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Firefox 4 review – was it worth the wait?

After a lengthy public beta period, Mozilla has finally released version 4 of its popular web browser. Linux User kicks Firefox 4’s tyres and peek under the bonnet to find out whether it was worth the wait...

This article originally appeared in issue 98 of Linux User & Developer magazine.

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Software releases nowadays are like a birthday present delivered in pieces over several months. Take Firefox 4, for example. The new version of the browser has been around in alpha and beta forms for almost a year, and its individual features have been reviewed and discussed extensively in various news outlets and blogs. So we find it rather difficult to get excited about the final release of the popular web browser. But on the bright side, we have had plenty of time to put the browser through its paces and use its new features for an extended period of time – a luxury one is rarely afforded as a reviewer. And now that the final version of Firefox 4 starts trickling down to Linux distros near you, we are ready to share our findings with our readers.

When you spend most of your daily computing in the browser, even small interface tweaks can have a great impact on your productivity. So let’s start with what Firefox 4 holds for its users in the looks department.

The latest version of Firefox does away with the status bar and places the window tabs on top of the address bar – just like the Google Chrome and Chromium browsers. The status bar is not gone completely, though: it appears when you hover the mouse over a link and when the browser loads a webpage – exactly the way it does in Google Chrome. While some might think of this as a blatant rip-off, we prefer to call it cross-pollination. After all, both projects are open source, so it’s only natural to borrow good ideas from each other. Call it what you like, these seemingly minor tweaks improve the overall usability and browsing experience. We particularly like the tab pinning feature, as we have been using this functionality extensively since it was introduced in Google Chrome. We were, however, slightly disappointed to see that Firefox 4 still uses a separate search bar. It would have made more sense to roll it into the Awesome Bar. After all, this is how it’s done in Google Chrome, and it works pretty well, so why not borrow this feature as well?

Interface improvements in Firefox 4 are not limited to borrowed features, though. In fact, the new version of the browser comes with a unique and innovative tool for managing tabs, named Panorama. Using this nifty feature, you can create as many tab groups as you like and move tabs between them using the mouse. What makes Panorama so useful is that the browser displays only one tab group at a time, but you can instantly switch to any other group using a keyboard shortcut. For example, youbeta can group all news sites and Linux-related pages into different tab groups and quickly switch between them. This feature can come in equally handy for managing multiple tabs and grouping them by topics. Our only quibble is that it’s not immediately clear how to save the tab groups between sessions. It turns out that you need to set Firefox to display tabs from the previous time in the Preferences window. We would prefer a dedicated save button in the Panorama view. Another useful feature is the ability to reduce Firefox’s interface to a bare minimum by hiding the entire menu bar. You probably won’t appreciate this feature on your desktop machine, but it’s a boon for notebooks and netbooks where screen real estate is at a premium.

Continue to: Page 2 – Conclusion

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