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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

4 Essential Tweaks to Get Started with Firefox 4

Firefox 4 has been a long time coming. Once the definitive answer to Internet Explorer’s dominance, Mozilla’s popular browser has taken somewhat of a hit in recent years, with the likes of Google Chrome and Safari continuing to steal once-faithful users at increasing speed. However, it's clear Mozilla is looking to reverse that trend, and Firefox 4 is proof.

Having been in beta for almost a year now, we've known about many of Firefox 4's biggest changes for some time now. Improved HTML5 support, faster JavaScript rendering and a brand new UI are just some of the features we've been looking forward to. But there are still more changes lurking beneath the browser's polished UI, and we're going to show you a few tweaks.

Make Multi-touch Work
No doubt due to the increasing proliferation of multi-touch screens and devices, Mozilla decided on their development roadmap last year to join the fray. That means two and three-fingered swipes are now baked into the browser on both Mac and PC. But although three-fingered swipes jump to the top or bottom of the page, pinch-to-zoom is entirely absent. A quick trip to the about:config will fix that, however, and give you Safari and Chrome-style zooming from your multi-touch trackpad (albeit not quite as smooth). Simply change the following values: cmd_fullZoomReduce cmd_fullZoomReset
browser.gesture.pinch.out cmd_fullZoomEnlarge
browser.gesture.pinch.out.shift cmd_fullZoomReset
You can also use this method to change the browser's three-finger gestures as you see fit — which in earlier betas actually launched the Panorama tab browser instead.

User Interface Tweaks

Long time Chrome users should find Firefox 4's revamped UI familiar — and for good reason. The folks at Mozilla have taken much of the browser's old, cluttered toolbar, and slimmed things down to take up far less space. That means you'll see see more of what you want to see, with less browser getting in the way. Of course, we know not everyone will be as fan — particularly of Mozilla's decision to place tabs on top — but it's easy enough to switch things back.

For example, right clicking on the toolbar allows tabs to be switched to their former home, beneath the address bar. And as Lifehacker's Whitson Gordon points out, you can even abolish the Firefox button completely, moving your tabs to the top of the window to save space.

The only caveat: tabs tweaks can't be made under OS X. Unlike the Windows build, there's no magic Firefox button in the window's corner, This will no doubt be addressed with an extension soon enough, but for fans of the traditional look, it's a bit of a drag.

Fix Your Fonts
Many users — our own Will Smith included — found that Firefox doesn't do the best of jobs rendering fonts, thanks to Microsoft's DirectWrite API. For some, what should otherwise look crisp and clear is now being rendered muddled and blurry. But thanks to an extension called Anti-Aliasing Tuner, there's a simple fix. The extension has the ability to enable a DirectWrite feature called ClearType text rendering, which should smooth out your most serious font-face woes.

Unleashing WebGL

Left: rendered with native OpenGL drivers. Right: rendered with ANGLE.
One of Mozilla's big achievements with Firefox is the inclusion of WebGL — essentially a graphical rendering framework that allows developers to create great-looking games and interactive applications within the confines of a browser. As the name implies, this is based on OpenGL technology, which is reasonably well supported on both OS X and Linux-based systems, but far less so under Windows. In fact, Firefox 4 doesn't even render using OpenGL at all; like Google Chrome, it uses ANGLE to convert WebGL calls into DirectX, which is better supported on most PCs.

But while this is smart from a compatibility standpoint, it doesn't necessarily give the best performance on high-performance machines. For example, on a 2008 MacBook Pro with an NVIDIA 9600GT, Google's popular Aquarium test averaged 16FPS using ANGLE, versus nearly 40FPS using NVIDIA's native OpenGL renderer. That's a big discrepancy — but it can be fixed. If you change the following values in your about:config, you can force Firefox 4 to render all WebGL content using your native OpenGL drivers:
webgl.force-enabled true
webgl.prefer-native-gl true

What do you think of Firefox 4 so far? Know any other tips or tricks we should cover? Let us know below!

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