It's been a long wait for Firefox 4. It was nearly two years ago that Firefox 3.5 was released. A lot has changed in the browser world since then. But though the wait has been a long one, it has paid off for those with patience. Firefox 4 is a winner.

It features a clean interface, competitive speed, HTML5 compatibility and two of the best browser features to be unveiled in a long time: the tab-wrangling prowess of Panorama, and the multicomputer synchronisation power of Sync. Given all that, plus some other extras it offers, you'll want to try it right away.

Firefox goes lean

With Firefox 4, the "Chrome-isation" of the browser world is complete, all of the major browsers now use a variation of the simple, stripped down interface pioneered by Chrome. Firefox doesn't go quite as far as Chrome in its leanness, and it adds several new features of its own. By and large, the basic look and feel of browsers seems to have crystallised around simplicity, with web page content the focus, and menus and navigation scaled back.

The visual changes in Firefox 4 are quite substantial. Tabs now live along the top of the browser, above the address bar (which Firefox calls the "Awesome Bar").

Menus have vanished, to get at all of the browser's features, you click a button labelled "Firefox" at the top left corner of the browser and a menu drops down. If you're a big fan of menus, you can always get them back by clicking the "Firefox" button and choosing Options --> Menu Bar.

Firefox 4: Tabs on top

The height of the address bar and navigation buttons has been reduced so that web pages get more screen real estate. The navigation buttons are rounded and softer-looking and have been simplified. In addition, there are fewer navigation buttons, and some have been relocated.

The once-separate Reload and Stop buttons have been combined into a single, small button at the right end of the address bar. This new button changes its appearance and function depending on whether a page is currently loading or has already been loaded.

The Home button has been relocated to the far right of the search bar. To bookmark your page, you click on a star icon on the right side of your address bar. To browse through your bookmarks, you click a small button to the right of the Home button instead of using the Bookmarks menu that was previously at the top of the window.

To browse through your bookmarks, you click a small Down arrow just above the Home button instead of using the Bookmarks menu that had previously been at the top of the window.

The result: a cleaner-looking browser with simplified navigation and more room to view web page content.

A new Panorama

Firefox 4 may have borrowed some of Chrome's basic design ideas, but it has also introduced some useful new features as well. Key among them is Panorama, which helps solve the problem of tab proliferation. If you're the kind of person who tends to have many tabs open, making it hard to find the one you want quickly, Panorama may well be the best new feature of Firefox 4.

Let's say you've got 20 tabs open. Some are open to technology sites such as Techworld, others to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook and so on. With so many tabs open, it's difficult to quickly find and switch to the tab you want.

Panorama does all this by using a feature reminiscent of Mac OS X's Exposé and Spaces. Click the Panorama button (a square icon composed of four smaller rectangles) in the upper right of your Firefox window, and you'll come to a screen that shows thumbnails of all of your open tabs grouped in a single box against a blank background.

Note: If you don't see the Panorama button in Firefox right away, click the small down arrow icon at the far right of your row of tabs, or press Ctrl+Shift+E. You'll see a menu listing your open tabs. Select Tab Groups from this menu to get to the Panorama screen. Subsequently, the Panorama button will appear in your browser.

You can then put those tabs in groups, a social networking group, a news group, an entertainment group and a technology group, for example.

Firefox 4: Panorama

Drag any tab out of the box, and Panorama creates a new tab group. Drag another tab out of the box and place it on top of the first tab that you dragged out, and those tabs form their own tab group in their own box. You can keep creating new groups this way. You can also drag a tab from one group to another.

Double-click any of those groups in Panorama, and you go back to normal Firefox, but the only tabs visible are those in that group. The tabs in the other groups are hidden. Go back to Panorama, click on a different group, and you'll be working with only those tabs. When you browse the web and add new tabs, the tabs get added to whatever tab group you're currently using.

Panorama includes a lot more features, including the ability to close tab groups, resize them and rename them. You can also perform a limited search of all of your open tabs. Panorama will search only the URLs and titles of open tabs, not the content on the pages themselves, but still, it's a useful little feature.

There's so much to Panorama that it will likely take some time to get used to. But if you're a frequent user of multiple tabs, you'll never want to give it up.

More tab-taming

Firefox 4 introduces another feature, called Switch to Tab, to help you tame your tabs. As in the previous version of Firefox, when you type text in the address bar, Firefox searches through your history, previous searches and sites you've bookmarked and shows likely matches in a drop down list below the address bar. Now, however, it also searches through any tabs you have open.

If it finds any matches in your open tabs, it shows a "Switch to tab" icon below the web page's title in the drop down list. To go to the tab, click the icon. As with Panorama, this feature searches only the URLs and words in the titles of open tabs, not the content of the sites themselves.

Although the feature is useful, it could be improved. Any search results that match open tabs get mixed in with your history list, previous searches and so on. So it's difficult to see at a glance if your matches are in open tabs.

In addition, you may get multiple matches for the same web page. If you type "cn" into the address bar, for example, and you have CNN.com open, you may see two matches for it: one from your history list, and another showing it's an open tab. Switch to Tab would be more useful if it showed matching tab search results separately, on the top of the list, perhaps.

With Firefox 4, you can also permanently pin a tab to the left of the tab bar. That way, the tab is always there, even when you restart Firefox. It's a moderately useful feature, but doesn't go as far as similar Chrome or Internet Explorer features, both of which also let you pin tabs. In Chrome you can also create a shortcut on your desktop to launch a site, while in Internet Explorer 9 you can pin a site to your taskbar in Windows 7.