We at NPI would like to extend our heartfelt congratulations to the team at Mozilla, who released Firefox 4 this morning after laboring for many weeks and months to develop this latest and greatest version of the world’s best web browser.
This is a huge accomplishment.
Having tried out the betas and the release candidate, I can attest that a lot of thought went into this release. There’s a ton of new features, but perhaps the most welcome improvements are under the hood. Firefox 4 is simply faster, smoother, and more responsive. Like Internet Explorer 9, it takes advantage of hardware acceleration, shifting some of the work of rendering web pages to the graphics card (if one is installed and available). However, unlike IE9, Firefox 4 is available to users of XP as well as Vista and 7 on the Windows platform.
On the more recent versions of Windows, Firefox 4 does away with the menu bar, replacing it with an orange Firefox button. I’m of the opinion that this button actually makes accessing the browser’s controls much easier, because there’s only one place to click, and all of the most important stuff is right there.
Additional controls are available through flyout menus when you mouse over an item that has a carrot next to it. The menu bar remains available, however, for those who don’t like the change.
On Windows 7, Firefox 4 also supports tab previews from the taskbar, which is really nifty. And on both Vista and 7, it now supports Microsoft’s Aero desktop environment, which makes it look like a native Microsoft application.
New features include app tabs and Firefox Panorama. App tabs are basically pinned tabs that always show up on the far left end of the tab bar.
If you’re a power user like me, and keep a lot of tabs open, having app tabs is huge, because you can pin commonly used web pages there and go back to them without having to scroll through a list of open tabs.
Firefox Panorama, previously known as Tab Candy, is a way to organize and sort tabs. You can access it using the Panorama button that should appear in the upper-right corner (the button has several multicolored blocks, and hovering over it should produce a tooltip saying, Group your tabs). You can also access Panorama by hitting Ctrl + Shift + E. Entering Panorama, you’ll see a visual depiction of all the tabs you currently have open. You can create new tab groups by clicking in the empty space and dragging your cursor to draw a new box.
(Don’t see the Panorama button? I didn’t when I upgraded to Firefox 4. You can manually insert the Panorama button by opening Toolbar Layout, however. Drag it next to the Home button if it’s missing).
Tab groups are useful if you’re trying to separate your activities. For instance, if you’re doing multiple research projects, each project can have its own tab group. Panorama takes some getting used to, and the Mozilla team will undoubtedly be delivering usability improvements in future versions, but it’s a handy feature.
Firefox 4 also eliminates the status bar, though status messages still appear in the lower left corner, a la Chromium. When a web page finishes loading, no message is displayed. Since many add-ons placed icons in the status bar in previous Firefox versions, Mozilla has created an Add-ons bar to replace the status bar. This is not displayed by default, but it can be activated by clicking on the Firefox button, hovering over options, and then clicking Add-ons bar.
There are also a bunch of small but excellent enhancements that aren’t apparent until you use them. For instance, when pasting a URL into the address bar, you can now choose “Paste and Go” instead of just paste. This eliminates the need for an extra click, or the need to strike the Enter key.
Most of the best add-ons are already compatible with Firefox 4. When you upgrade, most of your add-ons will just continue working. However, some might be disabled, like Lazarus Form Recovery or refspoof. I suspect that it won’t be long before such add-ons are updated to work with Firefox 4.
Speaking of add-ons, they’re now managed in their own tab instead of in a separate window. The new default is for add-ons to update automatically, although you can specify that you want to be in charge if you like.
Users of Ubuntu and Kubuntu will get Firefox 4 in about a month when Natty Narwhal, the next version of the world’s most popular GNU/Linux distribution, is released. Natty is currently in alpha and will be entering beta in a few weeks. It is (of course!) possible to add Firefox 4 to Maverick Meerkat or Lucid Lynx, but there’s no harm in waiting for Natty to be released, since it’s already on its way. By that time, more add-ons will probably be compatible with Firefox 4 anyway.
Windows and Mac users can upgrade now by going to Help > Check for updates.
Finally, as usual, Mozilla has again improved support for web standards. Firefox 4 is HTML5 ready and also supports much of CSS3 (which is not yet finalized).
Again, congratulations to Mozilla on shipping this release. Firefox 4 is simply a terrific browser. It looks great, it’s rock solid, and it’s infinitely customizable. It really does put the user in the driver’s seat.