As I mentioned Tuesday, I finally decided to upgrade to the latest release of Firefox.
I'm an unabashed fan of Mozilla's open source browser, and have been since version 1. But, I'm inherently conservative when it comes to software. I feel no compelling need to have all the latest and greatest shiny new software toys. I'm a geek, true, and I have a degree or two in computer science, I've done extensive programming, and spent most of my life in the information warfare field and worked with everything from massive MPX mainframes to clustered DEC FIDI systems to a palm-sized Clie - but I hate fooling around with computer systems.
It's like auto mechanics. Some guys love tinkering under the hood, tweaking, aligning, and polishing the motor. Being covered in grease makes them happy. They talk about cars, and engines, transmission and differential gear ratios, fuel injection versus 4-barrel carbureted air/fuel mixing and that all important quarter mile. Bah. Me, I can work on cars and trucks, but more than anything I just want the dammed thing to start up reliably and get me where I'm going. And it's the same with software, I'm less interested in bells and whistles and tweaks and geeks, and more interested in having the dammed machine do what I need it to do, when I need it to do it.
As such, I usually wait a bit - sometimes quite a while - to upgrade to the latest software. In fact, I prefer to let everybody else work out the bugs and quirks before upgrading, especially if the software version I'm currently using does everything that I want it to do. I mean, hey, why the hell should I do free beta testing for a software developer? Frankly I don't need the aggravation.
Be that as it may, I spend a great deal of time hip deep in the Internet, and having the latest version of my favorite browser holds a certain attraction. After a year's development, Firefox 3 has reached stability and is spreading through the web via word of mouth and Mozilla's updater function, and after about the third upgrade availability notification I decided to give it a try. I figured I'd update the main Vista machine first. If that went well, I'd upgrade the XP tablet, which is where I do most of my online work. If the upgrade crashed and burned on the Vista machine, well, no big deal.
So, choices, choices. I'm of two minds when it comes to this kind of thing, i.e. should I remove the old version first and do a virgin installation - losing my settings and such in the process, but getting a clean install - or should I simply install over the old version? Of course, with a browser, even one as advanced as Firefox, this isn't that big of a decision - not like choosing to do a Vista install over XP, for example. However, there have been reported problems with Firefox upgrades over an existing version - especially when it comes to printing (which I'll come back to in a minute) - and as software rapidly evolves and becomes increasingly complex the number of things that can go wrong, both gross problems and subtle incompatibilities which may cause strangely inexplicable problems following an upgrade increase exponentially. Systems are like snowflakes, the variations in configurations, hardware and software both, are nearly infinite - and there's just no way even the best software development team can foresee every contingency. Five or six years ago, this wouldn't have been a concern, but browsers and network connectivity are now so deeply integrated into the operating system that it often makes sense to slick the old software first, rather than try and troubleshoot the endless little errors that creep into your system after countless upgrades and tweaks. You can lose hours of productivity and find yourself chin deep in screaming frustration - all because your upgraded software installation imported incompatible configuration settings from the old version. If it's just one thing, it's usually easy to find. If it's a combination of things, you may never find it - especially if the problem is buried in the program's data and not caused by a bug in the software.
Example: I upgraded from Microsoft Office Outlook 2003 to 2007 recently. I installed over the old version, because I wanted to keep my email, notes, and contact database. The installation appeared to go off without a hitch - but the dammed thing kept crashing every couple of hours. And then would hang on crashdump process, so I had no way of figuring out what was causing the problem. I removed all add-ons and plug-ins per Microsoft recommendation. No joy. Crash, crash, crash. Then I noticed the crashes occurred during folder synchronization. Hmmm. I flushed the database, archiving anything older than 6 months, and purged the sent items file. And the crashes stopped. Somewhere in my old email files, was a bit of data that kept corrupting the system and inducing the crash. Did that corruption appear in the old version, or was it an error that occurred during import into the new version during the installation process? I don't know, but it caused me endless aggravation for quite some time.
And it's the same concern here. One of the things that makes Firefox so attractive to me is the ability to add in functionality with third party plug-ins and freeware extensions. And I use a lot of them, not all of which are going to be compatible with Firefox 3 out of the box. And I've got thousands of bookmarks, organized in a very specific manner. And those things could easily cause problems during the upgrade process.
However, I decided to go with the upgrade method vice a clean install, for a couple of reasons. First, if it works, it's easier, one click on the upgrade dialog box and off you go. Mozilla has always been extremely good about this process and I was willing to trust them this time based on their past performance - if this was a Microsoft product, I would probably not have been so trusting, just saying, once burned, twice shy and all that. Second, Mozilla has always had very good compatibility checking for add-ons and extensions and again I was willing to trust them.
The download and installation worked smoothly and without error - another advantage of waiting to upgrade, I didn't have to compete with a million other folks attempting to download the pre-release version at the same time. Once the installation was completed, Firefox's compatibility checker popped and ran automatically - and reported that a number of my existing extensions were no longer compatible. Some were things I really, really don't want to do without - like PicLens - and some were things that simply aren't necessary in the new version of Firefox. A number of outdated extensions had compatible updates, and Firefox detected those automatically and downloaded the new plug-ins without problem. I deinstalled the incompatible extensions, after checking manually to see if there were updates. PicLens (a phenomenally useful tool for searching out graphics and video across the web) as it turns out, has been updated and renamed CoolIris - which is why the compatibility updater couldn't find it.
Here are the extensions I know update automatically and work with Firefox 3:
Gmail Notifier, Google Toolbar for Firefox, IE Tab, New Tab Homepage, Adblock, Better Gmail, Colorful Tabs, Foxmarks Bookmarks Synchronizer, Save Session, Split Panel, StumbleUpon, and ClearPersonalData.
PicLens has to be manually upgraded to CoolIris, and after that it updates automatically.
All of the functionality in other extension I had loaded has been incorporated into Firefox itself and I no longer need the third party plug-ins. All in all, they've made over 15,000 changes, according to their website and as far as I can tell after three days of fooling around with version 3, most of them are pretty slick.
None of the themes I used in Version 2 were compatible with the upgrade. Oh well, no big deal, and I deinstalled all of them. And, truthfully, I like the new default look of Firefox, Mozilla has finally gotten completely rid of the last vestiges of that old hoary Netscape interface and I doubt I'll even load new themes.
Now, the good stuff:
In addition to the shiny new look, the thing I like best about Firefox 3 is the significant improvement in performance. It starts up a hell of a lot faster, and page loads seem much quicker and smoother to me. Firefox now has true image zooming capability, but truthfully I tend to use CoolIris and don't really use this new feature much. I really like the Smart Location Bar, especially the site information feature which I find extremely useful (though I noted that Mozilla itself doesn't provide much useful information on its own site, heh heh), the expanded history drop down is a cool feature as are the one-click bookmark and subscribe controls. I particularly like how browsing history management has been improved and reorganized, and the new Add-on manager. There really are too many new features, all of them good, to mention here. If you're interested, check out Mozilla's Firefox 3 new features page, you can't say Mozilla doesn't listen to their users.
Next, the not-so-good things:
Well, there aren't a lot of problems with Firefox 3, but what problems do exist are a major pain for a number of folks. I haven't experienced much in the way of grief here, but before you upgrade you might check out The How-To Geek as a starting place.
The biggest issue for a lot of folks seems to be with printing, as noted here by commenter Tracy. In a number of cases Firefox spits out gibberish when it comes to hardcopy. This problem is not confined to a single printer type or to Vista or XP, and seems to appear equally in both clean installations and upgrades. The problem seems to be a bug in how FF3 communicates with Windows' winPrint module and/or a driver issue and as yet there doesn't seem to be much information available on Mozilla's Support Forums.
A couple of work-arounds that might work for you:
1) under tools/options/content, click the "advanced" button and uncheck the "Allow pages to choose their own fonts." Click Ok, then OK again on the content dialog. Try printing.
2) in the same dialog change the default fonts. From Times New Roman to Trebuchet for example. Change the font size, save changes and exit. Try printing. If this works, change the fonts back to Times New Roman, save the changes and try printing again.
3) in the same dialog, change the default character encoding to an alternate encoding set.
4) Ensure "Enable Advanced Printer Features" is checked under your printer properties for your selected printer in the Windows Control Panel.
Again, these are work-arounds, not complete solutions. Not all of them work on all machines.
I would expect Mozilla, being Mozilla and not Microsoft, will have this problem fixed pretty quick.
Bottom Line: Overall, I'm pretty happy with Firefox 3, but I haven't had the problems others have reported. At the moment it appears to be a crapshoot whether or not you'll experience any of the reported problems. And at least until the printing bug is fixed, I'd be patient if I were you and wait until the next interim update.