Home > Computers and Internet, Reviews, Software, Technology > A First Impressions Review of Firefox 4

A First Impressions Review of Firefox 4

03/24/2011

Let’s face it… When it comes to software upgrades, there are some that I’m rather hesitant about and others that I rush out the instant that they’ve been announced. There are others that it’s a mixed bag of love and hate when it comes to upgrading as the way it behaves between versions can come off feeling arbitrary or draconian and the hoops I feel I have to jump through both to getting used to the “improved” interface as well as the changes of what’s working and what’s not working. The newest version of Firefox is a prime example of the sort of upgrade I have a love/hate relationship with since I started playing with it back in version 2.0

Released a day before the anticipated announced release date and after almost a year delay in the beta testing process, 4.0 is the most recent release of this popular web browser currently available for download. While I haven’t actually put the program through it’s routine tests, there have been some niggling issues that I would like to talk about as the impression I’m getting from this is, “why did it take so bleeding long to get released?” as there is nothing about this particular product truly new or revolutionary.

Pros:

A good majority of the add-ons that I have installed on Firefox 3.6.x seemed to have transitioned smoothly to 4.0. AdBlock Plus, NoScript, Echofon (for Twitter), IE Tabs 2 all continued working without notification of them being “incompatible with the current version”. This is a good way of sorting out the add-ons that developers have stopped supporting as well as nudging other developers it’s time to recheck the code for their add-ons for the current version.

This is a way for me to delete the old/obsolete add-ons and replace with the new. Or in at least one case, phase out . Of which I found myself actually mostly happy about with only one exclusion (below).

The Gecko engine has only gone through some more tweaking, pages render much faster thanks to access/controls involving hardware acceleration. Blink and a page will be rendered. Blink again and you’re off to a new page. While not as fast as Chrome (in my uninformed and untested opinion only), it’s certainly faster than my experience with Firefox 3.x and IE 8.

The memory footprint that Firefox 4 takes up when it loads is a bit less than it did in the past, as at the time of writing this review — my currently running 1 tab for dAmn Chat currently showing ~183,000 K memory for firefox.exe and another 6,600 K for plugin-container.exe. However it’s still more than a bit large when compared to IE 8 (keep in mind I haven’t loaded up 9 yet) at 25,628 K and Chrome at 45,394 K between 4 separate chrome.exe executables and 2 Console Host Emulations (conhost.exe). While granted Internet Explorer doesn’t have any add-ons, Chrome has the same (now) of which I’m left puzzling out why Firefox continues to remain the heaviest when it comes to memory.

Fixed — finally — is the ability to print to PDF and it actually looking like a page printed in English. Bug 454532 indicates just how long this problem had been in Mozilla’s bug tracker and while I had done everything in my power to follow the various fixes work-arounds and what not — Firefox continued to print garbage text to PDF. I recall reading sometime in the past, several news sources reported several times that Mozilla simply gave up trying to fix it in 3.x with the no promise of resolution any time in the near future. Seems with 4.0 it had been fixed and printing to PDF is showing English (or in the case of my machine, Japanese, Simplified Chinese and Korean as well) instead of garbage. This means I don’t have to rely Internet Explorer for invoice/receipt printing.

Cons:

While I understand the need that some add-ons might use code that is optimized for a specific version of the program, Mozilla seems to be both arbitrary and draconian when it comes to whether they’ll allow an add-on to continue working. Case in point: ISOC’s Policy Audit Plugin. The coding on this one simply relies on a accessing a gateway to check a URL and notify the user of whether or not the privacy policy for that particular site had changed or not.

This add-on was a boon when dealing with Gmail and Google, as I’ve noticed since the add-on was installed, they had changed their privacy policies at least three times; and while twice have been a simple issue of semantics, there was one where the policy did in fact change, and glad to have caught it with the use of this tool. Sure it’s a tool in progress, though I suspect that it will always have a niche for folk concerned about changes in privacy since the debacles with Facebook occurring.

I’ve noticed that if you have proxy set to follow the default System Proxy settings, resolving the IP for a URL is much slower than I had expected. I had seen/experienced up to a 1 – 2 second delay between hitting the <enter> key once I had finished typing in the URL and the web browser actually begin rendering the page. Seems that this speed is significantly improved by going into Tools –> Options –> selecting the Advanced tab –> clicking the Advanced button setting, changing the Configure Proxies to Access the Internet to No Proxy. I’m sure this might be resolved in a future release, although seeing this happening was rather surprising given that all three browsers have been touting “speed” for some months now. Particularly given that when I checked the proxy settings for Chrome, Chrome opened up Internet Explorer’s Proxy Settings tab and window.

Neutral/Annoyances:

More of the same interface as I’ve seen from Chrome, Opera and even Internet Explorer transforming their old browsers to something new, and completely unimpressed with the fact that it took this long for them to transform. I admit that I had been a bit snarky about it on Twitter, commenting that it seems that Mozilla and Firefox seem to be following everyone else on the interface of which I had received a @mention from @limi (as it seems he was trending Firefox comments):

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No one remembers who came in last, least of all in a competition for faster, lighter and easier to use software/web browsing with a slick interface. Those that do remember often use this to sow the seeds of discontent, disappointment, doubt and perhaps even doom for a corporation or brand.

While I am no power user by any stretch of the imagination — when it comes to browsing the web the most amount of tabs I have had opened was at maximum of 10. And in those 10, I have noticed on more than one occasion that the memory footprint in previous versions of Firefox reach upward to 750,000+ K. On my system and a couple of systems I’ve used for work have more than enough memory for such leaks, the fact is that leaks shouldn’t be happening at all. Blaming it on add-ons doesn’t really address the problem as it’s been demonstrated that clean installations (of Firefox) have the same problems.

As of the Firefox 4 release candidate forum posts indicate that the memory leak still continues to plague this web browser and while I haven’t personally seen anything too out of the ordinary so far (knock on wood), I did at one point see memory get up to about the same amount of KB as I would working 10 hours at a job with those 10 tabs open. And this occurred yesterday while I was in about 6 tabs. This does in fact raise quite a bit of question, given that the same 6 tabs in Chrome and IE continue to show a seriously small RAM footprints. I will continue to monitor this, and see if it’s actually been addressed or continues to plague some of the users of Firefox.

Bing was put into my customized Search Engines Drop-Down. While it was good that it didn’t mess with my customized list as I have a rather eclectic array of them; seeing Bing at the bottom I felt more than a little dirty… As though Mozilla was saying “Hi! Thank you for the upgrade. Here’s Bing. We want you to know we’re in bed with them!”

A rather large annoyance that I had to track down was something that caught my attention and left me with this uneasy feeling that something was just not quite right. So after about 5 minutes of research was able to spot. You see, one of the joys of running Aero on Windows 7 is the way that I can sort my windows one on top of the other (along with overlapping them around the screens) and if something flashes underneath another window, the visual queue will get me to swap to it to see what’s going on. The thing is, with Firefox 4, I caught arbitrary changes in the aero-window frame as I clicked on drop-downs within the web page I was viewing at the time as well as on clicking menus within Firefox itself. This changing of lights/darks on the UI window frame gave me the impression that the window underneath it had momentarily changed focus/blinked and I needed to see what was going on.

While this can be a quirk of code that can easily be rectified, people oriented to visual cues of changed states of windows can find that a distraction when trying to work as efficiently as possible when they’re multitasking. And while I was able to accommodate/adjust against that quirk, the fact that Firefox was the only one that I caught that happening with is enough for me to want to avoid using it until it’s been rectified.

Font display on web pages is annoyingly different from 3.x to 4.0, enough so that I find off-putting. While none of my font settings have changed (including Windows Clear Type text for the display) rendering on the pages is enough to be a put off for using Firefox. Following is a screen cap of Firefox 4.0

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With what it used to look like in 3.6.x

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I’m sure that there’s a setting somewhere that controls this within about:config but at the moment I admit to being too lazy to do more than a cursory inspection between the two versions of the program. Particularly given that when Chrome went from 9 to 10 on my system, I hadn’t even realized it had been updated until I had to look under the hood. Further, I’m finding my eyes strained more looking at the web pages in 4.0 than in 3.x, IE and even Chrome.

Another of the niggling annoyances that has come to my attention has been the way that Firefox is now showing up in the Windows Menu under most common used program in spite of the fact that it’s also in my taskbar.

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I rather liked the fact that it had never recorded itself as recently opened in version 3.x. I put it there in the taskbar for a reason and don’t need it telling me I opened it recently. This one’s really minor, though as you can tell, I’m not a fan of seeing many programs in that recently used list especially if it’s something I use a lot.

Finally, the last niggling point that I have for the update is that they had removed the Add-On Bar from the bottom of the screen. Unlike previous versions which can be turned off and on, with the same key-command (CTRL+/), with this one, it adds an x to remove it. Further, when the Add-On Bar is active, mouse over on links won’t show in it (like they used to) and are relegate to still showing Chrome-style in the window thereby taking up more screen landscape. Granted it’s 10 pixels (or so) tall, and however long, I would think if the add-on bar is active, I don’t need them showing up where they used to have a place to go instead.

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Bottom Line: While the pros in this case outweigh the cons, I fear it’s going to be the petty annoyances that do in my long-standing loyalty to Firefox. If anything since the upgrade I’ve been finding myself using Chrome more because of it’s speed, lightness and the fact that upgrades went transparently and without any such attention to the changes.

While the jury’s still out on a handful of features I’ve yet to see/experience improvement on I believe in about a month, I’ll have made the cut away from Firefox.

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