Firefox 3 finally makes the grade

Firefox is one of those programs that I’ve long wanted to like but could never quite get there. I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was a poor second-cousin to the Windows version — kinda sluggish, kinda ugly. This feeling was reinforced when compared with Camino, which is based on the same rendering engine but manages to be both speedy and good looking.

Firefox 3, which is at the release candidate stage, attempts to address both these issues — and by and large succeeds. The interface is much more Mac-like, and will make you feel at home. Of course, it’s tough to compete with the Apple-designed elegance of Safari, but Firefox 3 makes a serious effort.

New to the Firefox interface is the somewhat controversial back button. It’s been made more prominent than the forward button and fits into a sideways keyhole shape. This has created a tempest in some circles, with advice exchanged on how to revert to a more conventional design. But don’t listen to these naysayers — the big back button is actually a nice innovation and you’ll be glad to have it.

But how about speed? More than interface design, it’s been speed — or lack thereof — that has held me back from using Firefox on a regular basis. Compared with Safari or Camino, it always seemed ponderously slow to the point of exasperation. Although it’s only a release candidate, Firefox 3 appears to have overcome this limitation. Pages seem to render every bit as fast as with Safari, although in some cases the page starts off as a blank for a few seconds. If you’re the impatient type, this could be frustrating.

There is a whole slew of new features, but perhaps the most outstanding is the location bar. Type in a few letters, and you get a drop-down list of suggested matches. Some of the matches might seem odd at first — why would “mac” match with PayPal? — but it is supposed to get better over time as it learns your habits.

This feature is much more powerful that it appears at first glance. It may be that in the future, browsers will depend less on bookmarks and more on databases. Let’s face it, even the most carefully organized bookmarks can become an unruly mess after a while. And the Internet has become such a firehose of information that it may be impossible to create a bookmark for every site you find to be of interest. Firefox 3 takes the pressure off and lets you surf more intuitively.

Conclusion: With Firefox 3, thriftmac can at last recommend it without reservation on an equal footing with Safari and Camino. It now really comes down to personal preference. But that doesn’t mean we’ve reached a plateau in browser innovation. An up-and-comer called Flock — No. 6 in PC World’s top products of 2008 — could wind up blowing them all out of the water.

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