There's a new version of the Firefox browser coming out this week, and it's so good you may want to adopt it instead of either Microsoft's IE or Google's Chrome. Indeed, I've already made the switch using an almost complete version of Firefox 4; the finished product will be ready to download on Tuesday, March 22.
Having said that, the three major browsers these days are all very good and it's a certain amount of trouble to switch; you've got to move your bookmarks and get used to a somewhat different environment. So when I say I'm moving back to Firefox, it's no slam against Chrome. (Microsoft's new IE 9 is getting good reviews, but I haven't had a chance to try it out.)
The main reason I like Firefox 4 so much is a feature called Panorama. Essentially it's a way of visually grouping tabs as if they are running in a separate instance of the browser, a real asset for inveterate multitaskers. In fact, a number of Firefox 4's tab-related features work much better than Chrome's. That may seem like a small point, but for me at least, tabs are a reflection of what I'm doing on the Web at any give time. I don't want them to get in my way.
Firefox 4 has a different look than earlier versions and it's somewhat cleaner, though unlike Google and other browsers it still maintains separate bars for navigation and search. Some elements have moved around to give Firefox a more svelte look, but it's still not as minimalist as Chrome - though I'd say thats altogether a matter of taste.
Say I'm working on a project about health care and have six or seven sites open that I'm using as references. At the same time, I like to have my Google calendar and contacts showing and maybe a news page. I'm also looking at material for a column on iPhone apps and that's another four tabs. Now I've got 14 or so tabs crowding the top of my screen and because the tabs are squeezed, it's hard to tell which is which. Very annoying.
Of course, I could stop and bookmark some of those pages, but if I'm really multitasking I like to have everything at my fingertips. I could also open another instance of the browser, but that takes time and eats up system resources such as memory.
With Panorama you click a small icon in the upper right hand corner that says "list all tabs" as you roll over it. When you enter the Tab Groups view for the first time, you'll see thumbnail previews of all of your tabs. To make a group, simply drag one tab out of the group and then drag a second one on top of it and so on. Firefox then draws a box around them. Then do another group. Like any other windows, they can be moved around and sized. You can also give them a name, say health care, iPhones and Info.
When you click on one of the boxes, you go back to your ordinary browser page, but only the tabs in the group you've selected are showing. Want to switch back? Simply click on the icon, and select the group you want to see and voila, you're working with it.
Another helpful tab feature allows you to search for a tab. In the tab view simply start typing the name of the tab and Firefox will find it for you and highlight it.
2. Pin the tab on the browser
If you've used Chrome, you've probably familiar with the pin tabs feature, which is handy, but Firefox does it better, particularly for apps and add-ons. You pin a tab by right-clicking on it, and selecting, "pin." That tab, or app, is then represented by its icon on a corner of your screen. Unlike Chrome, in which the pinned material goes away when the session ends, Firefox apps remain pinned until you unpin them.
If you pin a page that changes, like Gmail or Twitter, the little icon will change color when that page has been updated. Very handy, though it does lend itself to getting distracted from the task at hand, a fault of the user not the browser.
3. Switch to tab
Finally, I want to mention one other feature called Switch to Tab. It's a little subtle but reduces clutter and drain on resources. Say I'm looking at the CIO home page for a while and then switch to something else.
If I've forgotten that I have CIO.com open and start to type the url again, Firefox will recognize it and ask me if I want to "switch" to that tab instead of opening it again. Smart.
As far as speed goes, I've seen a few benchmarks that say Firefox is now a bit faster than Chrome, but in the real world I'm not at all sure you'd notice the difference. Similarly, it appears that Chrome scores a little higher on some compatibility tests, but I'm not sure if that really matters.
In at least one important area, Chrome remains ahead: search. Because it is so closely integrated with Google's search engine, Chrome works better in that department, and makes it easier to add non-standard search engines to your repertoire.
The best news of all is that browser wars are back with a vengeance. All of the major vendors are conducting an arms race, doing their best to leapfrog the competition. In this battle for market share, we users keep getting a better product. How's that for a nice change?
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. He welcomes your comments and suggestions. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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