Firefox 3.6 is much more colorful than the previous version, but color us unimpressed. The new version sports a fabulous new cosmetic feature called “personas” but, despite claims of improved speed, Firefox is still miles behind Google’s Chrome browser in the speed department.
New Features of Firefox 3.6
Perhaps we shouldn’t expect a lot of improvement when moving up only .3 versions as the previous version number was Firefox 3.57 and the new one is only Fire 3.6. However, Mozilla is touting the following major improvements in its new browser:
You can delete and switch between installed personas, using the Themes tab in the add-ons dialog box. Firefox 3.6 was always the most customizable browser on the market and personas are a huge step forward.
However, when we attempted to visit Hulu.com using an outdated Flash Player (version 9 instead of 10), it was the Web site, not Firefox that told us we needed a new version of the Flash plug-in.
Performance: Pretty Much a Wash
To see how fast Firefox 3.6 really is and how it compares to its competitors, we installed the new browser, along with fresh copies of Firefox 3.57, Google Chrome 126.96.36.199, Google Chrome Beta 188.8.131.52, Opera 10.10, Safari 4.0.4, and Internet Explorer 8 on a brand new Lenovo IdeaPad U150. The IdeaPad was configured with a 1.3-GHz Intel Core 2 Duo SU7300 CPU, 4GB of RAM, a 5,400-rpm 320GB hard drive, and Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit. None of the browsers had additional plug-ins or add-ons installed.
|Browser||SunSpider Time (in ms)|
|Chrome Beta 184.108.40.206||907.8|
|Internet Explorer 8||8,957.4|
As you can see, Chrome and Safari clearly are the kings here, completing the test in around 900 milliseconds. Firefox 3.6 is indeed quite a bit faster than its predecessor, a good 15-percent by our math. I’m sure this number varies a bit, depending on one’s hardware and there can even be slight differences from one run to another. Firefox, Chrome, and Safari are in a different league than Microsoft’s market-leading browser, the latter being orders of magnitude slower than its competitors. Opera is also way behind Firefox, though not as bad as IE.
Application Open Times
During any given computing session, you might open and close your browser several times as you switch to and from other tasks. So we also tested the speed at which each browser starts up, both cold (the first time during a session) and warm (after having been opened and closed before during that computing session).
To get accurate numbers, we used macros that display a timestamp before launching each browser and had the browsers open a 1-kilobyte local .htm file with a second timestamp so we could see exactly how many seconds elapsed between the two timestamps. We performed each test 3 times and took the average. To make sure results were consistent from run to run, we disabled Windows 7’s Superfetch service, which does some caching of frequently-used apps.
|Browser||Cold Open (seconds)||Warm Open (seconds)|
|Chrome Beta 220.127.116.11||3.9||0.3|
|Internet Explorer 8||17.9||9.8|
The first thing we noticed looking at these results is how painfully slow Internet Explorer 8 is. If you’re a regular IE 8 user, you’ve probably seen that the IE window appears on screen much sooner than 17.9 seconds, but is unresponsive while it says “connecting …” for several seconds before opening its home page or, in our case, the 1k html file we had it open. Warm opening on IE 8 also took a virtual lifetime in comparison to Chrome, which lead the field by warm opening in a — blink and you’ll miss it — 0.4 seconds for the current release version and 0.3 for the new beta.
Surprisingly, Firefox 3.6 cold and warm opened slower than Firefox 3.57. While the warm opens were only a tiny .2 seconds apart, the cold opens took about 50-percent longer, going from 4.5 seconds to 6.8. In our view, that’s a pretty big step backward.
All of these open times are probably faster when you use a faster processor a faster hard drive than those found on our testbed. However, as the most frequently used application on the PC, the Web browser needs to open quickly, even on an low voltage system or a netbook.
Firefox has taken a few steps forward with a couple of new features and better support for new Web development technologies. The personas feature is particularly appealing and should be very popular. Those who like a highly-customizable, standards compliant browser that has tons of add-ons and is relatively fast will love Firefox 3.6. If you’re already a Firefox user, you should definitely upgrade.
However, when it comes to speed, both opening and rendering, Google Chrome remains the king of the hill on Windows. Though Safari offers similar SunSpider rendering speeds, its open times are not as good and it doesn’t have the wonderfully slim UI and detachable tabs that Chrome has. With an incredibly space-efficient interface devoid of unnecessary toolbars and window widgets, Chrome feels much more lightweight than Firefox. In order to take Firefox to the next level, Mozilla needs to match that level of agility.
Update: Results from Safari 4.0.4 and Chrome Beta 18.104.22.168 were added after this post was first published.