Can Firefox get its mojo back?

8 cool features of Firefox 4, Beta 8

Firefox was once the cool alternative to Internet Explorer. Then Chrome emerged as the hot, new thing in browsers, while Firefox lagged in performance and mindshare. However, Firefox is fighting back with a new version that’s currently in beta and is slated to ship early this year. We tested Firefox 4, Beta 8 and found that this new version puts Firefox back at the cool kids' table. Here's why.

JaegerMonkey jacks up the speed

JaegerMonkey jacks up the speed

Firefox started falling behind in popular use due to the increasingly sophisticated ways that JavaScript was being implemented in must-visit Web sites. Interactivity with Facebook or the major Webmail services like Gmail and Yahoo Mail under Firefox felt sluggish compared with Chrome or Opera.

Firefox's developers finally addressed this by writing a new JavaScript processing engine. Curiously, JaegerMonkey doesn't replace Firefox's original JavaScript engine, TraceMonkey. The two work together.

Whatever the reason for this implementation, you can definitely feel a speed increase when accessing JavaScript-heavy sites. Everything seems snappier to the point that using Firefox 4 feels very similar to Chrome. Remember how you gradually moved away from Firefox because Chrome felt slicker, tighter, faster? You may want to try out Firefox 4 to experience that feeling again.

Organize and access your tabs visually

With its Panorama feature, Firefox 4 presents a new (and optional) way to organize and access your tabs.

When you have several tabs open, clicking the "Group your tabs" icon set to the far right of the tabs bar switches the entire browser UI to a kind of virtual desktop layout where thumbnails of the tabs are shown in a resize-able window. Using the mouse, you can draw rectangular shapes to create other windows, each of which can be resized and moved around on this desktop.

Then you can drag-and-drop the tab thumbnails into these windows to group certain ones together, and give the window a title to name the group. To open the browser window within a tab, just click its thumbnail.

Hardware acceleration (for Windows and OS X)

We've come to expect this from all the major browsers. Now we can check off that Firefox 4 also supports hardware acceleration. This feature automatically assigns your computer's graphics processor with the job of displaying Web pages, which helps to improve overall rendering speed, though mostly for sites churning out HTML5 and CSS3.

Hardware acceleration is supported under the Windows version of Firefox 4 through Microsoft's Direct2D and Direct 3D APIs. The Mac version uses the cross-platform OpenGL API, while the Linux version of Firefox 4 will include acceleration using XRender extension.

Full support for HTML5 and CSS3

It's good that Firefox's developers plugged in hardware acceleration and a new JavaScript engine: Firefox 4 is compliant with the HTML5 and CSS3 standards. So the browser will get a workout when it processes media-rich Web sites that are comparable to those presented through Adobe Flash.

You can try out HTML5-specific features at HTML 5 Demos and Examples .

3D graphics on the Web

Another good reason to put the hardware acceleration to use is Firefox 4's support for WebGL. Derived from OpenGL, WebGL is a cross-platform API technology that enables Web developers to present 3D graphics on Web sites to any browser that supports WebGL.

You can check out examples of WebGL in action.

OpenType fonts

Basically, OpenType gives Web site designers greater leeway in how they present typography, in ways that are comparable to what can be done in traditional print and graphic design work. For example, a corporate logo that would typically be presented as an image can instead be rendered as a customized font where the spacing (i.e. kerning) between specified pairs of letters are tighter or looser than from the others.

OpenType can also help designers more accurately display foreign languages and fractional numbers, and enable minor animations (like text that lights up or shakes when you mouse over them).

Firefox 4 uses the open-source, cross-platform HarfBuzz as its OpenType font engine. This ensures all versions of Firefox 4 will render the same typography consistently regardless of operating system.

Sync across all platform versions of Firefox

Now Firefox has its own sync feature. You can register for a free user account to access the official Firefox server, or use your own private server. After setting up your sync server of choice, you can select to have your bookmarks, saved passwords used on sites, browser preferences, browsing history, and opened tabs (including those arranged out under the Panorama feature) automatically synced across all your devices running Firefox 4 -- and this includes the mobile versions, Firefox Home for iPhone and Firefox Mobile for Android.

Improved UI

Two noticeable improvements we like: when you right-click on a tab and select "Pin as App Tab," the site's title heading on the tab will be removed and leave only its favicon. This is great for compacting the tab bar when you have several tabs open.

The overall Add-ons Manager page, which opens in its own tab, is very eye-friendly and easy to click through to find and add new Add-ons, and to maintain the Add-ons and media plug-ins installed on your browser. Browser themes can also be changed here easily.

However, we are not so fond of the placement of the orange "Firefox" pull-down bar. It's set to the upper-left but all the space to its right, running along the top of the browser, is wasted. Why aren't the tabs placed here?

Fortunately, somebody already recognized this design flaw and created a theme, AvantGarde, which moves the tabs to the right of the "Firefox" bar.

When using AvantGarde , we suggest setting the toolbar icons to "Use Small Icons." This way, you'll maximize the available screen space in the browser window -- making it the same as Chrome's.

Howard Wen reports on technology news, trends and products as a frequent contributor to Network World and Computerworld .