Sync and speed in latest Firefox 4 beta

Better syncing, faster WebGL, and the simultaneous release of Firefox 4 beta for standard computers and mobile devices are the capstones to the latest update to Mozilla's next-generation Web browser.

Improved desktop-to-mobile synchronization and hardware acceleration powered by WebGL are the hallmarks of Mozilla's latest Firefox 4 beta, which the company plans to release later today for desktops and mobile devices.

Firefox 4 beta 8 introduces big improvements to the handling of WebGL and other "future-Web" technologies. (Credit: Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET)

Firefox 4 beta 8, for Windows, Mac, and Linux, isn't expected to make any sweeping changes to the browser, instead focusing on improving already-included features. Meanwhile, not much is known at this time about what will be included in the simultaneous release of Firefox Mobile 4 beta 3 for Android and Maemo, although CNET has been able to confirm that the update will contain improvements to the mobile sync. Note that Mozilla recommends uninstalling previous mobile builds before downloading the new one.

The biggest feature improvement in this round of updates is the streamlining of the setup process for Firefox Sync, which Mozilla hopes will make it easier to have the same bookmarks, history, preferences, tabs, and passwords across your computers and phones.

For the computer version of Firefox 4, users can also expect to see further tweaking of the WebGL 3D-rendering tech, and further polish applied to the previously revamped add-ons manager. The full list of changes to Firefox 4 beta 8 is available here, and further details bug fixes such as changes made to HTML5 compatibility and browser security.

Updated, December 22 at 12:27 p.m. PT: Beta download links and more information about both Firefox 4 beta 8 and Firefox 4 Mobile beta 3 have been added.

Firefox 4 Mobile beta 3 for Android (Credit: Mozilla)

What most desktop and laptop users won't see immediately, but which are readily apparent to developers and those keeping an eye on "future Web" technologies, are the major improvements to WebGL 3D rendering and HTML5 tweaks in Firefox 4 beta 8. To see this in action, Mozilla put together a video using WebGL, HTML5, and Web Open Font Format (WOFF), and it currently renders much smoother in Firefox 4 beta 8 than in Chrome 10 dev or in the previous Firefox 4 beta.

Firefox 4 Mobile beta 3 has taken much bigger strides toward becoming a daily-use browser for handheld devices, although even Mozilla cautions that it's not there yet. The interface continues to undergo improvements, such as moving notifications to the system bar, support for keyboard variations, and options via the hardware Menu button. There's also the aforementioned streamlined Sync setup, support for copy and paste in the URL bar, and the ability to save a Web page as a PDF to be viewed later.

In brief testing, I found the Android version of the mobile app to still be very large, at 13.42 MB. The improved sync feature worked well, but the browser crashed twice before I could enter in my username and password. Bugs are to be expected as this is a beta, and clearly there's a long way to go before the browser is ready for casual use.