Firefox 4: Welcome Improvements & Helpful New Features

In the Mac browser wars, there are many contenders for the crown. But the big three are Chrome, Safari and Firefox. On my desktop, I found myself using Safari and Chrome more often than Firefox because Chrome looks better and I could ditch Flash on Safari easily.

But more importantly, Firefox was slow to load and didn’t offer anything better for me than Chrome or Safari, so why use it?

Now there’s a reason: Firefox 4 is out and it’s packed with new features that make it worth the download. So what are these fancy new bits that kick Firefox up a notch? Let’s take a look after the break.

For Starters

Let’s get this out of the way now. This isn’t going to be a technical review where we discuss how quick Firefox is, and post up benchmark tests of how it works. No, our mission here is to point out some of the cool new features about the browser, and we’ll leave the benchmarking to the other guys. With that out of the way, let’s move on.

The new look for Firefox 4 stands out from the rest.

The new look for Firefox 4 stands out from the rest.

The Big Stuff

The first really big thing that we noticed about Firefox has to do with the tabs, and for that, let’s use an example. Right now I’m writing this review in Firefox, in our fancy blogging web app. I also have a few other tabs open for research purposes and my Gmail account humming away.

Now, were I working in Chrome, I’d be bouncing around tabs and I could accidentally close one or two in the process. Firefox not only stops that from happening, but it does so in a cool way.

App tabs keep your apps locked in place.

App tabs keep your apps locked in place.

It’s called an App Tab, and it’s a way to pin your tabs to the side of the top bar. By pinning certain tabs in place — for my situation, Gmail and our blogging platform — I can’t accidentally hit command-w and close a tab as I do so often.

It also means that they’re always there, even when you close and reopen the program, which is even better if you’re working on a project but want to eliminate memory leaking. For me, this is the No. 1 reason I use Firefox more than I used to.

The preferences tab offers many different customization options.

The preferences tab offers many different customization options.

Grouping Tabs

Let’s travel back to the previous scenario. Say I have another window open entirely, with a whole other set of tabs in place. Maybe I’m researching for Mac.AppStorm in one window, and surfing the web on the other. Now, my problem is that I either have two windows open at one time, or I have one minimized and, of course, I’ll forget about one of them when I close the browser — and that would suck.

Group your tabs for easier navigation.

Group your tabs for easier navigation.

Firefox calls it Panorama, but you can call it tab grouping, if you prefer. This option lets you switch between windows easily by grouping your tabs in one place. Never lose track of a window again, because they’re all easily accessible. Very handy for a web junkie like myself.

Further Customization

A few other highlights stand out. First, there’s Firefox Sync, which lets you sync your bookmarks and tabs from your Mac to Firefox Home on your iPhone.

Setup a sync account to sync your browser on multiple devices.

Setup a sync account to sync your browser on multiple devices.

Then there’s the look of the app itself. Like many browsers, the window is customizable. Remove the navigation bar, switch off the add-on bar at the bottom, or flip around where the tabs sit. Change it up to your preferences, and make it yours.

Change up your browser's looks easily.

Change up your browser's looks easily.

And of course, there’s the veritable cornucopia of add-ons available at Mozilla’s website. There are a few thousand to choose from, so take your pick of extensions for whatever you want.

Add-ons make Firefox infinitely customizable.

Add-ons make Firefox infinitely customizable.

Final Thoughts

I like to break up my browsing duties depending on my tasks. For example, I used to use Chrome for all of my goofing off, because Flash is onboard all the time, and it’s fast. I used Safari for my blogging work, mostly because I added Click to Flash to stop Adobe from slowing down my browsing. Firefox just sat in my Applications folder, unused and neglected.

Now, I’ve switched from Safari to Firefox for all of my work needs. If I had to put my finger on why, it’s all down to the app tabs for me, because that’s improved my productivity ten fold.

I can’t tell you how many tabs I accidentally closed in my fervor to clean up my browser, and yes, I could just reopen them if need be, but it took time. Do that a few dozen times in a day and those precious seconds start to add up.

That said, it’s not perfect. It’s definitely not as slow as Safari, but it’s slower than Chrome for sure. Since it’s so new, many of the add-ons I already had on Firefox don’t work because they haven’t been updated yet. And it’s also crashed on me once or twice, although admittedly, pretty much every browser does that to me on occasion.

I do really dig Firefox 4, and I’ve recommended it to a few friends and colleagues since it was released. But it’s not Chrome, and right now that’s pretty high up on the quality list in my book. Out of the three browsers I use, I’d put it at a solid No. 2 — and with a few updates, it might just move up to No. 1.


Summary

The popular web browser gets a fresh update with app tabs, tab groups and more.

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