November 30, 2005

Review: Firefox 1.5 and Thunderbird 1.5

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

Firefox 1.5 is finally out the door, and Thunderbird 1.5 won't be far behind. The new releases sport some interesting new features, including faster page navigation, redesigned preferences dialogs, a new update system, and much more. Let's take a look at what the Mozilla Foundation has been up in the year since the first major release of Firefox.

If you're used to Firefox and Thunderbird already, the switch to 1.5 won't be much of a problem. The interfaces have not been radically redesigned, but there are quite a few changes that make it worth upgrading.

Browse faster

Most browser users are familiar with this situation: You load a page in the browser, then click a link that takes you to a new page, and then return to the original page -- and you have to wait for the browser to render the page that you were just looking at.

Firefox 1.5 tackles this problem with a fast backwards and forwards navigation feature (bfcache) that speeds up browsing pages that have already been rendered. Previously, Firefox would save data for a page to cache, but re-render the page each time you navigated to it. That saved downloading time, but Firefox would still have to re-render pages every time. Now, Firefox saves the rendered page to cache and pulls that back up instead of re-rendering the page. That provides a noticeable performance boost.

New preferences

Most of the interface remains the same, but the options for both Firefox and Thunderbird have been redesigned. The new dialogs have a tabbed interface similar to options dialogs on Mac OS X. I'm not sure whether users will find these more usable, but they're more consistent with OS X applications and interface guidelines on other OSes.

At one point, the JavaScript preferences were going to be whittled down to "disable common annoyances" or similar. However, it looks like this was scuttled after the feedback was overwhelmingly negative.

One last note about preferences. I've seen comments on mailing lists and forums where a user complains that he couldn't think of a way to change an aspect of Firefox behavior, and another person would respond with something like, "Of course you can change that, it's in the about:config under 'real.long.value.name.no.normal.user.would.think.of.'"

Hiding a value in about:config is, shall we say, non-intuitive to 99.9% of the computer-using population. I understand the desire to simplify preference dialogs to make an application more user-friendly, but that's not achieved simply by dumping preferences into a text-only interface that provides no kind of help for the user whatsoever. This is an area where Firefox still needs to improve.

SVG support

Firefox 1.5 includes support for Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG), so it's now possible to render SVG images directly in the browser. In the past, rendering SVG required a separate plugin, such as Adobe's SVG viewer. There are some pretty cool uses of SVG for interactive pages, including an SVG Tetris game. There are also some interesting samples on the Croczilla site.

Playing SVG Tetris in Firefox 1.5 - click to enlarge

Tab reordering

Firefox 1.5 allows users to rearrange browser tabs by dragging and dropping them to a new location. I can't say I've had a burning desire to move tabs back and forth, but I suppose the Moz developers had enough requests for this to spend the time implementing it.

One thing that I would like to see, however, is the ability to detach a tab from the current browser window and either move it to another browser window, or open the page in the tab in its own window. There are times, such as when I'm copying an address from one Web page into Mapquest in another tab, that I'd like to be able to pop the Mapquest page into another window to make it easier to copy data from one window into another.

Updates

The Firefox browser has had a lot of security updates this year -- at least one every two months. Until now, this meant downloading and installing a new copy of Firefox each time there's a security update, but those days seem to be over. The 1.5 releases of Thunderbird and Firefox include an Update feature that allows you to simply download an update to the application rather than the entire package.

I used the update feature to move from Firefox 1.5 RC1 to RC2 and RC3, with no problems. I'm not sure how well the updates feature is going to work with downstream providers of Firefox, however.

Privacy enhancements

Some users want to be able to quickly erase browser cache, history, cookies, and saved form information. With Christmas shopping season coming up, for example, it may be a good idea to erase browser history and cache to keep the rest of the family from knowing what you've ordered for them online (assuming, that is, that you're sharing a Firefox profile).

Just in time for the holidays, Firefox 1.5 includes a "Clear Private Data" feature that users can customize and run with a hotkey, or run automatically each time the browser is closed. You can specify which items you'd like cleared, so it's possible to clear cache, download history, and authenticated sessions without saved passwords or browsing history.

Extension improvements

There are some new features in Firefox and Thunderbird 1.5 that are supposed to make it easier to develop extensions. The first is a simplified way of registering Chrome user interface elements. Firefox and Thunderbird title bars, menu bars, and other UI elements outside the content area (i.e., everything but the Web page) are examples of Chrome.

There are also improvements in dealing with extensions, which is good for developers and users. The new releases do better at dealing with incompatible extensions. When I first installed the release candidates, the applications would look for existing extensions and check compatibility. If the extensions were incompatible, the extensions would simply be disabled. Firefox and Thunderbird 1.5 also check to see if new, compatible, versions are available.

Speaking of extensions, I keep hoping that Firefox developers will find a way to allow extensions to be installed, updated, or removed without restarting the browser. There are some technical challenges associated with that, but it would be nice if a browser restart weren't necessary when installing or removing an extension.

If you're interested in developing extensions, there's a fair amount of documentation on the MozillaZine.org site.

Miscellaneous improvements

The new Firefox release won't get rid of annoying "site not found" errors, but Firefox can make the errors a little more attractive. When you have an error, Firefox now shows a page with the error, instead of the error dialog. This behavior is a bit more pleasant than popping up an error dialog in front of whatever page you may be viewing.

There have also been a number of improvements that may not be obvious to end users. For example, Firefox now supports JavaScript 1.6, support for a canvas element based on the WhatWGspecification, and a number of other improvements for developers.

You may be thinking, "I'm not a developer, so why should I care?" While you may not be extending Firefox, writing JavaScript apps, or otherwise exploiting the new developer goodies, the new features should add up to a better browsing experience in terms of interesting Firefox extensions, better Web pages, and so forth.

Now let's take a look at the new Thunderbird release.

Next: What's new in Thunderbird 1.5

We've already talked about some of the improvements that appear in both Firefox and Thunderbird, such as the changes in the Preference dialog and the Updater, so let's focus now on things that have changed exclusively in Thunderbird.

If you're already using Thunderbird, and you're getting ready to upgrade, back up your current Thunderbird directory first! Your mail and settings should be in the .thunderbird directory, unless you're using a Linux distribution that puts it somewhere else, such as .mozilla-thunderbird. Thunderbird won't "see" your directory if you use the stock build provided by the Mozilla Foundation if your mail and so forth are under .mozilla-thunderbird. Unfortunately, Thunderbird won't allow you to specify the path during startup when it tries to import accounts, so you'll need to move the directory or switch it later in the Thunderbird account preferences.

Account setup

The account settings dialog in the new version of Thunderbird makes managing multiple accounts easier. Previous versions of Thunderbird require the user to go into "Advanced" to change the SMTP server, while the 1.5 release allows you to switch SMTP servers from the main dialog.

One suggestion for future versions of Thunderbird -- allow users to specify port numbers and SSL options when setting up POP, SMTP, and IMAP servers during initial setup. A lot of folks have Gmail accounts, for example, and using Thunderbird with Gmail requires that the user specify port 995 for POP, and 587 for SMTP, as well as SSL options. It's not possible to set these options during initial account setup, which may be confusing for some users.

Reading RSS and Atom feeds with Thunderbird 1.5 - click to enlarge

Spell check improvements

The new Thunderbird offers spellchecking as you type, which is a nice feature when you're dashing off a quick email and don't realize that you've misspelled a word or two. Thunderbird provides a red squiggly line under words that don't match up with its dictionary. If you right-click on a word, Thunderbird provides a few suggestions (if it has any) on how you might spell the word correctly, and also offers the option of adding the word to the dictionary if the word is spelled correctly but simply doesn't exist in Thunderbird's dictionary.

Sadly, this feature doesn't extend to correcting users who don't know the difference between "its" and "it's," and Thunderbird doesn't provide any correction for users who insist on composing email without capitalizing any letters.

Improved feed reading

I'm a feed-reading fiend. I subscribe to more than 200 feeds, and it seems like I'm adding at least one or two more a week. If there's one feature that has me sold on Thunderbird 1.5, it's Thunderbird's feed reading features.

Previous Thunderbird versions could be set up to manage feeds, but they couldn't import subscriptions, which is a pain, since my main feed reader is Bloglines and I don't relish the idea of trying to re-subscribe to 200 or more feeds. Thunderbird 1.5 has the ability to import XML or Outline Processor Markup Language (OPML) files with feed information. Thunderbird deals with large OPML files well -- it imported my feeds from the Bloglines OPML export in just a few seconds with no problems.

The general handling of feeds and page display has improved in Thunderbird 1.5, and it is also very fast when updating subscriptions. I only wish there was an easy way to move a feed from Firefox over to Thunderbird, perhaps by dragging and dropping the little RSS icon from the browser to the feed reader.

Miscellaneous improvements

I've always liked Thunderbird's address autocomplete feature, where if you type the first few letters of a person's name or address, it will present matching addresses from your address book. This is convenient as is, but the 1.5 release includes a feature to make it even more useful. Specifically, Thunderbird will sort addresses by use, so if you happen to know five guys named "Steve," but send mail to only one of them regularly, the most-used address will be the first option.

Another nifty new feature is the ability to delete or detach attachments. I get a lot of unwanted attachments -- mostly from PR folks who send press releases in Microsoft Word document format. While disk space is cheap, I'd rather not waste it by saving attachments that I don't want.

Instead of having to delete an entire message, Thunderbird 1.5 allows you to delete attachments that you don't want to keep while leaving the rest of the message intact. To do this, right-click on the attachment and select Delete. Thunderbird confirms that you want to delete the attachment, and then zaps it. After you've deleted the attachment, the message will still show that it originally contained an attachment, but the actual file will be gone.

If you want to save an attachment but remove it from the message, Thunderbird allows you to "detach" the file instead. In the release candidate, this feature seemed to be a bit incomplete. Thunderbird would save the file, and if the attachment was an image file it would no longer be displayed inline -- but it would still show up in the attachments field at the bottom of the message.

Thunderbird also comes with a configuration editor to manage preferences that aren't available in the standard preference dialog. Actually, you can manage preferences that are in the standard preferences dialog as well. This is similar to using about:config in the location bar for Firefox to edit the user preferences. In previous versions of Thunderbird, you could do this by installing an extension, but it's nice that it's built in now. Again, it'd be even nicer if there were a more friendly interface to change these parameters, but at least you can get to them easily in Thunderbird 1.5.

Thunderbird 1.5 has some new folder properties available as well. In previous versions you could set the name of the folder and the default character encoding in the folder, and that was about it. In Thunderbird 1.5, it's possible to set a retention policy in a folder to automatically delete messages by date (say, older than 30 days old), or when a folder hits a certain number of messages, or to delete read messages. This could be handy for folders that store mail from mailing lists. The Debian User mailing list, for example, tends to be very high-traffic, so I find myself deleting messages manually from that folder relatively often (why save them when they're archived?). With the new features, I don't have to do it manually.

Minor grumbles

While I really like Thunderbird and Firefox 1.5, there are a few areas where the applications could use a bit of improvement.

One of the features I use extensively in Thunderbird is labels. This allows me to color-code messages based on preset labels, and I use this to ensure that I can keep track of mail that needs to be addressed, and when. Thunderbird allows users to set five different labels, along with different colors for the messages.

It would be nice if Thunderbird allowed users to create more labels, or to create different labels for different accounts. For example, I use Thunderbird with four different email addresses, so I have four distinct accounts for Thunderbird. (Not to be confused with user profiles.) It would be nice if I could have a different set of labels for my work email than for my Gmail account. I'm also not sure how the developers arrived at five as the arbitrary number of labels that people would need, but I could do with more.

I'm probably in the minority on this, but I've never liked HTML email, and I'd really like it if Thunderbird would default to plain text composition rather than HTML composition.

There's also a weird bit of behavior in Thunderbird that's always bothered me, and it's still present in 1.5. Specifically, if you have a message open in a separate window, and then drag the message to a folder to save it, Thunderbird will close the message window. I'm not really sure why the developers thought this would be a good feature; it's definitely annoying. Just because I move a message from the Inbox to a sub-folder doesn't mean that I want the message window closed. If there's a way to change this behavior through the preferences, I haven't found it.

Another thing that has bugged me as I've been testing the Firefox and Thunderbird release candidates is that the Mozilla folks do not provide builds for Linux on AMD64. My main desktop is an Athlon 64 machine running Ubuntu. To test the release candidates, I've had to do all the testing on my laptop and a test desktop machine.

There are enough people running Linux on AMD64 at this point that I would hope they'd provide official Firefox and Thunderbird builds for this platform. (Unfortunately, it looks like AMD64 isn't even on the radar, as it isn't listed as being a Tier 1, 2, or 3 platform.) 64-bit platform support is particularly crucial for Firefox, given its security issues. If you have to wait on a downstream provider of Firefox or Thunderbird, you're going to be several days behind the official builds.

It is possible to build the latest version yourself, but compiling Firefox is a pain. It's not your typical ./configure; make; make install process -- it's more complex, and Firefox takes a fair amount of time to compile.

Another thing I'd like to see in a future version of Firefox is consistency in the mouse context menu. I have found it to be faster to right-click the mouse and select the "Back" entry on the context menu than to click the back button. However, the Firefox developers apparently thought it would be a nifty idea to have the menu options change dynamically depending on whether the mouse is hovering over an image, a link, or just space on the Web page. This means that the top option in the context menu is sometimes "Back," sometimes "Open link in a new Window," sometimes "Copy" if you've highlighted text on the page (accidentally or otherwise), and sometimes "Copy image location." I don't know about other users, but I find this behavior extremely annoying, and hardly an addition to Firefox's usability.

Summary

I didn't have any major "wow" moments when testing Firefox and Thunderbird 1.5. Most of the applications' improvements are subtle and unlikely to drastically affect anyone's Web browsing or email management. However, the sum of the improvements adds up to a more pleasant experience overall.

If you're already using Firefox or Thunderbird, you should clearly upgrade. There are plenty of great new features, and the development path will be on 1.5 after the release, meaning that the Mozilla Foundation probably won't be issuing updates to the earlier releases after 1.5 is released.

If you're not already using Firefox or Thunderbird, this would be a good time to give them a try. Both applications are mature, stable, fast, and full-featured. Despite a few minor grumbles, I recommend both strongly.

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