Firefox 4 review round-up: The critics weigh in

Do critics think the latest version of Firefox can handle the competition from Chrome and IE9?

Firefox 4 is finally here, and its reviews are rolling in. Mozilla's new browser is its slickest yet, and adds new features like Tab Groups and Do Not Track. But with the recent launches of Internet Explorer 9 and Chrome 10, do critics think the latest version of Firefox can handle the competition? Let's check out highlights of the reviews.

Tabs

Firefox 4 is loaded with features to help you manage tabs, the most impressive of which, according to Ars Technica's Ryan Paul, is "Tab Groups." This feature lets you group frequently used pages together by category, and then call them up at will. While most critics praised the feature, Paul found it impractical for everyday use. He writes:

"Although tab groups radically simplify tab management and significantly increase the scalability of tab interaction, the feature still has some fundamental failings that sabotage its usefulness. The single biggest weakness of tab groups is that you can't move them between windows ... The real deal-breaker for me, however, is the difficulty of finding misbehaving tabs ... In Chrome, I could have trivially solved the problem by cracking open the browser's built-in process manager and sorting by CPU usage."

Another new tab management feature is "Switch to Tab." When typing in a URL, this feature lets you jump to the website you're trying to reach if it's already open in another tab. Critics liked the idea but said it needs improvement. "Any search results that match open tabs get mixed in with your history list, previous searches and so on," Preston Gralla writes for Computerworld. "So it's difficult to see at a glance if your matches are in open tabs."

Add-Ons

Firefox 4 moves the add-on manager from a pop-up window to a browser tab. "This is much more easy on the eyes and makes finding and installing or removing add-ons and browser themes more fluid," Christina Warren writes for Mashable.

Warren says add-ons have been a blessing and a curse for Firefox, because while they've been largely responsible for the browser's popularity, they can also hurt performance and ding Firefox's reputation. Mozilla's trying to fix this by letting add-ons use lighter, more stable technologies like HTML, CSS and JavaScript. "Still, at this stage, most major Firefox add-ons still use the traditional add-on API and require a browser restart when updated, installed or uninstalled," Warren writes.

Performance

Benchmarks, in my opinion, do a lousy job of conveying real-world experience, but a test on memory use from PC Pro seems worth repeating:

"Firefox is still disappointingly inefficient at handing back memory. With five tabs open the browser chomped through 104MB of RAM in our tests - significantly less than either IE9 or Chrome - yet yielded only about 35MB of that when we closed all but the Google homepage. Both Chrome and IE9 are much more effective at releasing RAM when tabs are closed, so if you use a lot of tabs you'll still find the need to close Firefox down every so often to start from scratch."

Still, most critics didn't have any glaring complaints with Firefox 4's performance, and said the browser easily beat its predecessor. "In hands-on experiences, one of the best performance differences between Firefox 3.6 and the current version is that Firefox 4 crashes far, far less," CNet's Seth Rosenblatt wrote.

Security

As Rosenblatt notes for CNet, Firefox 4 adds HTTP Strict Transport Security, which tells the browser to automatically create a secure connection when logging into a website. The new Content Security Policy is designed to block cross-site scripting attacks.

But the most publicized security feature is Do Not Track, which attempts to tell websites not to follow you around the Internet, thus preventing them from sharing your browsing habits with advertisers. "The problem is that websites don't have to honor this request, thus rendering the tracking protection feature useless," Nick Mediati writes for PCWorld. "Mozilla is working to make this feature an industry standard, so hopefully things will improve in time."

Verdict

The browser you choose is, of course, a matter of personal preference, but here's what the critics have concluded about Firefox 4:

"The new versions are done and dusted, and the bad news for Microsoft is that you still have to look beyond Internet Explorer if you want the best browsing experience. That leaves you with an enviable choice: Google Chrome if outright speed and performance are a priority, or Firefox 4 if a more fully featured browser is what's called for." - Barry Collins, PC Pro

"For those who frequently keep many tabs open and want a way to tame them, it's clearly the best browser out there. But even aside from Panorama's capabilities, Firefox users and those who may have stayed away because of Firefox's cluttered interface will want to give it a try, because of its increased speed and clean interface -- and because Firefox still has the largest collection of add-ons of any browser." - Preston Gralla, Computerworld

"Some people have probably abandoned the browser for the significant speed differences between version 3.6 and Google Chrome. However, the competition has forced Mozilla and others to put out better browsers in order to thrive. Firefox 4 is arguably the best browser on the market today." - Seth Rosenblatt, CNet

"So is Firefox 4 good enough to lure back old users and to keep existing users satisfied? For me, the answer is yes. While I don't anticipate using Firefox as my primary browser (I tend to use Safari), keeping Firefox running on my computer is no longer something I fear." - Christina Warren, Mashable.

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This story, "Firefox 4 review round-up: The critics weigh in" was originally published by PCWorld.

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