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Your guide to Firefox 4 and its shiny new features

Firefox 4 - new look
Firefox 4, with the release of Beta 7, is as good as finished. From now until its release in early 2011, no new features will be added, no significant changes will be made -- Beta 7 is, for all intents and purposes, Firefox 4.

Unlike Firefox 3.5 (private browsing) and 3.6 (personas!!), version 4 has a significant number of new in-your-face features -- features that will take a little getting used to... like tabs-on-top! There are tons of neat little additions that improve your surfing experience, too. Many of these will exist in the background, under the hood, but it still helps to know exactly what your new browser is capable of; did you know that Firefox 4 is as fast as Chrome, for example?

This guide will fully prepare you for Firefox 4. It will teach you how to work with the big-hitters Panorama and Sync, and also introduce some other features you might not have heard about. If you're already using the Beta, this guide might teach you some new tricks. If you're holding off until the official launch in 2011, that's fine too -- bookmark this page and check back later!

You might find, after reading this guide, that you suddenly feel compelled to try out Firefox 4. It really is rather good.

The Big New Features

Firefox 4 has a bunch of really cool features that elevate it way above the competition in terms of functionality. While Chrome and Internet Explorer 9 are banging the performance-performance-performance drum, Firefox is sticking to its guns: if you want a feature-rich browser that adds to the surfing experience, Firefox is still the browser for you.

In the cloud: Firefox Sync

If you move around -- if you ever use Firefox from more than one computer -- Sync is one awesome addition to your workflow. When you use Sync everything -- tabs, passwords, search history, bookmarks -- is saved to the cloud. If you open a tab at home, and then go into work, that tab will be open on your office computer. Sync also works with Firefox Home for iPhone and Firefox Mobile for Android.

To enable Sync: head to Tools > Options (or Big Orange Firefox > Options) and hit 'Sync'. An easy guide will walk you through the setup.

JavaScript engine optimization: JaegerMonkey


Hot on the tail of TraceMonkey, JaegerMonkey or (JägerMonkey) adds a nitro boost to Firefox 4's SpiderMonkey JavaScript engine. The exact performance gain brought by JaegerMonkey varies from benchmark to benchmark, but one thing's certain: Firefox 4 now has very, very competitive JavaScript performance.

If, like me, you gravitated towards Chrome because of its superior JavaScript handling, it's now time to give Firefox another go. Those JavaScript-heavy websites like Google Reader, Gmail and Facebook all perform very well in Firefox 4. In some cases, thanks to some skilful tweaking, Firefox actually feels faster in some cases -- a very weird sensation indeed.

Tab management: Panorama

After the release of Firefox 3.6 a big change occurred behind the scenes at Mozilla: Aza Raskin took the reigns as the Creative Lead of Firefox. It might be too much to say that he is the sole reason behind the deluge of new features in Firefox 4, but he's certainly a big part of it. Panorama is his main offering for Firefox 4, and if you haven't used it yet you're in for a treat.

Panorama harnesses our spatial memory to provide a completely different tab management paradigm. Instead of a long line of almost-identical tabs, often in an arbitrary order, Panorama lets you organise them into groups. But then it goes one step further: it lets you move those groups around on an imaginary table. Groups can be any size and placed anywhere.

The idea is that you can break your surfing up into fairly logical groups -- work, fun, research -- and then keep those task groups separate. Distractions are kept out of sight, out of mind, and you don't end up 'multitasking' between work, Gmail and Facebook...

To activate Panorama: hit the odd-looking 'window' button in the top right corner. Alternatively, use Ctrl+Space.

Hardware acceleration

While Firefox has never jumped up and down on the performance-performance-performance soapbox, it has always been competitive -- and hardware acceleration is no exception. With Firefox 4 you don't get quite as much acceleration as Internet Explorer 9, but you should still see significant improvements in rendering and page-scrolling speeds. The speed-up will be most obvious on complex websites or 'Web apps' that eschew Flash for HTML5 and CSS3. Fonts (and font scaling) also look a lot smoother, too.

For now, only Windows is fully hardware accelerated, thanks to Direct2D and Direct3D. Some parts of Firefox 4 for Mac are accelerated with OpenGL, but it's not clear whether everything will be accelerated by release time. It remains to be seen whether Linux will also be accelerated with OpenGL -- it should be!

At long last: restartless add-ons

There are two big gripes that people have with Firefox 3.5 and 3.6: it's slow, and add-ons require a restart to install. Is Chrome's growth really such a surprise when you consider its performance advantage and its restartless add-ons?

Well, with Firefox 4 both of these problems have been addressed. Performance, as already discussed, is massively improved -- and thanks to the new Jetpack add-on build environment, restartless add-ons are also here!

Unfortunately this change doesn't make all add-ons restartless. Add-ons need to be specifically coded to be restartless -- but hopefully add-on developers will rise to the challenge and begin the process of making every add-on restartless!

If you want to see restartless add-ons in action, grab a copy of Firefox 4 Beta and install Mozilla Labs: Prospector - Speak Words. Prepare to be amazed.

Extensive HTML5 and CSS3 support

Last, but most definitely not least, Firefox 4 retains its excellent record of standards compliance. Whether it's newfangled HTML5 video or audio, or drag-and-dropping files into Gmail, Firefox 4 has you covered.

Firefox also has great CSS3 support, which brings 'Flash-like' animation to standard website elements. Hardware acceleration helps here, too! You will begin to see websites that look like Flash, but aren't -- that's CSS3 at work. If you want to see what Firefox 4 is capable of, the Internet Explorer Test Drive is probably the best way.

The age of HTML and CSS rich-media apps and games is finally here. Hold on tight: Firefox 4 is biting at the bit and raring to go.

Tags: css3, features, ff4, firefox, firefox 4, Firefox4, guide, html5, jaegermonkey, javascript, mozilla, panorama, tabs