June 6, 2002

Review: Mozilla 1.0 is a browser for the adventurous

- by Tina Gasperson -
As users, it's easy to forget exactly why we liked computers
so much to begin with. We get enmeshed in routine and things get boring. Then
one day there's a 1.0 release to review, and surprise of surprises, it's an
adventure in discovery that brings back some of the magic. Mozilla 1.0 isn't
perfect, but it certainly is a lot of fun packed into one browser.First, the basics. Mozilla and Netscape mirror each other in ease of
installation with an idiot-proof GUI installer. I just downloaded the installer
in a tar.gz format. Unpacked into my home directory, the files went into
/home/tina/mozilla-installer. I entered the directory, changed to superuser
because I want the rest of my family to be able to use Mozilla, too, and typed
sh mozilla-installer. The GUI interface came up, and I accepted the
default installation directory: /usr/local/mozilla. If you're the only one who
uses your computer, you could just install it in /home/your_home/mozilla.

Once I told it where to install, it dutifully downloaded and installed all the
files for me automatically, just like Netscape does. The application then opened
and pulled in all the settings from Netscape so I didn't have to take time to
transfer any bookmarks or set up my mail accounts. However, the release notes say you should not use your Netscape profiles, because you could lose your search settings or become the victim of an ever-growing bookmark file that might freeze your system. I've been using Mozilla 1.0 since the release announcement, with my Netscape profile, and haven't experienced these problems. Yet.

One minor aesthetic point: I liked that Mozilla defaults to the "classic"
Netscape look instead of the new theme. If you don't like "classic" or "modern"
you can go to Deskmod or
mozdev.org to get some new
ones.

Using Mozilla to browse Web sites is completely intuitive for anyone who is
familiar with browsers. Everything is where it "should" be. Yet browsing for me
was a bit uncomfortable because it felt like there was just a bit of a lag
opening pages. It could have been my connection, but I opened up Opera just to
compare, and the page load times felt much faster -- I didn't feel like I was
trying to help pull them up myself like I was with Mozilla. The pages
themselves rendered quickly, but there was always a slight lag in seeing
the page. That's my only complaint.

Features

It's the features that make Mozilla a standout. I've been using Mozilla for
months, but never took time to investigate the features I've heard murmurings
about, like tabbed browsing. With this review, though, I started poking around
to find out exactly what I could do with the long-awaited official 1.0 Mozilla.
I used Mozilla's own recommendations as a guide for the "10 most interesting
things" about the browser.

Pipelining

Of all the features, this is the one I care least about. Pipelining allows
multiple HTTP requests to be sent out together, instead of each request being
sent in turn and not until a reply is received for the previous one. Mozilla
says that the "act of pipelining can result in a dramatic improvement in page
loading times, especially over high latency connections." Later on in the same
document, however, it says that if the pipelining is too long, it can cause
"user-perceived delays." Mozilla says it is the only browser that makes use of
pipelining.

Tabbed browsing

Tabbed browsing is cool, but it's not unique -- Opera uses this. It can be a bit
disconcerting at first if you're used to each window coming up separately. The
nicest part about it is that you can see what pages you have open because the
tabs are labeled with the page title. If you're like me, you may not have room
in the task bar for the identity of each page to be seen; the tabs stay big
enough to read easily, up to around 10 pages, depending on your screen
resolution.

Pop-up blocking

Of course, being able to control pop-ups is a wonderful feature that every
browser should have. Set it and never have to worry about being bombarded with
advertisements in new windows sprouting all over your screen faster than you can
chase them down and close them. It'd be even greater if it worked all the time -- the popups at some sites still keep popping -- nytimes.com, for example.

Bookmark keywords

This is fun. When you set a bookmark, you can assign a keyword to it, a la Real
Names, and type that keyword into your navigation bar instead of the whole URL.
What's more, you can set user inputs for your keywords. If you search Google all
the time like I do, you can set a Google keyword and add your search terms to it
for faster searching. Here's how: Perform a search in the usual way on Google.
File the bookmark. Open the bookmark in the bookmark manager and click on
"properties." Give it the keyword "Google". In the URL, delete the search term
you used and substitute "%s," to indicate "this is where a user input will
happen." Save it. Now, when you want to do a quick search on say, takamine
acoustics, type "Google takamine acoustic" in the navigation bar and your search
comes up automatically. Use any terms you like, and be creative.

User customizability

Mozilla is very, very customizable. So much so that there are even hidden ways
to customize. To find out more, type about:config in your navigation bar, and
Mozilla will present you with a complete list of all user-configurable
parameters. Be careful -- the FAQ warns that you could render Mozilla unusable if
you set something incorrectly. See Customizing
Mozilla
for more information and a useful, well-commented sample preference
file that helped me understand exactly what user customization is all about. I
didn't mess with this much; I have a feeling this is one of those things
programmers will enjoy tweaking much more than all us "just-a-user" kind of
people.

Page viewing

Mozilla has some handy page viewing shortcuts for zoom:

  • Zoom text smaller: Ctrl and -
  • Zoom text larger: Ctrl and +

These work very well, but not instantly, so don't press Ctrl - 10 times like I
did in my impatience.

Mozilla also mentions alternate stylesheets, but after searching the menus and
in the help files, I couldn't find any information about this.

Themes and appearance

I've already mentioned themes, and Mozilla recommends that you use different
themes to change the look of Mozilla, including getting smaller icons and turning off the text under the icons, a feat that you can accomplish in Netscape
without resorting to a different theme. Another thing that seems backward is the
fact that you cannot move the toolbars around -- but Mozilla did say that people
would tend to judge this 1.0 release not by the standard of a 1.0 release, but
by comparing it to commercial browsers. This is one area where Mozilla seems
behind -- but moving toolbars around and shrinking icons isn't at the top of my
priority list, so I can wait.

Built-in chat

Chatzilla is perfectly adequate as an IRC app but nothing spectacular. It's nice
to have it included as part of the browser though. You won't get this unless you
specify it during the install -- you have to select the "full install" option.
Chatzilla is customizable in the same way that the browser is, for instance, you
can add a line indicating your IRC nick.

Extensibility

Developers will shine here. Mozilla, in fact, says that its mission is "create
open source code that software developers can use to build web applications." As
a user, I'm just along for the ride. Mozdev.org is the repository for projects
developers are working on to add on to Mozilla. One project that caught my eye
is the PlugIn Doc project, which
provides instructions for installing and setting up plugins in Mozilla, a task
that has proved troublesome for me in the past. Speaking of plugins, when I was
browsing around I decided to go to the heavily-java-dependent games.yahoo.com.
Mozilla didn't know I had Java already installed, so it sent up the "get the
plugin" interface. On a whim I decided to click it and found that Netscape has
created a very easy to use plugin locater and installer, at least when it comes
to Java for Linux, called the Netscape Plugin Finder Service.

Multiple platforms

Finally, Mozilla developers say it runs on dozens of platforms. I'll take their word for
it since I'm only running one.

Verdict

The jury is still out right now. I like it, and for now I'll keep using Mozilla
1.0, probably gradually customizing it to my personal likes. My "perception" of
slower loading times may or may not cause me to go back to Netscape 4.77 or
Opera. After four years of anticipation by the Open Source community, having
Mozilla 1.0 and running it is lots of fun. I'm impressed by Mozilla, but wonder
if I'll ever have time to learn all the "tweaks" on this powerful browser
created especially for software developers.

Category:

  • Open Source
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