Take a peek in the future of Firefox with our guide to what’s new in Beta, Aurora and Nightly builds.
As always, the rapid release cycle – a new version of Firefox ships every six weeks – means that changes aren’t as radical as you might expect considering the regular version number jumps. However, the latest batch of updates hints that some major updates are heading Firefox’s way over the next few months. Get a head’s up on what’s coming and discover which build is best for your personal needs with our updated guide to what the future holds in store for Firefox.
The latest stable release of Firefox is – as ever – recommended for the vast majority of Firefox users. There’s little to get excited about with the release of version 10, however, which is why later versions may appeal to more experienced – and impatient – users.
Firefox 10’s biggest change is the way it handles add-ons. Previously, all add-ons not installed through the official Firefox add-ons channel were automatically made incompatible by a new release, forcing add-on developers to update their extensions every six weeks. Now, however, all third-party add-ons are assumed to be compatible unless stated otherwise, removing a major headache for developers and end users alike each time Firefox jumps to a new version number.
Elsewhere, the only visible change of note is the apparent disappearance of the browser forward button – in actual fact, the button will now only appear when needed (after you’ve pressed the back button to visit the previous page), while developers will find a new option on the Web Developers menu – Inspect – that lets them take a peek at the HTML and CSS code powering websites.
The browser also now supports full-screen API, which allows web applications to run full-screen, but only if the user physically chooses to do so.
It’s a solid, rather than a spectacular release, but as always worth upgrading to. But what if you decide to go further?
Once again, there are no major visible changes to be found in Firefox 11, but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot to look forward to. Those using the Firefox Sync feature will be interested to learn that you can now sync add-ons across your computers in addition to all other elements, while Firefox 11 will also appeal to Chrome users looking to switch, with migration options for key Chrome features – bookmarks, history and cookies – implemented in the Bookmarks Library (select Import and Backup > Import Data from another Browser). This is the first of a two-part process, with other elements to be supported in a later release.
Look out too for the new Push to Device feature, which will make it easy to send a link from one Firefox device to another – Mozilla cites the example of pushing a link from your desktop to your mobile so you can continue reading on the journey home after work.
Web developers also get even more goodies to look forward to in the guise of a Style Editor for tweaking CSS settings on the fly, and a new 3D viewing option – Tilt – for the Page Inspector.
Aurora is Firefox’s “alpha” build, which means it’s undergone minimum testing only. As such it’s not suitable for everyday use, which is why Firefox Aurora is installed as a separate build alongside the stable or beta build, allowing you to test its features without affecting your day-to-day browsing. Settings are shared between Firefox Aurora and your other build, however, so again caution should be exercised before installing it.
Firefox 12 promises to introduce some major changes to the browser’s user interface, as changes from the UX branch start to finally filter into the browser’s main build. Sadly these changes aren’t yet visible, but could well appear before the browser moves towards beta.
These changes include a new Firefox Home tab – a small pinned tab on the left of the Tab bar that’s stored locally and which allows the user to create their own customised home, with easy access to bookmarks, settings, downloads, history and the Apps Marketplace.
Also slated is a more informative and useful New Tab page in place of the current blank tab. A rather rudimentary example can be found in the Firefox UX build, but expect it to follow similar lines to Opera and Chrome.
Elsewhere, three changes have already landed in Aurora and can be road tested now. The inline URL auto-complete has been restored, with the hope it’ll more intelligently anticipate what the user’s typing to help speed up their navigation of the web. The HTML5 media controls have been given a major refresh too, while Windows users should no longer have to hurdle the User Account Control dialog box when updating as Mozilla continues on the path to introducing a fully silent and automated update process.
Introduced in our last update, Firefox UX (also available as a dedicated 64-bit build for Windows and Linux) provides a parallel Nightly build of Firefox that concentrates on developing a new interface for Firefox. Some of the features previewed here are finally making the transition to the Aurora channel, meaning they will soon appear in the version of Firefox most people have installed on their machines.
Other changes remain exclusive to UX for now, including the integrated download manager widget that appears in the top right-hand corner of the window, and better integration of Web Apps into the user interface, which can be previewed now – watch the Address and Search bars vanish when running a web app like twitter.com from its own button.
Firefox’s Nightly channel gives users access to code hot off the press, but while you’re looking at the latest bleeding-edge version of Firefox, you’re also venturing into uncharted waters because much of this new code has had no testing at all. Nightly builds update regularly, so once installed you’ll find your build updating on a much more frequent basis than other unstable releases.
At the time of writing, Firefox Nightly exhibits no new features above and beyond that of Aurora – but there are some interesting developments in the pipeline, as revealed on the Features/Release Tracking page of the Mozilla Wiki.
Nightly is also available as a separate 64-bit build for compatible versions of Windows and Linux.
We’d recommend all but developers and serious, knowledgeable enthusiasts avoid the Nightly builds of Firefox.
Which version of Firefox should you try? Stick to the most stable version you feel comfortable with, although the temptation to sneek a peek ahead is actually quite compelling with these latest developmental builds.
Of most interest will be the fact that many of the interface tweaks that have been hidden away in the obscure Firefox UX Nightly builds are now finally starting to filter through to the main build. Although none have yet officially landed as of press time, there’s a good chance one or more may finally cross the divide over the next six weeks.
If you do plan to take a look into the future of Firefox, back up if you plan before installing Beta or Aurora builds of Firefox. And If you do decide to give the Nightly or UX builds a try, consider using a non-critical machine or virtual setup (try VirtualBox) instead of your main computer, just in case…