Get ready for Firefox

Open-source browser is trim, fast and stable

Mozilla support

Sometimes less is more. Especially if it means you get a faster, trimmer Web browser that isn’t subject to the crashes and security gaps that afflict the market-leading Microsoft Internet Explorer.

Say hello to the Mozilla organization’s Firefox, an open-source upstart that could well give Internet Explorer a run for its money.

Trim? You bet. Our download of Firefox took only a few seconds; the code is a svelte 6.2M in size. By comparison, you’ll download about 12M to get the latest version of Internet Explorer.

Indeed, a basic installation of Firefox sticks to the fundamentals. The browser interface looks very much like that of Internet Explorer, with toolbars across the top and an optional panel down the left side that can display either bookmarks or a history of Web sites visited. Also included are a built-in pop-up blocker and a customizable search bar.

In addition to its trim lines, Firefox offers features that Internet Explorer users might envy. We especially liked its tabbed browsing feature. As you open Web sites, you can have them appear as tabs above the main display window, making it easy to move from one site to another.

We also liked Firefox’s Download Manager. When you download a file from a Web site, Download Manager pops open in a separate window, showing you the download’s progress. It also keeps a record of downloads, allowing you to selectively open or remove files.

Another nifty feature is Firefox’s tool for finding text on a Web page. As you type the word to find, Firefox displays highlighted matches on the page. Firefox’s search tool also puts controls for moving to the next or previous hits conveniently at hand without obscuring Web content, as Internet Explorer’s tool does.

Another extra: Firefox offers a built-in Really Simple Syndication (RSS) reader. That means you can receive automatic updates of feeds from Web sites that employ RSS, such as Slate.com and some Web logs.

Finally, one of our favorite features is Firefox’s Password Manager. Whenever you visit a Web site that requires a log-in, Firefox offers to save your user name and password for the next visit. When you return, all it takes is a single click to log in.

Firefox is an open-source program, which further distinguishes it from Internet Explorer and has both positive and potentially negative implications. On the plus side, being an open-source program means a wide array of developers are working on fixes and enhancements. You can tap into this community via Mozilla’s Web site.

Thanks in large part to this ad hoc community, more than 170 extensions are available for users to download, including an

ad blocker that will keep banner advertisements from appearing on Web sites you visit, a full-featured calendar, a spell checker and a weather forecast display for your toolbar. Firefox includes an extension manager that makes it easy to add and remove extensions. If you download many extensions, of course, your browser may start to get cluttered, but the strategy of shipping a trim browser means that users can choose which features to add.

The downside of Firefox being an open-source browser?

Security.

Firefox is currently much safer to use than Internet Explorer, but it’s worth noting that Firefox’s greater security is mostly a function of Internet Explorer being a higher-profile target for hackers and the creators of worms, viruses and other malicious code.

Virus writers tend to target the big guys, and Mozilla has elected, accordingly, not to support ActiveX, Microsoft’s technology for sharing information among applications, or VBScript, a Microsoft scripting language. ActiveX and VBScript are used on many Web sites, and they are also frequent targets for viruses and hackers.

Of course, if Firefox attained the popularity of Internet Explorer, it would become more of a target. What’s more, those virus writers and hackers would, like developers, have easy access to the browser’s source code.

In the meantime, however, Firefox users are somewhat more secure than Internet Explorer users. The only price of this added security is partial incompatibilities with Web sites that have been designed specifically to work with the full feature set supported by Internet Explorer. You may find, for example, that applets or pull-down menus on certain sites do not work. In our testing, however, we rarely encountered such problems.

Systems administrators will also appreciate that Firefox can run on any version of Microsoft Windows starting with Windows 98. It can also run on Linux and Apple Computer’s Mac OS X.

The bottom line: Firefox has won converts at the Federal Computer Week test center. The browser is easy to use and is trim, fast and stable. In several weeks of use, we never experienced a crash.

Firefox 1.0.2

Mozilla Organization
(650) 903-0800
www.mozilla.org

Ease of use: 4 out of 5 stars
Performance: 4 stars
Security: 4 stars
Price: 5 stars

Price: Firefox 1.0.2 is free.

Pros: Firefox is fast and easy to use, with tabbed browsing, a customizable search utility and a password manager.

Cons: It has no major drawbacks.

Platforms: Microsoft Windows 98 and later versions, Apple Computer Mac OS X and Linux.

Linspire puts a friendly face on Linux

What’s a secret club without a secret handshake? Many people who want to jump on the Linux bandwagon have been reluctant to do so because they don’t want to learn a whole new operating system with an admittedly unintuitive set of names for utilities. Reiser4? Gaim? XOrg?

Still, there are good reasons to consider the Linux operating system for desktop computers. It is inherently stable. It is sometimes free, and when it’s not, it’s usually inexpensive, as are the applications that go with it.

And — at least until virus writers and hackers target Linux — it is a relatively safe operating system. When they do target it, however, Linux’s open-source nature may work against it.

For nongeeks wanting to give Linux a try, we strongly recommend the latest version, 5.0, of Linspire, a product formerly known as Lindows. No secret handshakes here. The applications and utilities are all intuitively labeled and the interface is simple and easy to navigate, making the product easy to learn for any refugee from Microsoft’s Windows or Apple Computer’s Macintosh operating systems.

Installation couldn’t be easier. The user is only required to respond to a couple of easy-to-understand prompts. The entire process takes about 10 minutes.

That might not seem so incredible until you consider that it is not only an operating system that is being installed but also the KDE desktop environment, the Reiser4 file system — though Reiser3 is provided as the default — the OpenOffice 1.1.3 productivity suite, the Mozilla Web browser, e-mail, spell checker, an instant messaging program and dozens of other applications.

The desktop is clean and attractively designed, with a look and feel similar to Windows.

One of the smaller features Windows users will appreciate is Linspire’s global spell checker. No matter what application you are using, you will find that suspected misspellings are underlined and suggested corrections are only a click away.

Another unique feature is MailMinder, a utility that allows you to set alerts to be triggered by

e-mail messages. You might, for example, have the utility send you an e-mail at a specified time to remind you of an upcoming appointment.

Although most of the applications installed with Linspire are existing Linux applications, Lphoto and Lsongs are two well-designed applications for tracking and managing your digital photo and music collections.

And Version 5.0 offers hundreds of other new and improved features. At the top of the list is built-in 802.11g wireless support and virtual private network support.

On the downside, we didn’t find Linspire’s performance to be noticeably faster than Windows XP for most operations. And we were surprised to find that there was no DVD player, though one is available at extra cost.

Finally, systems administrators will, as always, want to take a close look at support options for applications. Registered users can receive support Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific time, but the company indicates that questions are responded to and/or resolved within three to five days of receipt. That may not be fast enough for some agencies and departments.

— Patrick Marshall

2014 Rising Star Awards

Help us find the next generation of leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above