Get ready for Firefox

Open-source browser is trim, fast and stable

Sometimes less is more. Especially if it means you get a faster, trimmer Web browser that isn't subject to the crashes and security gaps that afflict the market-leading Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Say hello to the Mozilla organization's Firefox, an open-source upstart that could well give Internet Explorer a run for its money.

Trim? You bet. Our download of Firefox took only a few seconds; the code is a svelte 6.2M in size. By comparison, you'll download about 12M to get the latest version of Internet Explorer.

Indeed, a basic installation of Firefox sticks to the fundamentals. The browser interface looks very much like that of Internet Explorer, with toolbars across the top and an optional panel down the left side that can display either bookmarks or a history of Web sites visited. Also included are a built-in pop-up blocker and a customizable search bar.

In addition to its trim lines, Firefox offers features that Internet Explorer users might envy. We especially liked its tabbed browsing feature. As you open Web sites, you can have them appear as tabs above the main display window, making it easy to move from one site to another.

We also liked Firefox's Download Manager. When you download a file from a Web site, Download Manager pops open in a separate window, showing you the download's progress. It also keeps a record of downloads, allowing you to selectively open or remove files.

Another nifty feature is Firefox's tool for finding text on a Web page. As you type the word to find, Firefox displays highlighted matches on the page. Firefox's search tool also puts controls for moving to the next or previous hits conveniently at hand without obscuring Web content, as Internet Explorer's tool does.

Another extra: Firefox offers a built-in Really Simple Syndication (RSS) reader. That means you can receive automatic updates of feeds from Web sites that employ RSS, such as Slate.com and some Web logs.

Finally, one of our favorite features is Firefox's Password Manager. Whenever you visit a Web site that requires a log-in, Firefox offers to save your user name and password for the next visit. When you return, all it takes is a single click to log in.

Firefox is an open-source program, which further distinguishes it from Internet Explorer and has both positive and potentially negative implications. On the plus side, being an open-source program means a wide array of developers are working on fixes and enhancements. You can tap into this community via Mozilla's Web site.

Thanks in large part to this ad hoc community, more than 170 extensions are available for users to download, including an

ad blocker that will keep banner advertisements from appearing on Web sites you visit, a full-featured calendar, a spell checker and a weather forecast display for your toolbar. Firefox includes an extension manager that makes it easy to add and remove extensions. If you download many extensions, of course, your browser may start to get cluttered, but the strategy of shipping a trim browser means that users can choose which features to add.

The downside of Firefox being an open-source browser?

Security.

Firefox is currently much safer to use than Internet Explorer, but it's worth noting that Firefox's greater security is mostly a function of Internet Explorer being a higher-profile target for hackers and the creators of worms, viruses and other malicious code.

Virus writers tend to target the big guys, and Mozilla has elected, accordingly, not to support ActiveX, Microsoft's technology for sharing information among applications, or VBScript, a Microsoft scripting language. ActiveX and VBScript are used on many Web sites, and they are also frequent targets for viruses and hackers.

Of course, if Firefox attained the popularity of Internet Explorer, it would become more of a target. What's more, those virus writers and hackers would, like developers, have easy access to the browser's source code.

In the meantime, however, Firefox users are somewhat more secure than Internet Explorer users. The only price of this added security is partial incompatibilities with Web sites that have been designed specifically to work with the full feature set supported by Internet Explorer. You may find, for example, that applets or pull-down menus on certain sites do not work. In our testing, however, we rarely encountered such problems.

Systems administrators will also appreciate that Firefox can run on any version of Microsoft Windows starting with Windows 98. It can also run on Linux and Apple Computer's Mac OS X.

The bottom line: Firefox has won converts at the Federal Computer Week test center. The browser is easy to use and is trim, fast and stable. In several weeks of use, we never experienced a crash.

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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