IT Pro is supported by its audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Firefox 4 beta 1 review: First look

We take a look at the first public beta of Mozilla's Firefox 4 browser to see what new features and functionality it delivers.

Gone are the days when Mozilla Firefox could make a splash simply by not being Internet Explorer. Today it must compete not only with Microsoft's plodding browser, but also with the likes of Google Chrome, Apple Safari and the Opera browser a rather taller order.

Yet for now, Firefox 3 still boasts a market share of around 30 per cent, while its newer rivals have yet to break out of single digits. For that reason, the arrival of Firefox 4 is big news for the web, and this first public beta is a preview of what's to come.

User interface

Immediately on opening Firefox 4 you'll spot one change at least, you will if you're using Windows. On this platform the tabs now sit above the address bar, rather than below it, and for the final release both Mac and Linux versions are set to follow suit. That may spark accusations of plagiarism from fans of Chrome, which has had them there all along; but the designers insist it's a change based purely on usability analysis. If you're interested in the full story behind the change, there's a video presentation on the Mozilla blog that discusses the decision in depth.

Firefox 4 beta PIC 1

We found it took no time at all to get used to, and was arguably more intuitive than the older design but if you hate it, you can simply untick the "Tabs on Top" menu option to return to the old arrangement.

More subtly, Firefox 4 on Windows also abandons the traditional menu bar, tucking its advanced controls away in a small drop-down in the top left corner, l'Office 2007. Further space is saved by hiding the bookmarks bar by default. These two changes maximise the area available for viewing web pages, but they could be confusing for novice users switching from Firefox 3. That's a shame, as until now the Firefox interface has been the most consistent among the non-Microsoft browsers.

Firefox 4 beta - PIC 2

[pb/New technologies

For businesses, Firefox 4 brings no major enhancements there's still no management framework but some of its under-the-bonnet improvements could be invaluable in certain scenarios.

One such feature is enhanced support for the JS-ctypes library. This cryptically named resource enables developers to write advanced extensions of the sort that would previously have required delving into C++ in JavaScript. Since no platform-specific compilation is required, this makes it much easier to develop and maintain cross-platform extensions. The latest release of Safari also offers a JavaScript-based extension API, but using it means submitting to the legal and practical strictures of Apple's developer programme. With Firefox you're much freer, especially if you're developing extensions for internal use.

Another new technology in Firefox 4 is WebSockets, a communication protocol that lets the browser exchange data with a server with an overhead of just two bytes per message. To put that in context, Mozilla developer Christopher Blizzard estimates that "Google Wave, which tries to do real-time communication with keystrokes, has a several-kilobyte overhead for just about every keystroke." WebSockets is already implemented in the latest versions of Chrome and Safari, and for both in-house web applications and offsite services it has clear potential to slash network bandwidth requirements.

Firefox 4 also brings a degree of crash protection, so if a Flash, Silverlight or Quicktime plugin encounters a problem it shouldn't take down the whole browser. And an update to CSS closes a loophole that previously made it possible for websites to snoop details of other sites that you'd previously visited.

Featured Resources

What 2023 will mean for the industry

What do most IT decision makers really think will be the important trends and challenges in the coming year?

Free Download

2022 Magic quadrant for Security Information and Event Management (SIEM)

SIEM is evolving into a security platform with multiple features and deployment models

Free Download

IDC MarketScape: Worldwide unified endpoint management services

2022 vendor assessment

Free Download

Magic quadrant for application performance monitoring and observability

Enabling continuous updating of diverse & dynamic application environments

View Now

Recommended

Spanish spyware outfit uncovered, develops exploits for Windows, Chrome, and Firefox
spyware

Spanish spyware outfit uncovered, develops exploits for Windows, Chrome, and Firefox

1 Dec 2022
Mozilla patches high-severity security flaws in new ‘speedy’ Firefox release
vulnerability

Mozilla patches high-severity security flaws in new ‘speedy’ Firefox release

23 Sep 2022
Chrome vs Firefox vs Microsoft Edge
web browser

Chrome vs Firefox vs Microsoft Edge

19 Jul 2022
Mozilla adds paid tier, new features to developer network platform
web development

Mozilla adds paid tier, new features to developer network platform

25 Mar 2022

Most Popular

GTA V vulnerability exposes PC users to partial remote code execution attacks
vulnerability

GTA V vulnerability exposes PC users to partial remote code execution attacks

23 Jan 2023
Dutch hacker steals data from virtually entire population of Austria
data breaches

Dutch hacker steals data from virtually entire population of Austria

26 Jan 2023
European partners expect growth this year, here are three ways they will achieve it
Sponsored

European partners expect growth this year, here are three ways they will achieve it

17 Jan 2023