Sunday, May 03, 2009

The Things You Come Across When Trying Beta Software

Mozilla's feedback system for users of Firefox, Thunderbird, etc., is named hendrix. Why hendrix?

Jimi Hendrix feedback(In case you are irritated that the apparent link
in that image did not do what you expected when you clicked it, here.)

Ah, geek humor. Nothing finer.

Oh, about that post title. Yes, I just downloaded and installed Firefox 3.5 Beta 4. The rest of this post has some notes about which you will care only if you are thinking about trying out the beta version yourself.

Just to be clear: this is NOT a security upgrade that you must do. If you're happy with your existing version of Firefox (version 3.0.10 is the latest stable version, as of this moment) and have no urge to be a beta tester, there's no reason not to wait until Mozilla releases the stable version of 3.5.


What's New?  Version 3.5 is going to be the next major -- i.e.; non-patch -- release of Firefox. Why it won't be called v3.1 may be cynically explained as "because it's taking them so long to come out with it," or more charitably as "Dude, this is a pretty major upgrade." Details of what's new can be viewed on the Release Notes page.

One of the features that's gotten the most buzz is Private Browsing, more widely known as Porn Mode. I haven't looked into that yet, for reasons I'll leave you to speculate about. Other hyped features that I know little about include integrated geolocation so Obama can track you (?), Undo Closed Window (?), and full support for HTML 5 and a bunch of other developer goodies (?).

Faster?  The thing I have been most looking forward to is Mozilla's promise that the new rendering and Javascript engines will be significantly faster. So far, the new version does feel snappier. The HuffPo's site, which for me has often mysteriously dragged Firefox to a near-stall so that even other tabs would freeze until the HuffPo page finished loading, seems not to be a problem anymore.

Overwriting?  The good thing about this beta version is that it does not overwrite your existing Firefox installation. I'm not sure when they changed this -- IIRC, it was not always the case -- but this is the first time I've been made aware of it. The default installation will stick the program in a separate folder and (on Windows) create a separate entry in the Start → Programs menu. Therefore, you can try it out without worrying about having to reinstall the old version, and you can choose which one to use with each browsing session. To get rid of the beta version, just use the Windows Control Panel Add/Remove Programs utility.

However, the new version will pick up your settings, bookmarks, history, etc., from your existing installation, and as you use the new version, it will save whatever changes you make (new bookmarks, your most recent browsing history, changes you make in the customization, etc.) to the same place. Probably, this is what you want. If you think you might want to go wild with testing the beta version but want to be able to get back to your old settings when and if you go back to the stable version, see, for example, Mozilla's "Backing up your information" page. You might also have a look at the third-party utility MozBackup and/or the Firefox add-on FEBE (Firefox Environment Backup Extension). See the Google for more possibilities.

Add-ons?  Not all of your add-ons are guaranteed to work with the beta version. Here's the rundown on the ones that I use regularly.

  • Working:  Flashblock | Java Quick Starter | McAfee SiteAdvisor | PDF Download

  • Not working:  CopyCode | Get Mail | Image Zoom | MeasureIt | XPL LinkScanner Lite

  • Notes:  
    1. The non-working add-ons are disabled by Firefox when you launch the beta version, so apart from not having their functionality, there aren't any other problems.

    2. Java Quick Starter is automatically installed by Sun when you install or upgrade Java on your browser (the Java Runtime Environment, to be specific). This only applies for Win2000 and WinXP. (More info on the JRE and updates.)

    3. XPL has recently been acquired by AVG. It's unclear at the moment what's going on; the download links on the Pro/Lite comparison page are currently broken and I don't see download links on AVG's site. Weirdly enough, the automatic updates for the related standalone utility seem to be continuing without drama. (Truth is, this is the only part of XPL Linkscanner Lite I regularly use; I have the browser add-on part disabled and let SiteAdvisor handle that aspect.)

Annoyances?  Haven't spent too much time fiddling around yet, but I do have a few complaints. (You were sitting down, I hope.)

  1. The keyboard shortcut to toggle Porn Mode Private Browsing on and off is CTRL+Shift+P. Guess what the keyboard shortcut is, to switch between the text editor and the preview window, on Blogger? Yep. Grrr.

    The out of the box behavior in response to CTRL+Shift+P is for Firefox to pop up a window (complete with sound effect) asking, "Would you like to start Private Browsing?" I suppose I could tick the box that says "Don't show this window again," but for the moment I'm leaving it there just to irritate myself to remind myself to look into possible workarounds. (Maybe something in about:config?)

  2. When you switch to using the stable version of Firefox after you've been using the beta version, and vice versa, you'll have to suffer through a small amount of pain, each time, while Firefox checks for updates to your add-ons, asks if you want to set Firefox to be your default browser, and takes you to a page where you are congratulated for upgrading to the latest version of Firefox. No biggie, but if you think you might be going back and forth between the two versions a lot, be aware. (There are probably ways to disable some of these start-up checks.)

    Obviously, this is not v3.5 annoyance, per se, and it will go away once the stable version of 3.5 is installed over the existing 3.0.x installation.

  3. Out of the box, v3.5 shows the tab bar, even if you only have a single tab open. This is one setting that is not picked up from the existing installation, apparently -- I have v3.0.x set to hide the tab bar until I open multiple tabs.

    However, my initial worry that this option has been removed was for naught. It's still configurable. Open about:config and toggle browser.tabs.autohide to True.

  4. The old Tools → Clear Private Data menu option has been changed to Clear Recent History. An important change buried within is that by default, cookies are cleared, too. Previously, this was not the case, and it may not be what you want. Click the Details button window and uncheck the relevant box to prevent cookies from being cleared. I'm not sure at the moment whether this setting is remembered across browsing sessions.

Moar?  If/as I come across more annoyances and/or acquire other possibly useful information related to this beta testing, I'll add it to this post, so check back, if you like. If I do add something, I'll (try to remember to) note this at the top of the post. If the addition seems significant enough, I'll create a new post, to ping your feed reader. All of your questions, comments, and criticisms are, as always, more than welcome.


Unknown said...

Starting with 3.0.8 to 3.0.10, I've had this problem where the browser suddenly stops accessing and then on close hangs until I manually end the program in CTRL-ALT-DEL. Have you noticed this problem? It's really beginning to test my loyalty, especially when I have a series of tabs open and can't surf.

bjkeefe said...

Huh. I'm sorry to hear that. I know v3.0.9 was said to have a stability problem, which is why 3.0.10 came out so soon after, but I haven't heard of widespread probs with the latter.

First thing to ask is this: have you tried running Firefox in Safe Mode? Odds are good that the problem could be with an add-on, not the program itself. If you can run in Safe Mode for a while without a problem, then try reenabling your add-ons one by one.

The second option is to download and install the new beta. Maybe you'll find that it doesn't have the same problem, and you won't care about 3.0.x.

Good luck. Let me know how it turns out.