Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Review: Firefox 2 Takes On Internet Explorer 7

The beta of Firefox's next version doesn't have any radical changes, but it does include a few nifty tweaks. Can it continue to challenge IE?

By Preston Gralla, TechWeb (July 17, 2006)

The just-released beta of Firefox 2 may disappoint those who expected a major overhaul, but it adds a variety of useful features that make it a must-have upgrade for Firefox users, including anti-phishing filtering, better RSS handling, a built-in spell checker, and more advanced tab handling. In contrast to the dramatic redesign Microsoft has given to Internet Explorer 7, this is more an incremental upgrade than a major one. The final versions of both browsers will be strikingly similar in features, although not in design. When the two releases are final, IE will have largely caught up to Firefox, although the large ecosystem of Firefox extensions still gives the open-source browser the edge in usefulness.
Focus On PhishingPhishing has become the latest scourge of the Internet, and Firefox attempts to address it. In a phishing attack, you're sent an e-mail that appears to be from a legitimate financial site, such as PayPal or your bank, and when you click an e-mail link to go to the site, it appears to be legitimate as well. But the site is in fact a spoofed one, and a scam artist steals your account information. Firefox 2.0's phishing filter warns you away from dangerous Web sites. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery. Firefox's anti-phishing filtering attacks the problem by checking every Web site you visit against a constantly updated list of known phishing sites, and also examining site characteristics to see if they match those of typical phishing sites. If it finds that the site is a phishing site, you get a warning. Click "Get me out of here!" to leave the site and you're sent to your home page. Click "Ignore this warning" to visit the site. The anti-phishing feature uses the same Safe Browsing technology currently available in Google's Toolbar for Firefox.
You have the option of having the list of phishing sites automatically downloaded on a regular basis, or you can have Firefox check the list in real time as you surf. In both cases, Safe Browsing provides the list. The default is to have the list downloaded, which means it would tend to be somewhat out of date compared to real-time checking. (Phishing sites are rarely long-lived phenomena, and are generally temporary sites that have a very short life. So if the download happens even as often as twice a day, it means that sites might not be caught -- even a delay of a few hours makes a difference.) If you want to have them checked in real time, select Tools/Options/Advanced/Anti-Phishing, and then choose the "By asking" option. You will get a warning that information about your browsing will be sent to Google; however, if you're okay with that, you'll get better protection.
How effective is the filter? In my tests, Firefox caught only one of four phishing sites tested; Internet Explorer 7 caught three. Here, at least, IE won, hands down. Better Tab HandlingFirefox 2 includes a variety of features that improve how you can work with tabs. Perhaps the best addition is the new "Undo Close Tab" feature. If you accidentally closed a tab you didn't want to, or simply want to revisit the site in the last tab you closed, right-click the tab bar, and a pop-up menu appears. Select Undo Close Tab, and the last tab you closed will open.
What if you want to open not the last tab you closed, but one you had closed some time ago? You'll find help there as well. There's now a Recently Closed tabs option on the History menu which offers a list of all the tabs you've recently closed. Select any site, and it will open in a new tab. If you want to open all of the tabs on the Recently Closed tab list, choose Open in Tabs, and they will all open simultaneously in their own tabs.
Another great addition is the Session Restore feature, which you can use to recover from a system crash. When you restart Firefox, a Restore Previous Session box pops up, asking you if you want to restore your previous session -- in other words, reload all the tabs you had open before the crash.
These new tab-handling options have previously been available one way or another in a variety of Firefox extensions. However, having them built directly into the browser is much more useful, because it cuts down on conflicts, eliminates browser bloat, and offers a simple, unified way of handling tabs.
There's also a central location where you can change options for how you want Firefox tabs to be work, such as whether clicked-upon links should open into new tabs or in new windows.
The Tabs section in Options gives you better control of your tabs. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery. Tabs now also have small "x"s on them that can be used to close each individually, which is more convenient than the previous way, which required you to move your mouse to find the X on the right-hand portion of the screen.
One surprise: Firefox doesn't include anything similar to IE7's Quick Tabs feature, which lets you see thumbnails of all your tabs, and quickly switch among them. This is a surprising and inexplicable oversight, because it's such a useful tool. But extensions such as Firefox Showcase offer this feature -- although you'll have to wait until it becomes compatible with Firefox 2.
So which browser handles tabs better, IE7 or Firefox? Overall, Firefox does, because of its ability to restore entire sessions after crashes, and because it allows you to reopen previously closed tabs. Still, Firefox should have implemented a Quick Tabs tool.
Better RSSFirefox's handling of RSS feeds has improved as well. When you're on a page that includes an RSS feed, the RSS icon appears in the Address Bar, as it did in previous versions. When you click on it, a list of all the feeds on the page appears. You simply select one to read it and/or subscribe to it.
Firefox's Live Bookmarks reader is very basic, and doesn't allow for filtering or searching through feeds. But you don't have to use Live Bookmarks to read the feeds -- click "Choose a Feed Reader," and you'll be presented with a list of popular RSS readers, such as FeedDemon, or one of several Web-based RSS readers. Click on one of your saved feeds, and your chosen reader will either be started (if it's a separate application), or brought up in Firefox (if it's a Web reader).
You can opt for Firefox's built-in Live Bookmarks RSS reader, one installed on your PC, or a Web-based reader. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.
IE7 also includes a built-in RSS reader, and in some ways, it's superior to what's built into Firefox. IE7's reader allows you to sort each feed by date and title, as well as filter by category, and it includes ways to customize when and how feeds are checked for new content. However, IE7 doesn't integrate with other feed readers the way that Firefox does. Other New FeaturesThere are quite a few smaller improvements in Firefox 2. Careless bloggers everywhere will be pleased to find that Firefox includes a built-in spell checker that automatically flags misspelled words as you type. Right-click on the word, and you'll get a list of suggestions for correcting it. You can also add words to the dictionary. (Bloggers might also be interested in our review of Flock, a browser based on Firefox that includes features for social networkers.)
Firefox's new spell checker will be welcomed by bloggers. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.Troubleshooting has also been improved. A new Error Console reports on problems that the browser has encountered with JavaScript code, and includes live links to the HTML of the page in question. Web developers will welcome it; others may never use it. The new Error Console reports on errors the browser has encountered and offers live links to the HTML of the page in question. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.A new "History" menu has also been added, replacing the largely useless "Go" menu. The history menu lists your most recent browsing history, so you can quickly jump to a page you've already visited, and also includes the ability to open recently closed tabs. The way you manage extensions has been slightly altered as well -- both extensions and themes are managed from the same screen, titled Add-Ons. Updating, installing, and removing extensions is made slightly easier as part of the redesign. This redo is part of an overall redesign of the browser's Options screen and dialog boxes, which put all customizations within easier reach.
A single Add-ons window lets you control both your extensions and your themes. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery.The new version of Firefox also considerably improves the Search Bar. Previously, once you installed a new search engine for the Search Bar, there was no simple way to get rid of it. Now you can easily manage all of your installed engines. Click the button next to the magnifying glass and choose Manage Search Engines; to remove an engine, highlight it and click Remove. To change the order that engines appears on your list, highlight one, and move it up or down. Manage Search Engines lets you delete the search engines you no longer want. Click image to enlarge and to launch image gallery. The Bottom LineSo what's the bottom line for Firefox 2? There are enough improvements so that anyone who uses Firefox should upgrade. And the beta appears stable enough that you may be able to use it now as your everyday browser. Is it better than IE7? That depends on which features are most important to you. IE7's anti-phishing tool and built-in RSS reader beat Firefox's. Firefox's tab handling is superior, except for its lack of Quick Tabs. The ace up Firefox's sleeve is still its extensions, because those will give it a significant set of features that IE7 won't have. Overall, while Firefox 2 is an improvement over 1.5, it's not likely to be the version that helps it overtake IE's dominance in the marketplace. It will be interesting to see if anything else is added by the time Firefox comes out of beta.

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