Mozilla Firebird Hottest Pick in UK 'Linux Format' Magazine

Six months ago, back in issue 37, we briefly looked at Phoenix 0.5 in Hot Picks. This Mozilla-derived standalone Web browser aimed to remove some of the weight and bloat from its big brother, while adding new features and improving performance. Since then, a lot has happened in the Phoenix community; complications with the Phoenix BIOS company (who were producing their own small browser) led to a name change, but even that didn't go smoothly. Firebird was settled on as the new name — after much debate — but complaints from the Firebird Database developers caused further problems.

More significant, though, was the Mozilla project's decision to adopt Firebird as its browser component. Following the release of Mozillla 1.4 (which will replace 1.0 as the new stable branch), development activity will be based around Firebird and its mail/news client equivalent, Thunderbird (see LXF41 Hot Picks). As always, this has ignited more flamefestery in the community, but the general belief is that it's a good route to take. Mozilla received a lot of criticism for being one large monolithic app, so splitting it up will combat that particular problem.

Firebird 0.6 has been a long time coming, but a vast amount of work has been done in the last half year and it's steadily maturing into a featureful and stable browser. As a sort-of 'fork' from the Mozilla codebase, it shares many similarities and is still built around Gecko (the rendering engine) and XUL (user interface language). Large amounts of cruft have been chucked out though, and more attention has been paid to a friendlier front-end.

She's on fire

Mozilla's coders never intended their app to be an end-user product — that was the job of Netscape et al. Firebird wants to bring control back to the user, and not the website developer. For the first time, Firebird's source is available as a tarball with no need to do a CVS pull; we've provided the source on our coverdisc, but the simplest way to get up and running is by using the binary archive. Simply extract it in any place, change into the directory produced and run ./MozillaFirebird. Providing you have a reasonably up-to-date distro, it should start up without any trouble. Note that it still uses ~/.phoenix to store its settings, and it's best to create a new profile for this release (as so much has changed).

Firebird's interface is simpler and cleaner than Mozilla's, with less clutter, fewer buttons and no sidebar enabled by default. Regular Phoenixers may be surprised to see a theme overhaul — the decent but garishly yellow Orbit skin has lost to Qute, which slightly resembles WinXP. It doesn't occupy as much space as Mozilla's default Netscape-ish theme, and the ability to reconfigure the toolbar with drag-and-drop is a superb and warmly welcomed bonus over Moz.

Other major developments since Phoenix 0.5 include a snazzy new Preferences dialog, which groups various aspects of configuration into panes, along with smooth scrolling, automatic image resizing (if an image is larger than the viewing window), a context menu for the bookmark menu and the usual assortment of tweaks and bugfixes. Undoubtably, the wait has been worth it.

Should Mozilla users switch? Firebird has a few nice touches, such as the small icon that appears bottom-left when a site tries to open a popup window (easier to permit it on a site-by-site basis), and it is noticeably snappier. It has Moz's excellent support for Web standards, a plethora of privacy and security options, advert filtering and tabbed browsing. Unfortunately it's not quite as stable, the form auto-complete function is particularly crashable.

Overall, Firebird is a great browser, jam-packed with goodies and ready for even more through extensions. It's fast, attractive, easy-to-use and mostly reliable, and it's guaranteed a prosperous future. Give it a test run — you might just replace Mozilla for good.

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