Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

Summary: With Internet Explorer 9 running faster than ever, and Chrome looking cleaner than ever, is there room for Firefox 4?

SHARE:
TOPICS: Browser, Microsoft
136

In 2004, Internet Explorer (IE) 6 was already a security nightmare but since Microsoft has stomped all over Netscape and alternative browsers like Mozilla, now SeaMonkey, and Opera had little traction, Windows users pretty much stayed with IE... until Firefox appeared. It was a breath of fresh air. IE users concerned with security and open-source fans quickly flocked to the new Web browser, and over time others followed. But, in the last few years, Firefox lost some of its luster. Can Firefox 4 restore it?

Now that Firefox 4 has been released a day early, albeit after months of delays, I asked myself if Firefox 4 really was, not just better than the Firefox 3.6.x series, but it's more serious competitors: IE9 and Chrome 10.

To see how it would do I've been running the Firefox 4 betas, release candidates, and just now the final, on Windows 7 SP1, Windows XP SP3, and the Mint 10 Linux distribution. For XP and Windows 7, I used a Gateway SX2802-07 desktop. This PC uses a 2.6GHZ Intel Pentium Dual-Core E5300 processor and has 6GBs of RAM and a 640GB hard-drive. For my Linux Firefox box, I used a Dell Inspiron 530S powered by a 2.2-GHz Intel Pentium E2200 dual-core processor with an 800-MHz front-side bus. This box has 4GBs of RAM, a 500GB drive. This is what I found.

1. Operating System and Application Interoperability

Firefox 4, unlike IE 9, will run not only on any version of Windows-IE 9 is Windows 7 and Vista only-but on pretty much any desktop operating system. Of course, that's also true of Chrome and many of the other browsers. Unlike the others though, Firefox also supports a gigantic family of browser extensions.

If there's anything you want to do with a browser, but it's not built-in, there's almost certainly a way to do it with a Firefox extension. I found that most of the extension I use every day with Firefox, such as the newest versions of the LastPass password manager; the Xmarks bookmark manager; and the Google toolbar work just fine with Firefox 4.

Not all add-ons will work so smoothly though. There have been many changes in how Firefox handles extensions. I know some extensions will fail until they've been updated. I was also annoyed to find that I had to close and restart Firefox to get most extensions to work.

2. Speed

For pure speed, according to the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark 0.9.1, 32-bit IE 9 is still the winner at 251.5ms (milliseconds) on Windows 7. Firefox did, to my surprise, come in faster than Chrome with a rate of 300.5ms. Chrome came in just behind it at 317.1. Other tests though show it to be a closer race with something to be said for each browser. Firefox's new found JavaScript speed can be credited to the Jägermonkey JavaScript Engine.

Speaking as a user Chrome still feels faster to me, followed by IE, and then, I'm sorry to say Firefox. Still, Firefox 4 feels much faster than Firefox 3.6x. Your usage may vary.

I was also pleased to see, after multiple hours of use and many tabs opened and closed, that Firefox finally seems to have fixed its infamous memory leak problems. This often led to system slowdowns, and in extreme cases, even to crashes. That, knock on silicon, now seems to be a thing of the past.

3. Web Interoperability

Firefox 4 does a much better job than IE 9 when it comes to Web standards compatibility. On the Acid3 Web standards test, Firefox 4 came in with a score of 97 compared to IE 9's 95. On the HTML 5 compatibility test, Firefox had a good score of 255 compared to IE's 130. Unfortunately, Chrome does better than both. Chrome had an Acid 3 score of 100 and a HTML 5 mark of 288.

In practice, I didn't find any Web pages-except for those sad sites still stuck in IE-6 comparability hell-that gave Firefox 4 any problems.

Page 2: [Features and Problems] »

Features and Problems

4. Features

There are a lot of features to like in Firefox 4. A very short list of the ones I like includes Firefox Sync. If it could work across browsers, it might replace my current bookmark and password favorites: Xmarks and LastPass. If you don't change browsers though, Firefox Sync might be all you need.

I also like tab grouping. This, like the name suggests, lets you group tabs together. It's perfect for keeping tab 'families,' like say one group for "social networking" and another for work.

A related feature, which I'm already fond of, is Firefox's ability to turn Web pages into pinned "applications". All you need do is right click on a tab to turn it into an application, and, until you change your mind, the page will always be available when you start your browser. This is ideal for pages such as Gmail that you know you'll be opening over and over again during the course of the day

5. And what's wrong

Firefox is full of good stuff, but even taken all together is it good enough to bring back users who have moved on to Chrome, or back to IE? I don't think so.

It is faster than it once was. It is better than it once was. It has many new and useful features. But, it's in a dead-heat with the other browsers when it comes to speed. And, yes, it is better, but then so are the others. As for the features, many of these, such as pinning, were already available in other browsers.

I'll also add one possible problem. I happen to like the Chrome-style of a minimal Web browser interface. Now that everyone, including Firefox, is copying it though I really wonder if it's this clean interface is for everyone. I suspect a lot of people like having the controls easily available lined up on the top of the program even if they do use up some of screen real-estate.

Had Firefox shown up on time, in 2010, it might have been a different story. Today, though, I fear it's a case of too little and too late for it to be a contender in 2011. I see Firefox continuing its slow decline to the rise of Chrome in users hands, while IE 9 will, for a time at least, will stabilize IE's generally declining market share. Eventually, I foresee Firefox becoming the number three Web browser with IE and Chrome fighting for the top prize.

Topics: Browser, Microsoft

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Talkback

136 comments
Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

    "I happen to like the Chrome-style of a minimal Web browser interface. Now that everyone, including Firefox, is copying it though I really wonder if it?s this clean interface is for everyone."

    Copying it? How much innovation did Google actually release in Chrome since being released about 2 years ago? Oh I'm sure Google came up with "tabs" a long time ago, can't forget about Microsoft's GPU-hardware Acceleration(wasn't invented but 1st to implement), Extensions...Come on Steven you try too hard, but you fail miserably.
    Classic94
    • Opera

      @Classic94 - Opera is where the innovation happens. They all pick and choose from it.
      People
      • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

        @People : come on... Opera has always bragged about innovation and features, but never has quite delivered them.

        In the beginning (<i>fiat lux</i> style LOL!!!), Opera was ad ridden and they wanted us to <i><b>buy</b></i> their unknown browser. After they failed miserably to find market share, they realized they had to follow an alternative route.

        Today, they keep bragging and bragging that they have the best technology, just no one hears. Keep wishing and really step up the ante, please.
        cosuna
      • Opera

        @People : It seems like every new browser copies some other Opera feature; why not use Opera and have the future now? If you mess with Firefox add-ons enough, you can approach, but not match, Opera's functionality. After you've used Opera for a while, all the other browsers seem broken.
        alnitak
      • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

        @People Bah. Opera did vector graphics, and W3C standards compliance before most other browsers, but all this talk about Opera being this incredible teat from which innovation flows routinely is just hot-air and fanboyism. Every major browser, as a result of the highly competitive market in which they exist, must introduce new features with every major update.
        nickswift498
    • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

      @Classic94 - Frankly, the back and forth about the minimalist browser frames is nothing compared to the TRUE importance of standards support.

      Why has nobody called SJVN on his continued quoting of browser standards compliance based on numbers from http://html5test.com? This site includes a number of tests, most of which include more tests that <b>"go beyond the requirements of the HTML5 specification "</b> than tests that exist within the HTML5 specs. In short, the "HTML5Test" site is nothing more than ABM browser crowd's attempt to discredit Microsoft's continued adoption and support for web standards.

      <b>SJVN</b> - if you truly do want to measure browser's standards compliance, at least quote the numbers from the comprehensive (and rapidly growing) <a href="http://w3c-test.org/html/tests/reporting/report.htm">W3C HTML5 conformance test suite</a>.
      bitcrazed
      • Good point maybe. I don't know about &quot;more tests&quot;

        @bitcrazed I have no idea about html5test.com vs W3C HTML5 but ultimately W3C is the standard. So you may have a good point there.
        DevGuy_z
      • [Thank you for reminding us Who Sets the Standards]

        @bitcrazed: I *strongly* agree. Thanks for reminding us all Who Sets the Standards that we should measure by.
        Cheers.
        Steven Hotelling
        EZ411
    • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

      @Cosuna - how has Opera not stepped up to the plate? Opera's had bookmark syncing for ages, unlike Firefox. Speed Dial. Password management. Saved sessions. Mouse gestures. Grouped tabs. Etc. Etc. It also has things no one's copied yet like the ability to compress data over slow connections and a built-in server (and BitTorrent). Opera's had them all first. As someone once put it, "Firefox has extensions. Opera has features."
      jgm@...
      • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

        @jgm@... Marketing, they are pissed poor at marketing.
        Knowles2
    • Firefox 4 is GREAT!

      I have yet to see results for browsers with a large number of demanding tabs open, my present reason for sticking with Firefox.

      Chrome is fast yes, but featureless, and if IE8 is anything to go by IE9 will still SUCK when you have more than just a very few tabs open.

      Firefox winds HANDS DOWN on the huge variety and extreme usefulness of Firefox add-ins!

      No contest! Firefox 1 all the others 0
      chaz15
      • Tabs open

        @chaz15 - what do you call a large number of demanding tabs open, I am currently in IE9 and running this particular web page in tab 20, I usually run at 10 to 15 different tabs and have no problems and very little memory usage. Unless Firefox fixed their problem they would have bled over 6 Gb of memory opening the same load. Except for his numbers on meeting standards, I have to agree with the author, IE9 and Chrome are currently the hot ones and Firefox is trailing, I stopped using it because two extensions I relied on are broken in the latest version yet function perfectly well in the new IE9. The new Opera is very interesting but does everything its way which sometimes is not as intuitive as IE and Chrome.
        Rndmacts
      • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

        @chaz15
        I've been a diehard FF user for years. After getting a new laptop I tried IE8 for a few months (just for the heck of it) finally gave up on it a few weeks ago because it was so lacking in features, with no add-in extensions to fill in its' deficiencies. I then researched Chrome and found some, but not many add-ins.

        I had no choice but to go back to FF v4 for it's add-ins. I should also add that I haven't experienced any speed issues.

        How reviewers can put such high importance on a few points in speed, and skate over the features/add-ins I don't know. Yes productivity is effected by speed, but fractions of a second don't weigh much when compared to the features that allow me to more easily browse the web.

        Yep no contest, FF is the clear winner!!
        CaptainK
    • back to Firefox

      @Classic94 I have been running both Chrome and Firefox on 64bit Linux. I have quit Chrome. 1. Because it keeps loading the cache until it becomes swap drive intensive and brings the whole system to a crawl. 2. I now have to but up with warning on every page open that my plug-in is out of date (Flash).
      Sagax-
      • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

        @Sagax- For #2, try the flash-aid plugin.
        uwe.koch@...
  • Less is less

    Chrome sucks with it's minimalist tools. I tried it and didn't like it. I hope FF4 is going to give *us* the option of choosing a classic interface or the new one. I don't care which is the default as long as it's there. Same goes for Office and Win7. Why do the developers get to decide what's best for me? Let me have the option, then I can learn the new layouts without becoming useless for a period of time.
    Mr Orez
    • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

      @Mr Orez
      You might see this with third-party themes/skins. I doubt they would build it into the browser, though.
      matricellc
    • Backward compatibility with look and feel

      @Mr Orez - I agree 100% with Mr Orez. Why should we be compelled to relearn a different way of doing things when a new version of an application comes out. I can't get on with Chrome; I've tried it twice and on both occasions after playing with it for a while I went back to Firefox. I don't like the new Firefox 4 as much as the previous version because it's aping Chrome. Come on Mozilla - lets have the old look and feel back without losing the speed and functionality of version 4. As for Microsoft Office's 'ribbon' interface, I have to use far more clicks to do what I used to do more easily with Office 2003. I don't care what the software developers think is an 'improved' interface; at least give us users the option of staying with what we're familiar with. (I speak as a software developer incidentally).
      JohnOfStony
      • Too many little problems with Chrome's UI

        @john.foggitt@...
        As another software developper, I couldn't agree more. That ribbon interface drove me to OpenOffice (and then LibreOffice) because it was taking me too long to do anything in MS Office.
        I dislike the minimalist interface on Chrome. I pick and choose my FF3 tool bars and I customize them as well. It's one of the things I always liked about FF. I wish Chrome had the option of enabling/disabling some tool bars and customizing some tool bars.
        The biggest problem with the Chrome UI is all sorts of little things that just make it less pleasant for me to use for what I do. In FF4, it has those same problems out of the box, but with about 10 minutes of tweaking, I can get it to something I like. With Chrome, that doesn't seem possible.
        mheartwood
      • RE: Four Reasons Firefox 4 can make a go of it--And one reason why it can't.

        @john.foggitt@...

        i guess i would have to concur here.. I have tried Chrome a couple of times but have come back strongly to Firefox just because of the range of functionality and flexibility Firefox gives.. And i feel more comfortable with the interface of firefox too.. I don't think firefox should have gone all out to ape Chrome in this area.. and for that matter. I felt, looks and experience wise IE8 was better than IE9 since the guys at Microsoft also thought we will goo all the way minimalistic.. Maybe I am in minority here. But i guess there is a line where being minimal starts to feel like being a nuisance.. One thing is there.. FF4 is fast.. i could feel the difference he moment i loaded the pages in FF4 compared to FF3.6...

        Kudos to Firefox team for their work... and i dont think i will be shifting from Firefox anytime soon, now that i am hearing the memory leak has been fixed.. Have to check that out though, since that was my only major issue with Firefox..
        harikrismg