New Firefox Release: Faster, Better Video, Different Look

Last week, the Mozilla Foundation released a new version of its Firefox 4 web browser. The new version offers better performance, improved tab management, more HTML5 video support, synchronization, and a significantly different look. There are also indications that “the people’s browser” will no longer support pre-Intel Macs.

This most recent release is the fourth beta version of Firefox 4 that Mozilla, which seeks to benefit the public by creating free, open source Internet solutions, has produced this year. (Note that a “beta” version refers to an application that not fully complete.) At the time of this writing, beta five of Firefox 4, could be released at anytime, and version six of the beta, which should include all of the features planned for the final Firefox 4, was likely to be released on September 10, just days before the much anticipated beta of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer 9 is expected.

Mozilla introduces Firefox 4 beta.

Mozilla introduces Firefox 4 beta.


In the Firefox 4 beta, Mozilla has gone out of its way to boost performance, improving how it manages JavaScript and using Window’s Direct2D API to engage a computer’s graphics processor, letting it do some of the chores that had traditionally be the main processor’s job.

According to published reports, many browser makers are looking at better ways to take advantage of system hardware to improve a user’s Internet experience, but Firefox 4 beta is the first publicly released browser to actually do it.

The improved performance should make Firefox 4 as fast or faster than Chrome or Apple Safari, both of which took performance leads in their last stable releases.

Panorama for Tab Management

A tab management and organization feature called Panorama is, perhaps, the best new tool released in this recent Firefox beta.

Panorama allows a user to organize, group, and switch back and forth between tabs in ways that will likely make other browser envious. By grouping tabs, a user can focus attention on one task or project, without closing tabs that may be needed later, and without having all of the tabs visible at once.

HTML 5 Video Support for WebM

Firefox 4 beta supports WebM for HTML5 video playback. WebM is an open-source, royalty-free video codec that helped bypass what might have been a major hurdle to HTML5 video support: licensing.

Just a few months ago, some HTML5 video proponents were fearful that Apple and members of the MPEG LA patent pool would seek to close down Foundation’s Ogg Theora Project, which makes a free video compression solution. An end to free video compression, some said, would have made it very expensive for a public benefit foundation like Mozilla to support HTML5 video at all.

Almost as if in response to these concerns, Google irrevocably released its video codec patents, forming WebM, and ensuring the expansion of HTML5 video support.


The Firefox 4 beta includes preference and tab synchronization across computers and mobile devices. For example, a user can add new bookmarks into Firefox browser at home and then use those bookmarks on a work PC or iPhone.

On this feature, Mozilla is playing catch up, since Chrome and Opera have had it for some time.

A Brand New Look

The Firefox 4 beta features tabs on top and a single “Firefox” button for most browser controls. In many ways, it looks like Google’s Chrome, which is noted for maximizing the browsing area and minimizing controls. And the “Firefox” button is identical to the Opera’s “Opera” button.

Firefox 4 browser controls look a lot like Google Chrome's.

Firefox 4 browser controls look a lot like Google Chrome’s.

Detail of dropdown menu on Firefox 4 browser controls.

Detail of dropdown menu on Firefox 4 browser controls.

The beta works with Personas, Firefox’s design-personalization feature, so that Firefox 4 is very flexible visually.

No More Support for PowerPC Macs

After digging through Mozilla Usenet groups, CNET’s Stephen Shankland reported that Firefox 4 could mark the end of support for older, pre-Intel Apple computers.

According to Shankland and Usenet posts from Mike Beltzner, who is a Mozilla executive, PowerPC Macs used processors built by IBM and Motorola that have significantly different instruction sets than modern Intel-processor based Apple computers.

Supporting these older machines in Firefox 4 would have been very costly and may have prevented Mozilla from implementing two key improvements, out-of-process plugins (OOPP) and a just-in-time complier for managing JavaScript more effectively.

OOPP is important because it allows Firefox 4 to run plugins in a separate section of the memory, meaning that a plugin crush would not affect browsing and a slow-performing plugin might not impede the entire browser.

The JavaScript complier was also vital to maintaining performance.

Armando Roggio
Armando Roggio
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