First Look: Firefox 1.5 Beta 1

Mozilla's popular browser Firefox undergoes its first major upgrade, but the company is being careful to tweak rather than overhaul.

September 9, 2005

6 Min Read
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Mozilla's Firefox Web browser is viewed by its proponents as a David trying to unseat Microsoft's Internet Explorer Goliath. Firefox's well-designed interface, tabbed windows, and use of extensions — not to mention the fact that it's not Microsoft — has endeared it to a lot of Webphiliacs out there.

However, even its most fervent advocates (or at least most of them) have to admit that the browser has some issues. (Intrepid Firefox fan Mitch Wagner covered some of them last June in his article Firefox Users Sound Off: Fix Those Bugs!.) In response, Mozilla has finally come out with the first beta of its first major update, Firefox 1.5. According to current reports, there will be one or two more release candidates, with the final version expected out before the end of the year.

Firefox 1.5 Beta 1 is now available for Mozilla fans to try.(Click to enlarge image.)

Users who are expecting a radical overhaul are in for a disappointment. Mozilla obviously (and justifiably) believes that what ain't broke shouldn't be fixed, and so it has simply added some new features, both in the interface and behind the scenes.

Check Your Extensions At The Door
When you go to the download page, Mozilla warns would-be beta testers that Firefox 1.5 Beta 1 is not the final version, and that if you're not comfortable playing with betas, you should stick with version 1.0.6 for now. I'd add that if you would feel unhappy without your favorite extensions, you might want to hold off as well.Mozilla cleverly included a wizard that checks out your extensions for compatibility with the beta. I had four extensions installed — Adblock, Forecastfox, IE View and Google Toolbar — and of these, both Google Toolbar and IE View were found not to be compatible with the beta and were automatically disabled. (When you are told which extensions have been disabled, Firefox offers a "Check now" button so you can look for updates to the extension that might work with the new release.)

However, the other two extensions didn't seem to work either. Forecastfox wasn't on my menu toolbar, where I had put it; I tried changing its location, but I couldn't seem to find it. Adblock seemed to be there, but was a bit quirky — the only thing it blocked was a video feed, but it couldn't seem to find any advertisements. The moral of this particular story is that if you depend on your extensions, wait until Firefox 1.5 is out of beta.

Speaking of extensions: One of the smaller fixes in the new version is the ability to drag and drop tabs to new positions. I was using an extension previously for that function, and this new feature isn't really an improvement on that. However, it's nice to have.

Firefox now lets you drag and drop tabs without having to add an extension.

An Options Upgrade
I was pleased to see that Firefox's Options box has been revamped. It is now designed as a tab-driven menu with the various Option categories across the top (instead of on the side). This is a cleaner look, and easier to navigate. There are a minor few changes besides; for example, the Web Features category is now called Content, and the Languages feature is now in Advanced rather than in General.

The new Options menu includes tabbed categories.(Click to enlarge image.)

Tabs now have their own category in the Options menu (rather than being part of the Advanced option), and I found a useful addition to list of available Tabs features: You can now force links that try to open new windows to instead open in either the same window as the link or in a new tab. This will be useful to those who dislike having more than one browser window on their desktop. (You could actually always force the tabs, but you had to be willing to tweak the code in the Firefox user.js file — this is a lot easier.)

Tabs now have their own categories in the Options menu.(Click to enlarge image.)

Another nice new feature (and one that is available in Microsoft's beta of Internet Explorer 7) is a way to quickly delete all your personal data. The Clear Private Data feature works either from the Tools menu or the Ctrl-Shift-Del keys. Mozilla does Microsoft one better here: Instead of simply offering to clear all your data in one swell foop, you get a checklist showing your Browsing History, Saved Form Information, Saved Passwords, Download History, Cookies, Cache, and Authenticated Sessions. As a result, you can get rid of it all, or just delete individual data groups.

The Clear Private Data feature lets you delete some or all of your personal data.

Site Not Found?

With this version, Mozilla seems more aware of the continuing problems of sites that don't work with Firefox. It has added a tool in the Help menu that lets you report a broken Web site, or a site that blocks you because you are using Firefox. The wizard wasn't working yet when I tried it; when I attempted to send a report, I got a host exception error. Presumably, that will not happen in later versions.

If a Web site doesn't work with Firefox, you can now report it via a wizard.(Click to enlarge image.)

When a site can't be found, you now get a more fully explanatory page rather than the little pop-up alert that Firefox offered before. And if you're a fan of the Answers.com site, it has now been added to the list of search engines available on the Navigation toolbar.

There are a number of other additions touted in the Firefox 1.5 Beta 1 release notes that aren't immediately obvious. One of the most exciting is streamlined product upgrades via automated update — which will be welcome to those of us tired of having to uninstall and reinstall every time a minor upgrade appears.

Other enhancements include faster navigation; improvements to pop-up blocking; DHTML support; better support for Mac OS X; support for SVG, CSS2, CSS3, and JavaScript 1.6; and improvements to RSS discovery and the Safe Mode interface. The release notes also tout "many security enhancements," a claim that is somewhat soured by the announcement of a buffer overflow vulnerability in the new beta as well as other versions of Firefox, Mozilla, and Netscape browsers.Conclusion
Upgrades to popular applications can be tricky things. On the one hand, almost any app can use some improvements (and in the software world, if you stand still, you die); but on the other, you don't want to improve a popular program until it is no longer recognizable. It looks like Mozilla is taking the conservative route by offering some improvements to Firefox, but not messing with their original, and successful, formula. Whether it will be enough to keep the open-source browser ahead of Microsoft's new-and-improved IE7 remains to be seen.

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