The latest update to the Firefox web browser has now been made available. Released Friday evening, Firefox 3.6 Beta 1 promises a number of new features, including built-in theme support and drag-and-drop file uploads, but perhaps most importantly, there is a renewed focus on browser speed. Claiming improved JavaScript performance, better overall responsiveness and faster startup times, there's no doubt Firefox's development in these areas has been fueled, at least in part, by the speed increases achieved by its rivals, Google Chrome, Safari, and Opera.

What's New in Firefox 3.6

In the latest edition of the Firefox browser, the team has introduced the following new features:

  • Built-in support for Personas, Firefox's themeing system which lets you browse through a gallery of skins and apply different ones with just a click
  • Plugin alerts: Firefox will now alert users if their plugins are out-of-date, a useful addition since older plugins can lead to performance problems and even security issues.
  • Open native videos can now be viewed full-screen
  • Drag-and-drop features: In the beta, you can drag and drop files from your computer into the browser allowing you to easily upload files from your PC to web sites. 
  • Support for the WOFF font format
  • Support for CSS, DOM, HTML5, and other developer features
  • Improved JavaScript performance, overall browser responsiveness and startup time

Why Speed Matters

Although Firefox and its rival web browsers are all fighting to best Internet Explorer in terms of install base, they still pit themselves against each other with their unique features, being first to offer support for new standards, and of course, web browser performance.

It's in this last area that Firefox has struggled recently. Past builds showed Firefox beaten by the up-and-comer Google Chrome in boot-up, page-loading, and JavaScript performance. Despite Chrome's low market share of only around 4%, no company can safely ignore the competition when that competition is Google (just look at what Google did to the GPS market last week!).

Chrome may be a relatively unknown browser among mainstream users for now, but if Google holds true to their promises to launch their netbook operating system, Google Chrome OS, which uses the Chrome browser to run applications, there could be a whole new user base of Walmart shoppers who rapidly make a browser switch without even realizing it. And with Chrome's primary focus on browser speed, designed from the ground-up with the idea of running intensive web applications, Mozilla knows that one day Chrome could end up being serious competition...at least once the large majority of computing moves to the cloud. In fact, that day may have already arrived for some of today's web users.

To improve browser performance, Mozilla introduced a new JavaScript engine called TraceMonkey in Firefox 3.5. Many of the speed increases in 3.6 can now be attributed to this technology. However, TraceMonkey has to go up against Chrome's own system, V8, which Google optimized earlier this year to give their browser a 30% speed bump.

Of course, we'll need to see some formal tests completed before determining where the browsers stand today, but it's likely going to be a situation where the engines are neck-and-neck in terms of performance. While this aspect to the browser war may go unnoticed by most web surfers, it's the sort of situation where everyone wins. And the prize will be a faster web surfing experience, no matter which browser you choose to use.