Firefox 2.0 beta

With the wide availability of beta software now, we’ve come to expect betas to be relatively polished and usable products. This typically holds true with The Mozilla Foundation and Firefox. Betas of the popular web browser are highly publicised and widely downloaded without much thought given to the fact that the software may be a work in progress. Things are a bit different with the public beta of Firefox 2.0. We noted this warning on Mozilla’s DevNews page: “We do not recommend that anyone other than developers and testers download the Firefox 2 Beta 1 milestone release. It is intended for testing purposes only.”

Clearly we’re not developers, but we’re more than willing to crash our Macs in the pursuit of knowledge so we installed the beta. Having said that, Firefox 2 is not in any way recommended for the machine you work on yet.

Spot the difference
With the warning out of the way: what’s new? Our initial reaction was ‘huh, did we somehow launch Firefox 1.5 instead of the 2.0 beta?’. That’s because the visible structure hasn’t changed all that much. It looks like Firefox 1.5, even as you browse through the tabs in the Preferences screen and the menu structure.

There are some visible changes, but you have to look closely to spot them. Each tab now has its own close button, the spinning ‘site-loading’ icon no longer overwrites the site’s icon and the Extensions and Themes entries in the Tools menu have been combined into an Add-Ons item. The Add-Ons interface (see Extending Firefox) has tabs for Extensions and Themes, which is a much more logical structure. So, aside from a few cosmetic changes, what’s in it that’s worth the upgrade?

Possibly the biggest feature is the new Anti-Phishing Tool. Firefox 2.0 includes a list of known phishing sites. If you attempt to load a page categorised as a phishing site, you get a warning message. Because phishing sites are live for an average of 54 hours, Firefox’s list of sites is updated regularly, though at this early beta stage, there’s only a limited list of sites – including a test site. Future beta releases will include a longer list, as well as an easy way to report both additional phishing sites and false positives (valid sites that have been flagged as phishing sites). With the increasing sophistication of phishing emails, the final version of this tool will be most welcome.

New and improved
Aside from that there are a few other changes. Firefox now spellchecks words in text fields as you type – which is handy for Gmail and suchlike. Although we’d prefer Firefox to use the built-in Mac OS X spell checker rather than its own dictionary, this solution works (though it does mean you’ll be maintaining two dictionaries, one for Mac OS X applications and one for Firefox).

There have also been two improvements to the search box. The first is that it’s now customisable – enabling you to add or remove other search engines. Unfortunately, you can’t define your own search engine, at least in this beta release. Instead, you have to choose from a list of Mozilla-provided engines. There’s also a new ‘search suggestions’ feature. As soon as you start typing a search term, Firefox opens a list of possible search terms based on what you’ve typed so far. At the top of this list are searches from your search history; below that are matches based on what you’re typing. We found that search terms often wound up near the top of the list after typing only a few characters (even if it wasn’t already in the history). This little feature could prove to be quite the typing time-saver.

If Firefox crashes, it will now reopen tabs, resume interrupted downloads and bring back any text you had typed in forms at the time of the crash. This worked well when we tested it (by force-quitting).

There’s also a new bookmarking feature called ‘microsummaries’, which is a dynamic title for your bookmark, set by the site you’ve bookmarked. So instead of seeing Merriam Webster Dictionary Word of the Day for your bookmark title, you’ll see the word of the day – and it will change each day. For this feature to work you must install a microsummary generator for a site (and the site must, obviously, have a generator). Then you bookmark it and click on a pop-up field in the bookmark entry screen to change the name to the micosummary. But why would anybody want the name of a bookmark to change regularly? Thanks, but we’ll stick with the traditional method of naming bookmarks. Perhaps in later betas, this feature will become more impressive – but for now it’s clumsy and obscure.

OUR VERDICT

For heavy users of Firefox’s numerous extensions and themes, the lack of compatibility will probably make it a no-go, but as a portent of things to come in the final release of Firefox 2, this is a very good sign.

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