Web browsing on the Mac used to be confined mostly to using Internet Explorer, with few other options. No more. Every Mac ships with a first-rate browser, Apple’s Safari ( ), while third-party browsers from Camino ( ), OmniWeb ( ), and Opera ( ) are all excellent options. Firefox 2.0, the latest release from the Mozilla Foundation, is another great browser that Mac users can add to their arsenal.
Firefox 2 sports a bevy of new features, among the most useful of which is a new Phishing Protection tool. Firefox flashes an alert whenever you log onto a known phishing site and—since most phishing sites are not up for very long—it updates its blacklist of suspected phishing sites every half hour. Though it’s impossible to track every scam out there, Firefox’s Phishing Protection feature worked well every time I followed a link from a phisher. It’s a great security feature that ought to be built into every browser.
A live spell checking function is another great new feature. Like Safari, Firefox now has the ability to check your spelling as you type, underlining misspelled words in red. Even better, in Firefox it’s on by default. (Safari users must use Control-click or go through the Edit menu to initiate a spell check.) Right-clicking on a misspelled word in Firefox will bring up a list of suggestions, as well as an option to add the word to the browser’s dictionary. It’s a great time saver, ensuring that your e-mails, blog entries, and other Web-based communications are error-free without having to take an extra step.
Session Restore is another nice addition. If Firefox crashes, or you have to force quit, when you restart, the program asks if you want to restore your previous session. Doing so brings back all your previous tabs and windows.
Other new features include a Search Engine Manager, which allows you to add, remove, and reorder the search engines that will show up in Firefox’s search entry field. Feed handling is better in Firefox 2 than in any other browser I’ve used; you can tell Firefox to manage RSS and Atom feeds, or send them to an online reader or standalone application. A new Add-ons Manager makes it easier to control which extensions—like ad blockers or scripting tools such as Greasemonkey (an extension that lets you control the way specific Web sites look and function)—are turned on and off. I found the new Live Titles feature to be less useful. Live Titles adds data like BBC headlines or Yahoo stock quotes to your browser’s bookmarks bar. To me, this seems like a classic example of browser bloat.
Firefox 2 also changes the way tabs are handled. Instead of opening new browser windows, Firefox now launches new tabs in the same window by default. In addition, the icon you use to close individual pages is located on the tab, instead of in the corner of the browser window, as it was in previous versions. While these may seem like small details, they makes for a much more usable browser.
Generally speaking, Firefox 2 is fast and stable. But, a few performance differences popped up when testing on Intel and PowerPC systems. On both the PowerBook and Mac mini G4 I used for testing, I found that I had to force quit on several occasions in order to shut Firefox down, particularly when I had several extensions enabled or a lot of tabs open. (This happened more often on the Mac mini, with its skimpy allotment of 512MB of RAM.) Otherwise, it was trouble-free. Firefox launched just as quickly as Camino, and slightly faster than Safari on an Intel system. On PowerPC systems, Firefox took slightly longer to load than Safari (an additional two to four seconds), yet it was roughly equivalent to Camino’s loading time. However, overall pages rendered quickly on both systems, and Firefox handled script-intensive sites, such as the Yahoo Maps page, with aplomb.
One area where Firefox 2 still fails to perform is in meeting Web standards. When I ran The Web Standards Project ’s Acid 2 Test, Firefox failed to render the page correctly. Safari handled this task perfectly. On the other hand, while I know of several sites that don’t support Safari, I failed to find any that didn’t like Firefox. So, while meeting standards would be nice, it is not enough to turn me away.
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Since it’s a free download, there’s no reason not to give Firefox 2 a try. With its array of available extensions, Firefox is a highly customizable browser and an excellent one to use if you want to block Web pop-up ads.
[ Mathew Honan writes about technology for Macworld, Wired , and The National Journal Technology Daily.]The new Phishing Protection feature in Firefox alerts you when you attempt to log onto a fraudulent Web site.Thanks to a built-in spell checker, you don’t have to take a separate step when composing e-mails or blog posts.