Extensions are a double-edged sword – A Firefox 3 Preview

Software / Open Source Tech News Tech Reviews

With the news of Firefox 3 Beta 1 being released, I just couldn’t help myself. I wanted to see what was in store for the Orange Carnivore from Mountain View. A short 6.4MB download and I was installing; everything went without a hitch. Here’s the good and the bad of it all.

The Good

Lean: Overall Firefox seems so much leaner this time around. Even after hours of browsing with dozens of tabs open Firefox 3 is using about one-third less RAM than I typically see Firefox 2 use. The RAM savings didn’t come at the sacrifice of performance though, everything is notably quicker. Going back to previous pages, opening new ones, even the auto-completion when I typed in a URL seemed quicker. Even Google Maps seemed more responsive.

Features: While there is an entire list of changes in Firefox 3, Mozilla has added a notable one. The history and bookmarks have been combined into one database driven section called Places. Don’t be worried that the the UI has changed too much, on the surface most users won’t really notice the difference; it is more of a back end thing. They did add a new “Places” folder on the bookmark toolbar which can show recently viewed pages, tags, or starred pages. In addition, there is a completely revamped bookmarks organizer that will allow you to search your current bookmarks or history as well.

Some of the changes are much more subtle. The search box has been changed so that you can now resize it to any arbitrary size you want. When you scroll through tabs when there are more than can fit on the screen, they have added some animation to make it more clear what is happening.

If you zoom in or out on a webpage (ctrl-plus or ctrl-minus) you will notice that the whole page zooms now instead of just the text. While it is a nice feature in practice, the images look horrible when scaled up. I am still waiting for a browser that will do a smooth (read: bicubic/bilinear, not nearest neighbor) resize of a scale image. If the images looked good, this could be a major feature for those with old eyes that would just like everything to be bigger on the high DPI screens being sold today. It should be noted that version 3 also remembers your page-zoom settings on a site-by-site basis now too.

The Bad

Extensions: It can be summed up in one word, Extensions. While the extensibility of Firefox is a major feature (I probably like my set of extensions more than I like Firefox really), they are a huge problem when it comes to upgrades. Out of the eleven extensions I use, only one works with Firefox 3. That means, no weather, Gmail, Google Toolbar or Bookmark Sync, Image Zoom, Firebug, etc. Now I know some of these will probably be compatible by the time version three dot zero is released, but I’ll bet most of them still won’t. And until 95% of them work, I won’t be upgrading to Firefox 3.

The Verdict: Firefox 3 is a solid, but progressive upgrade. I won’t be adopting it though until at least six months after its release. I don’t know what the technical solution is for the Extensions, but Mozilla needs to figure out something with this. It is unacceptable that one of the biggest features of their product is incompatible from version to version. It happened when 1.5 came out, 2.0, and now 3.0. This is an area where Microsoft has typically excelled.

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