Firefox 3 RC 1: A Guided Tour

by Ostatic Staff - May. 17, 2008

As we noted earlier today, after five beta versions have gone through testing, Mozilla has delivered Release Candidate 1 (RC1) of version 3 of the Firefox browser, for Windows, the Mac and Linux. I've been using all the previous beta versions, and while I'm still frustrated that I can't use my extensions with RC1, the rendering speed is so much faster than previous versions that I'm ready to use it as my main browser most of the time. It is still pre-release software, but the speed and several of the new features are truly welcome additions to almost everybody's favorite open source browser. Here's a tour of what's under the hood.

While improving rendering speed and reducing rendering glitches have been among Mozilla's top goals with version 3 of Firefox, there are actually quite a lot of welcome new features in the new version. There are security enhancements, improvements to the interface of the browser, improvements in Firefox's long-standing problems with how it handles memory, and more. You'll find the complete inventory of these enhancements in the Release Notes.

The rendering performance improvements in version 3 of Firefox are the result of Mozilla moving the underlying rendering platform to Gecko 1.9, which has been in development for nearly three years. If you're a long-time Firefox user and you haven't yet used any of the beta versions for version 3, you'll be surprised by how much snappier it is, and that's the main reason why a whole lot of people will be upgrading.

 Among the interface improvements in RC1, I like the way my browsing history is handled now, as seen below. In the history pull-down list, I can peruse icons representing the sites I've visited, I can see the URLs for the places I've been, and I get short descriptions of what the sites I've visited are all about.

RC1 also has a security feature that many users will welcome (Firefox's security, of course, is a primary reason why many people use it). Look at the screenshot here and note the red lizard's head at the left of the address bar. That's a favicon, and in RC1 if you click on the favicon for any given site, you get a dialog box like the one seen here. It will tell you whether the web site supplies identity information, whether you are connecting on an encrypted basis, and more, in many cases.

Firefox 3 RC1 also has a new Add-on Manager, available through Tools/Add-Ons. You can download and install Firefox extensions and enhancements from it directly, instead of having to go to external web sites. This is a very efficient way to get useful extensions in front of more people. When you first open the Add-ons Manager, a list of recommended Add-ons is shown. Do note, though, that this release of Firefox is not mature enough yet to support the extensions that you may use frequently.

Forged web sites are on the rise, and Firefox RC1 has intelligence built in for calling forgeries out. If you arrive at a page that Firefox suspects is a forgery, content on the page won't be displayed (so you can't, say, click on a link that will deliver you a virus), and you'll see a warning like the one shown here.

While these types of features are very welcome, much faster performance and better handling of memory are going to be the primary reasons why many users upgrade to Firefox 3. Here's Mozilla's discussion of performance and memory handling improvements:

  • Speed: improvements to our JavaScript engine as well as profile guided optimizations have resulted in continued improvements in performance. Compared to Firefox 2, web applications like Google Mail and Zoho Office run twice as fast in Firefox 3, and the popular SunSpider test from Apple shows improvements over previous releases.
  • Memory usage: Several new technologies work together to reduce the amount of memory used by Firefox 3 over a web browsing session. Memory cycles are broken and collected by an automated cycle collector, a new memory allocator reduces fragmentation, hundreds of leaks have been fixed, and caching strategies have been tuned.
  • Reliability: A user's bookmarks, history, cookies, and preferences are now stored in a transactionally secure database format which will prevent data loss even if their system crashes.

My one complaint about RC1 is that I can't use my favorite extensions. Still, this new release is much better than the previous versions and the version 3 betas.