5 Things you need to know about the FireFox 3 Alpha Build 5

First, a disclaimer. I’m running FireFox version 3.0 Alpha version 5 on an Intel Mac OSX. Your mileage may vary. Right, on to the interesting stuff. I’ve been playing with FireFox version 3.0 Alpha build 5, for a while and just wanted to let you all in on the Alpha experience. The fifth Alpha build is notable for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s the first to use the Places features, although only partly. Secondly, it runs native OSX form controls. And thirdly, it uses the newest version of the Gecko rendering engine, 1.9.

Here are my top five observations.

  1. You can’t really use it full timeThe New Bookmark properties window – I’ve been playing around with this build, and I can’t see me using it full time yet. This isn’t really a stability problem, in fact the build I’m using seems remarkably stable. It’s more to do with the fact that the features feel very alpha. Take the bookmarking for example, it now uses the Places features, such as tagging, and runs from a sql lite database instead of a static file, as FireFox version 2 does. Yet it doesn’t feel very integrated into the experience. Tying in to this is the fact that when FireFox 3 first runs, it will automagically get your bookmarks from previous versions ad load them into it’s database. Yet it only does this once. The net result is that pages you bookmark in FireFox 3 won’t make it back into FireFox 2 and pages you bookmark in FireFox 2 won’t make it into FireFox 3 if they are bookmarked after the first launch.
  2. The community hasn’t caught up yet – List of Incompatible ExtensionsI was struck by just how few extensions supported FireFox 3. This is far from the first public release after all. You can see to the right that pretty much all my extensions (and themes). In reality, this is more of a problem to me than anything in point 1 and is really stopping me using it full time. FireFox is made the browser it is by its extendibility, and there are numerous extensions I rely on daily to get on with what I do. Even reasonably straightforward extensions, like GMail Notifier, don’t work. So how am I supposed to know when I get email?!? It’s like living in the dark ages.
  3. It feels…different – I think this is mostly down to the new version of Gecko but this version of FireFox definitely feels, different. It’s hard to put your finger on how or why, but there’s certainly a sense that it’s not FireFox 2. Probably the biggest difference is when you scroll down the page, it seems to be been smoothed slightly but also has a slight delay. And before anyone mentions the smooth scrolling option on preferences, I have it enabled in both FireFox 2 and FireFox 3. The Navigation in the WordPress admin area.I’ve also found it to be a tad unresponsive at times. Nothing drastic, but definitely noticeable. There are also some small differences in the way HTML and CSS is rendered. The WordPress back end for example, now has a 1 pixel gap between the sub tab and the main tab, as seen in the image to the right. This small gap wasn’t present in FireFox 2. You’ll notice other slight differences on some pages that all add to this general impression that something major has changed under the hood.
  4. There’s been an eye on OSX – I’ve always wondered why FireFox developers haven’t concentrated more on OSX. And not just FireFox developers, why haven’t the Open Office.Form Elements in FireFox 3 Alpha 5org developers pushed hard on the OSX platform? It seems an obvious choice, while I understand that its proportionally smaller market, there are some factors that would add great benefit. For starters, OSX users aren’t afraid to break away from the crowd, which leaves the door open to third party applications. Secondly, there is no dominant browser or office application on the Mac in the same way as Windows has MS office and IE. And thirdly, with the smaller user base of OSX, it would be easier to manage releases, bugs and the community. Even if it becomes a precursor to a wider release. So where am I going with this? In a word, FireFox now feels a little more Mac like. Form elements, such as buttons and check boxes are now all aquay (this will be old hat to those sed to Mac optimised builds using OSX form widgets, such as those from beatnikpad.com) and there is new integration with services like Growl. It’s still got some way to go mind you, and it’s no Cocoa native app like Safari, but baby steps are still steps…
  5. The big changes are still to come – About FireFox 3 Alpha build 5I think the main thing you’ll notice with FireFox 3 is that it’s not that different from FireFox 2. Yes, there are some small changes here and there but in reality, it’s far to early in the development process to make switching to an Alpha build. Considering the caveats that come with running an Alpha build, and the incompatibility between bookmarking systems in FireFox 2 and 3, the benefits don’t outweigh the risks.

You can download the newest Alpha yourself here or read about the changes made to the Gecko rendering engine here. So what are your impressions of the latest build?