Looking Ahead to Firefox 3.6: Speed Matters

Firefox just keeps moving on. After hitting the billionth download, you might think the project would sit back and relax a while, but not so much. This week, the Mozilla Project released 3.6 alpha 1, which mostly focuses on speed improvements. Is it better than 3.5, or Google Chrome? Let's take a look!

Apparently, one billion served isn’t enough for the Mozilla Project. The project announced the release of Firefox 3.6 alpha 1 this week, code-named “Namoroka.” This release starts the purge for native platform widgets, JavaScript speed improvements, and support for new Cascading Style Sheet 3 (CSS3) properties.

This blog discusses the push to get rid of native — i.e., platform-specific — widgets in the Gecko layout engine in Firefox. The long and short of it is that Firefox should be drawing elements the same across platforms, scrolling should be more uniform, and so on. For Firefox and Web developers, this will matter. For end users, it shouldn’t matter much except that they’ll see a more uniform experience if they’re using Firefox across platforms.

If you have 3.6 handy, you can see all kinds of pretty gradients on the Developer section of the Mozilla site. If you view them in 3.5 or Google Chrome, you’ll just see a bunch of white boxes. This is because the gradient feature in 3.6 is proposed only, and specific to Mozilla for now.

This release also includes a proposed feature to specify background size, and multiple background images. All in all, some nifty stuff, but nothing Earth shattering.

Is it Faster?

Since there’s not a lot of new features or glitz in 3.6 as of yet, I focused mostly on the performance. The Mozilla Project measured the performance of recent Firefox versions using the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark, so I tried that with 3.6a1, 3.5, and Google Chrome.

Google Chrome scored 704.0ms, Firefox 3.6a1 scored 1730.2ms and Firefox 3.5 scored 2971.8ms when running the suite.

So, is 3.6a1 faster than 3.5? It looks like it is. However, it still has some improvements to catch up with Chrome.

Of course, this wasn’t the world’s best-controlled test. I was running the test on an openSUSE 11.1 system using a Lenovo T61 ThinkPad with 3GB of RAM and an Intel Core 2 Duo clocked at 2.4 GHz. Results might vary on different OSes and different hardware configurations. And it might be a good idea to run dozens or hundreds of times rather than a handful of times to get the most accurate results. And, of course, we all know that benchmarks aren’t perfect representations of real-world performance anyway — but they at least provide some rule of thumb to measure by.

Want to see how your favorite browser fares? Try it here.

Interested in testing Firefox 3.6? I recommend not using your existing profile — or backing it up before you begin. To start a new profile, run firefox -ProfileManager -no-remote. This should ensure that if Firefox won’t eat your profile if it happens to have any major bugs.

I’ve been using Firefox a little bit less lately, but I’m glad to see that the Moz project is focusing on performance improvements in 3.6. Prior to using Chrome, Firefox was always fast enough for me — but the combination of stability and speed in Chrome have been very alluring. But I do miss some Firefox features and extensions, so I’m keeping a close eye on Firefox 3.6 development.

The schedule for 3.6 is pretty short. The first alpha was released just a few days ago, and the final release is set for November — so less than six months after the Firefox 3.5 release was final. We’ll take another look at 3.6 development as it gets closer to the final release in November, when the UI pieces start showing up in the builds and all new features are in place.

One thing that’s not in this release, or planned at all for 3.6, is process separation. Process separation is the feature that allows each tab to run in its own process, so if one site causes a crash, it doesn’t bring down the entire browser. (Google Chrome has this feature.) I’d like to see this one sooner rather than later, but it’s not a trivial feature to implement.

It’s a bit of a shame that Google opted for building its own browser rather than helping the Mozilla team to implement this and other performance improvements — but in the long run, users may win out as the two teams keep trying to one-up each other feature and performance-wise.

If you’re a hardcore Web developer or dedicated Firefox tester, then be sure to check out Firefox 3.6 alpha 1. It’s pretty stable from the time I spent using it, so the “alpha” label is probably scarier than the actual software. But, there’s nothing compelling in the release yet to check out for most users.

Comments on "Looking Ahead to Firefox 3.6: Speed Matters"


STABILITY! PROCESS ISOLATION! Those are more important than speed improvements. It would be nice if FF did not crash daily, or crash in response to being really hammered hard. I routinely open up 100+ tabs and have active processes in each. But FF is not happy with that situation…

I know, the \”crashes daily\” is not a common experience, but it has been my experience with pretty much every version of FF, so not sure what I\’m doing wrong. It\’s probably all the extensions I add. No, wait? All the? I only add like three extensions… hmm, alright, 9. But that doesn\’t seem like that many, really.

Ah, well…

Now Opera — *that* is a great browser![1]

[1] I actually like FF just fine, on the whole. But I don\’t love it like I do some software, like, say, Gvim, or rsync, or even Apache. Opera is a browser one can fall in love with — FireFox is not. It\’s subtle, that difference.


stop talking



Firefox has steadily improved. Firefox 3 was easily faster than 2.0, Firefox 3.5 was easily faster than 3.0, and improvements continue to come.

Firefox is considerably more feature rich compared to Google Chrome. Only individuals can decide whether the rich features or the absolute fastest performance are the most critical reasons to choose a browser.

I don\’t choose one or the other; I use a variety of browsers. Seamonkey Nightly Build is my regular browser, Firefox Nightly Build is next, then I use Midori, Chrome, and several others from time to time. Midori beats Chrome in my book. It is difficult to distinguish speed between Chrome and Midori, but Midori is closer to Firefox in features, such as font management and bookmark handling, so to me that matters.


That gradients page would have been a lot more interesting if they had made it work on other browsers, since not exactly a lot of people are using FF 3.6a. All they had to do was put in .png pictures of what they look like so we could get a glimpse of what\’s coming, instead of some stupid white boxes.


My main concern with Chrome, is can we really trust Google? What do you think the company that wants to index everything in existence, will do if you use their browser? Log every place you go and every piece of information so that they can channel the appropriate advertising to you. That\’s my suspicion and it is enough to keep me from using Chrome browser or Chrome OS.


Just as a joke I ran SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark with IE and IE 64. The times were 8405ms and 8548ms respectively. Compared to 1550ms for Firefox 3.5.2 and 1029ms for Chrome I never thought the numbers would be this bad.


jsilve1 should wake-up to the idea that 100+ open tabs might be unreasonable. How do you keep track of that many? Do you suffer from ADD and keep opening tabs without regard to those you have read?

Everything has its limits. Expecting a browser to keep track of your bad habits without crashing strikes me as seriously unreasonable.


Other criteria like fairness or multitasking might be more important than the performance. We did some test with a scenario that plays HD video during web-browsing on HyperThreading enabled CPU. Internet Explorer just works flawlessly, but Firefox hogs CPU with Flash or javascript pages and the video clip shows blinking. Users might not notice 1 sec better loading time or faster javascript execution, but it is annoying if multiple web browsers affects the performance of other applications in case of me.



I\’m not *browsing* when I open up 100+ tabs; I\’m updating websites as part of my job. The update process for this particular software is hands-off, but does require HTTP access of the update page. Also, although I can semi-automate the process with a (wget or cURL)+shell script, I still unfortunately need to touch the sites manually at one or two points in the process.

Anyway, yes, I realize that I am over-utilizing the thing (FF, I mean).

But I do still experience crashing on at a minimum weekly, if not daily, basis, of FF. Although of late, it seems to have gotten better. after updating to FF 3.0.11+ (on 3.0.13 currently — Mozilla/5.0 (X11; U; Linux i686; en-US; rv: Gecko/Ubuntu/9.04 (jaunty) Firefox/3.0.13 Glubble/ )

later, linuxolians

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