September 22, 2004

Review: Firefox Preview Release

Author: Aditya Nag

Linux users have a lot of choices in the Internet browser category these days, including Mozilla, Konqueror, Opera, and Epiphany, among others. Now there is also Mozilla Firefox, a leaner browser than its sibling, Mozilla 1.7. Firefox just had its preview release last week and already has been downloaded more than a million times. I reviewed the new version, and found Firefox's simple interface gets you the information you want without distracting you with options.

I downloaded the 8.1MB Firefox Preview Release and installed it easily. One double-click on the file named firefox-installer invoked a very nice installer, similar to a Windows installer. After four clicks the application was installed, with no dependency problems and no hassles whatsoever. However, Firefox did not create a shortcut for itself on my Desktop or in my menus. It was easy enough to start the program from the folder where it was installed, but it would be better to have a shortcut on the desktop.

Tabbed browsing is standard, and is done well. A new feature in Firefox is the Plugin Finder service, which makes it simple to install integrated add-on software. If you open a page that requires a plugin in order to view the page's content properly, such as one that uses Macromedia Flash, Firefox displays a button to click on to take you to Mozilla's Plugin Finder Service, which automatically finds and installs the plugin and refreshes the page, showing all the content. Other browsers may take you to the proper page for downloading a plugin, but you then typically have to download a tar.gz file yourself and follow the instructions to install it. Firefox makes the whole process much simpler for novice Linux users, who might not know what to do with a tar.gz file.

A unique feature of Firefox is something called Live Bookmarks, which lets you click on an RSS button at the bottom of Firefox and add an RSS feed right into the bookmark list. This adds a folder in your bookmarks which contains all the updated headlines from that site, which is especially useful if you are a blogging or news junkie.

Firefox supports more than 100 extensions that can significantly enhance your browsing experience. Two indispensable ones are Adblock, which is very good at blocking ads, and All-in-One Gestures, which gives Firefox mouse gesture functionality, similar to that in Opera.

IF you don't like the default theme, Firefox also supports third-party themes. There are 19 themes available as I write this, and this number is sure to increase. You can make Firefox look like IE, or Netscape, or something else altogether.

You can configure Firefox in five basic categories under the Preferences tab: General, Privacy, Web Features, Downloads, and Advanced. The Privacy settings let you control the retention of your browsing history, saved form information, saved passwords, download manager history, cookies, and cache. One button deletes all information stored while browsing -- a useful feature.

Firefox also has great cookie management. You can manage cookies by blocking all cookies, allowing all cookies, or allowing cookies for the originating Web site only. You can also keep cookies until they expire, until you close Firefox, or have Firefox ask you about the cookie each time. You can make exceptions to your rules and view all cookies you currently have.

By default, Firefox blocks pop-up windows, but you can choose to change this behavior, and even choose to allow only certain sites to create pop-ups as exceptions. You can opt to allow sites to install software.

A positive reaction

I like Firefox. It makes browsing easy and lets me concentrate on getting my work done without trying to figure out which options to turn off. However, I did have a few problems with Firefox. The biggest one was getting Java to work. I downloaded and installed the Java Virtual Machine from Sun, but Java did not work. I searched on the Web, and found the solution on a forum. It involved making a symbolic link to the Java plugin -- not a very easy thing to figure out for a first-time user or for a business user. I would hope that the Firefox developers fix this before the final release.

Firefox can definitely be used as your primary browser. It's easy to use, has unique features like RSS Bookmarks and the Plugin Finder, and a program update feature, which checks automatically for updates to the program. For both home and business users, Firefox is a winner!

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