A few weeks ago Mozilla released Firefox 4, the next major update to the popular web browser. The new version offers a bunch of new features including a major UI redesign, better add-on manager, tab groups, and built-in synchronization. With Microsoft and Google release of IE9 and Google Chrome churning out updates every six weeks, Mozilla was feeling the heat to provide some top-notch features.
The New User Interface
The first thing users will notice is the drastic changes to the user interface. For starters, the traditional File Menu is gone, replaced by a single “Firefox” button located at the top left corner of the window. Not liking the all-in-one button? Users can easily change back to the old file menu by clicking the Firefox button, hovering over Options and clicking Menu Bar.
Next, the tabs have been moved above the address bar, similar to Google Chrome or Opera. Not all the changes are so drastic. For example the stop and refresh features have been combined into a single button and moved to inside the address bar. In an effort to make it easier to access your bookmarks Mozilla moved it to the toolbar below the address bar.
Better Add-on Manager
The bread and butter of Firefox have always been its extensions and themes. The new add-on manager cleans up the experience making it easier for users to find different add-ons as well as organizing existing ones. The new organization tool opens a new tab, giving users a full window view instead of a small popup. With a separate dedicated tab for the add-ons manager Mozilla makes it easy to keep everything in a single window, however, it would have been great if this translated to the options section as well. Earlier this year Google released Chrome 10 which opens the options menu in a separate tab, hopefully Mozilla will be able to add this feature soon.
A lot of people are talking about the new tab management system in Firefox 4, Tab Groups. Although previously called Tab Candy and even though its been in the beta version of Firefox 4 for a while now I still hear discussion about tab management. Most people argue that there is no need for it, that organizing tabs is completely unnecessary, and this may be true for most people. However if you’re like me and keep a lot of tabs open, Tab Groups is one of the most useful features of Firefox 4. On a typical day, I have anywhere from 15-30 tabs open at a time and having an easy way to organize them is crucial.
To access Tab Groups users can click the button at the top right side of the window or use the keyboard shortcut (Ctrl + Shift + E). Similar to Expose on the Mac it opens by fading into the screen. Once Tab Groups is open you will see a preview of each tab and users can create new groups by dragging and dropping tabs in empty space or on another tab. Firefox will remember the groups even if you close the browse so you can continue from where you last left off. Additionally, each group acts like its own instance of the browser, meaning you will only see the tabs in that group. There is one thing that could be improved upon, the transition between a window and Tab Groups looks poor as the text becomes extremely jagged and out of focus. Although it isn’t a major issue, I hope it will be fixed in future updates.
I feel that this is the biggest innovation in Firefox 4 as it provides a new take on the way we view tabs. Although I’m still using Chrome as my primary web browser, I find myself wishing for Tab Groups since it makes searching through tabs much easier.
Mozilla has implemented its browser sync service directly into Firefox 4. The feature allows users to sync bookmarks, passwords, history, tabs, and more across multiple devices. Users have the option of choosing to sync with either Mozilla’s or their own servers which is more than most services offer. If you choose to sync with Mozilla’s servers, don’t worry, the data is encrypted and securely transmitted.
Mozilla doesn’t seem to really be innovating features anymore since most of the changes in Firefox 4 already exist in other browsers, with the exception of Tab Groups. The main UI is almost an exact copy Opera and also sports features from both Chrome and Opera. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing as most of the features are needed and improve the overall experience. I just feel that as the first major revision in over a year Firefox 4 would have a few more new features. This can easily be solved in one of two ways: first, Mozilla could increase the frequency of releases with only a few changes in each, or keep the longer release schedule and include tons of new features.