefox 3, however, Mozilla takes it to the next level thanks to the Cairo vector graphics library, which can take advantage of your PC's graphics hardware, and is thus conceptually similar to the Windows Presentation Foundation (WPF, formerly "Avalon") display technologies in Windows Vista.

Put more simply, text looks better in Firefox 3 than it does in its predecessor and is inline with, if not superior to, text displayed in IE 7. The browser does this by using font hinting (essentially font size-specific tweaks to various letters), ClearType-based font smoothing and anti-aliasing, and by correctly using all major font types (OpenType, TrueType, and so on). It has improved support for kerning (the space between letters), full support for font ligatures (when two letters are combined to create a single character, which is more common in international languages).

Half-realized protocol handlers for Web applications

Buried in the Applications tab of the Firefox 3 Options dialog is a handler for the mailto: protocol, which determines which application is used when you click an email link in a Web page. Firefox 3 actually supports Web mail now for the first time, but for some reason, only Yahoo! Mail is available as an option (Figure). Thankfully, with the right know-how, you can reconfigure this to use Gmail or Hotmail, or whatever Web-based email you want. Why these things aren't just included in Firefox 3 to begin with is beyond me. (Here are instructions for configuring Firefox 3 to use Gmail for mailto: links.)

Availability and pricing

Firefox 3 will available around the world beginning on Tuesday June 17. It is absolutely free.

Final thoughts

Mozilla Firefox 3 is the fastest, safest, and most feature-rich Web browser available on any platform and I recommend it to one and all. This is one area where Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux users can simply agree: Firefox is without peer, and regardless of which browser you're currently using--be it a previous version of Firefox, any version of Internet Explorer, or, heaven forbid, Apple's buggy Safari--you need to upgrade to Firefox 3 immediately. I recommend Firefox 3 without hesitation and without caveat, as it is one of those very rare software products, and a key tool in my own personal computing arsenal. No software is perfect, but Firefox is close enough. Highly recommended.