Which Firefox is right for you -- 15, 16, 17 or 18?

The recent release of Firefox 15 FINAL means the whole developmental cycle has moved on again with Mozilla’s web browser, and as expected versions 16 (Beta), 17 (Aurora) and 18 (Nightly/UX) have made their first appearances.

Sadly, there’s not an awful lot to get excited about in these new releases, but a handful of new features are worthy of attention. It seems to confirm what Mozilla developer Martin Best said on the release of Firefox 15, namely that Mozilla’s focus for the rest of 2012 will shift more to the Android and Firefox OS builds.

Firefox 15.0 FINAL

Without a doubt this is the recommended release for most users, as it’s the most stable build out there. Performance improvements, particularly with gamers in mind, additional developer tools and a silent update mechanism for Windows users are the highlights of this release.

Firefox 16.0b1 Beta

The most visible new feature in version 16 will be the inline-PDF browser. Instead of prompting the user to save or open PDFs in a separate application, Firefox 16 now displays them in their own tab in the main browser window. The feature was actually present in Firefox 15 Beta, but failed to make it over to the final release. Frustratingly, at time of writing, the feature isn’t enabled in 16.0b1, but the Mozilla Release Wiki lists it as “landed”, which means it should reappear soon.

Developers also get another two tools to add to the extra features added in version 15: a Developer Toolbar that provides programmers with an easier entry point to the developer tools, plus a new Graphical Command Line Interface, that promises to provide a simpler way of adding commands via the Web Console.

Some features may not yet be visible in the Beta, and may even slip before version 16 moves to a final release on October 9. These include a raft of changes designed to appeal to OS X Lion/Mountain Lion users, such as scroll bars, remapped gestures and double-tap zoom support. Also slated is opt-in activation for plugins, for security reasons.

Some features have sadly disappeared from version 16 since it moved from Aurora to Beta, including the panel-based download manager -- that has remained stubbornly in the Aurora build. There’s also no sign of the promised “speedy session restore”, which aims to quicken the process of restoring previously open tabs and windows.

Firefox 17.0a2 Aurora

Firefox’s “alpha” build installs alongside either Firefox Final or Beta, allowing you to test it without affecting day-to-day browsing. Settings are shared between both builds, however, so install and use with caution.

Version 17 actually features the new panel-based downloads manager, despite the Wiki’s insistence that this has slipped back to Nightly builds only. It first appeared in Firefox Aurora 16, and remains in place for testing with this latest build, allowing users to view downloads in a pop-up tab underneath the downloads button without opening a separate window first.

Two other changes are also mooted, but not yet visible: the first is planned improvements to the display of location bar results. Some of these restylings have reportedly landed in version 16, while others remain in development. The second involves Firefox Social Integration, the incorporation of a range of social network-friendly tools into a toolbar, sidebar or floating window. Having missed the boat in version 15 as expected, this feature has now slipped back from the beta channel to Aurora. No evidence of it yet appears in this build for external testing.

Firefox 18.0a1 Nightly

Firefox’s Nightly channel gives users access to code hot off the press, and again it installs alongside other Firefox builds. It’s incredibly unstable, updated frequently and you’re just as likely to see new features disappear as appear. At the present time, we’re not aware of any specific features unique to the Nightly build that can be tested here, although the inline PDF viewer is at least present and correct here.

So, to Summarize

Which version of Firefox should you try? The stable build remains our recommendation for the vast majority of users, although Firefox 16 Beta would certainly look tempting if its inline PDF viewer was functional. Sadly there’s little in the Aurora build for us to recommend it, while nothing at the present time suggests anyone but the most daring should venture into the murky waters of the untested Nightly build.

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