Firefox 3: One Browser to Rule Them All

I've been using Firefox since it was known as Phoenix back in the 0.1 days and have always been really pleased with the project overall. Using Firefox has always been a pleasure with good performance, stability and extensibility. It had gotten so good that I didn't think Firefox 3 could really be that much more awesome. After using it for several weeks, I can tell you that it far exceeded my high expectations and sets a new bar for what we should expect out of a browser.

I'm always leery of upgrading to a newer version because of the potential to lose important things like bookmarks. Not wanting to hose down my existing profile, I downloaded Firefox 3 Portable Edition so I could try it out in a self-contained environment before taking the plunge. I copied my old profile over and tried out a few of the sites I normally visit to get an idea of how well it perfomed.

The first thing I noticed is that Gmail loaded faster. A lot faster. Like three times as fast. I wasn't sure I had seen that right and closed and re-opened the browser to double check. Sure enough, Gmail loaded almost instantly despite changing nothing else. I was sold. I tried out a few other JavaScript-heavy sites with the same results: everything loaded as if I had just upgraded to a brand new system.

Bookmarking is vastly improved in Firefox 3. Instead of trying to organize all of your clutter into folders, you can now assign tags to bookmarks the same as you would to a blog post or Flickr photo. You no longer need to rename every bookmark into something descriptive or create dozens of folders just to find that killer pear cobbler recipe (though you can if you want to).

I also became an instant fan of what Firefox advocates are calling "The Awesome Bar". Yes, it sounds very egotistical, but that's because you haven't used it. In old-school location bars, you start typing in the address of where you want to go and it tries to fill in the rest. The Awesome Bar goes much further by searching the entire address and page title of your history and your bookmarks to find relevant results. And remember those tags you're assigning to bookmarks? Yeah, it'll search those too. You can also add the Searchery extension to do searched on Google, Amazon and a host of other sites right from the Awesome Bar and have those results listed with your history and bookmarks.

About the only thing that had held me back from upgrading to Firefox 3 was Google's unexpected discontinuation of its excellent Browser Sync extension. In addition to keeping the same set of bookmarks in each copy of your browser, it also synced your saved passwords and cookies. With a work PC and two at home, I wasn't about to go without this functionality.

Fortunately, Mozilla stepped up to the plate and started the Weave extension and service to sync bookmarks, cookies, saved form data, history, passwords and even tabs across multiple systems. There are also plans to extend it to sync browser extensions, preferences, themes and microformats and allow you to selectively share content with other users. The bad news? They won't let you sign up for an account anymore since they filled up so quickly. If you don't want to wait for them to open it up again, Weave can be used with your own WebDAV server (hint: if you don't know what that is, you don't have one). That's also a good option for those who are just the least bit paranoid about letting a third party store their data.

I've also found a lot of other very useful extensions that help me out. Web designers should be totally ga-ga over Firebug, an extension that lets you find out what's taking so long for your page to load. It also lets you preview CSS changes in the browser without modifying any files. Need that perfect color? ColorZilla gives you an eyedropper tool to let you get the hexadecimal value of any color on your screen, perfect for ganking. You'll also want to make sure that your pages still look good at a variety of resolutions. Window Resizer lets you force Firefox windows to a specific size so you can test it out.

While web designers will appreciate it, regular Joes will like IE Tab at least as much. A lot of websites will, for whatever reason, refuse to work on Firefox. Instead of opening up Internet Explorer to get to the page, IE Tab gives you a little button at the bottom to flip between using IE or Firefox on the current page. You can also make it remember to use IE for specific pages that, for whatever reason, don't play nice with Firefox.

Here's some of the other extensions I'm using:

  • Adblock Plus: Just as the name implies, it blocks ads from showing on web pages. In this age of sneaky pop-ups and annoying "punch the monkey" Flash, it's essential to send a message that it really cheeses you off. In addition to a pre-built blacklist, you can add items of your own that you want blocked.
  • Better GCal: A handy set of small tweaks to Google Calendar. Also allows skinning.
  • Better Gmail 2: Like Better GCal, but for Gmail.
  • BugMeNot: Hate those free registrations so that you can view news articles? So do a lot of other people. This will attempt to put in a dummy login to let you see the page without registering.
  • ErrorZilla Plus: This replaces Firefox's default "Address Not Found" message with new options to ping, tracert or proxy the webpage. It can also search Google's cache or the Internet Wayback Machine for old copies.
  • FireFTP: Firefox does many things well. FTP handling is not one of them. FireFTP is a lightweight FTP client you can run directly from the browser.
  • Geo: Many web pages are tagged with geographical coordinates (like ours). Geo lets you know when you're visiting a page with that data so you can view its location on a map or use the GeoURL website to find websites geographically near it.
  • Google Notebook: Yes, yes. Another Google service. I'm a Google whore and I know it. Really, though, it's handy to take notes in your browser and access them from anywhere, even a mobile phone. I use it all the time to pass links to my Motorola Q9c.

All in all, Firefox 3 is a download worth making to replace IE or upgrade your older version of Firefox (which, I might add, too many of you are using). If you haven't already, run out and get it. Now.

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10 Responses

  1. brent says:

    I echo your love of the ‘fox, Jesse! I luuurrve it! Thanks for the extension advice, too…cheers, mate!

  2. Reach Upward says:

    I used IE for years until a couple of months ago. My IE7 suddenly started having this annoying problem that prevented me from adding new search engines to the search bar. I knew some of the guys at work used Firefox, so I downloaded it. Let’s just say that I am very pleased.

    Thanks for the links to the add-ons. I also use an add-on called Add to Search Bar at . It lets you right-click on any search box on any page and add that engine to your search bar by simply clicking Add to Search Bar.

  3. Jason says:

    I downloaded it on National Download Day and I’ve never looked back!

    I too — Google whore.

  4. jess says:

    oh how i love firefox. i switched in 2004 and i’ve never looked back. one of my favorite plugins is the ForecastFox, which puts the weather forecast in my status bar. it’s fairly accurate, too…

  5. numberless says:

    I remember the Phoenix 0.1 days. In fact I remember reading about the initial release on Slashdot one morning and by the afternoon, everyone in “the room” was using it.

    Thank goodness they finally increased the JavaScript performance. While I’m still a Safari user (I’ve been using a KHTML based browser since Konqueror, but I’m a geek like that) I use FireFox on my Windows machines and the JavaScript performance was always pretty lackluster.

    Now… browsers… web development. With all my virtual machines I have 4 major browsers and as many as 4 versions of each (different platforms, not version numbers) on this machine. It makes me dizzy sometimes.

  6. Mike says:

    Sadly my love affair with Firefox has faded.

    At first she was a dream come true. IE was the main browser even for Macs. Safari was just a baby learning how to crawl along the wwweb. Then I met Firefox. She was new and exciting. She was everything IE was not. She had features I had never dreamed of. Sure, she had to be restarted now and again, but she was way better than anything else out there – and we were happy.

    But then Safari turned 3.0. She was all grown up, and it showed. She took on many of the features I loved about Firefox. And she was one thing Firefox was not – absolutely stable on the Mac. No need to restart so she would remember what I asked her to do.

    So now, as if to win back my love, Firefox has chosen to turn 3 as well. She’s learned some new tricks, and still knows a few that Safari hasn’t picked up (sometimes I’ll use fireftp or the css viewer) and for some reason certain videos will only play on Firefox (what’s up CBS?) but she still has her main flaw – she still gets hung up and needs to be restarted quite often.

    So for now I guess I have to have a scandalous relationship. Safari is my main web browsing companion, but I keep Firefox on the back burner – for the few tricks she can do that Safari just hasn’t learned yet.

  7. Tom says:

    Sorry,.. It still doesn’t behave well on an OS X laptop. It’s better then Firefox 2,.. but there’s something screwy with how it manages memory on wakeup that slows my whole system down… and for a guy that constantly has a handful of pages up, that behavior isn’t acceptable.

    Safari on Leopard … speed, speed, speed.

    Besides, there still isn’t a decent OS X skin for Firefox 3. What’s up with the IE 7 impersonation default skin?

  8. Mike says:

    For those who are scared off by the wall of text, Tom’s comment is the short/more technically concise version of my post.

  9. Jessie…I have been using firefox for about a year and recently upgraded to ff3. Thanks so much for the tip on using adblocker plus. what a revelation! i just hope the ad companies don’t wise-up and find a way around the feature.

    BTW – nice strawberries!

    the uncle

  10. Char says:

    Yeah, I hooked up the Firefox 3 that first day and haven’t really looked back. I love the Awesome Bar, but there’s a lot I haven’t really had a chance to play with yet. With software, I’m kind of like that. I have to sort of organically discover the feature set over time.

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