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Mozilla reopens its Test Pilot program for Firefox in the safest way possible

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Kārlis Dambrāns/Flickr
Mozilla wants your help in the development of its Firefox browser. Sure, the company offers a beta and a nightly build for checking out new features, but they can be unstable, especially the latter release model (channel) that produces a new version each day. Instead of testing tricky waters, Mozilla wants Firefox users to grab a stable version of the browser and test new features by way of a relaunched and retooled Test Pilot program.

Nick Nguyen, Mozilla’s vice president of Firefox product, said in a recent blog that the program is meant for Firefox users to test experimental features safely, and provide both feedback and suggestions. Users will have total control over the data that is sent back to Mozilla, and if a specific feature is breaking the Firefox browser, the user can simply turn it off and move on with their current activity.

To get started, Firefox users simply direct the browser to the Test Pilot website, create or sign into a Firefox Account, install the Test Pilot add-on extension, and then check out the new experimental features by clicking on the little spaceship icon located in the toolbar next to the Option Menu button. Make sure Firefox is up-to-date, as the extension didn’t start working until the browser was updated to v43.0.1.

The “experiments” currently offered in the Test Pilot program include Activity Stream, Tab Center, and Universal Search. By clicking on one of these features, Firefox users are directed to a web page that explains each one in detail and provides a big blue “Enable” button. Each explanation page also reveals just how many people are using a specific feature, such as 7,536 Firefox users currently checking out Activity Stream.

That said, Activity Stream provides a visual timeline of the user’s history on each new tab, highlighting the user’s top sites and other possible important bookmarks and internet addresses the user has visited. Thus, the new page breaks everything down into “Top Sites,” “Highlights,” and “Recent Activity” strips. A new icon is also added next to the spaceship that pulls up more highlights and an updated browsing history.

Next up is Tab Center. This tool rips the page tabs off the top of the browsing window and moves them to the left side, thus cleaning up the overall browser appearance. Users simply move their mouse pointer over these tabs to get an expanded view. They can also click the thumbtack icon to keep the tab sidebar open in case users want to rearrange pages into a specific order.

Finally, Mozilla has introduced the Universal Search tool. Once enabled, users simply type in a few characters into the Awesome Bar and the browser will pull up the most popular sites, people, and Wikipedia articles in one long list. There’s not much to add here other than that results start appearing as soon as the user types into the text field, and eliminates the need for a separate Firefox Search drop-down menu.

Overall, Test Pilot is actually a cool, safe way to dictate the direction of Mozilla’s Firefox browser by voting on an experimental feature without having to install an unstable platform. However, this isn’t the first Test Pilot program Mozilla has offered, as the original program launched back in 2009 merely checked out how users interacted with the browser. In this new program, users actually get to determine if new features will be made available to the general public.

Out of the three features made available today, the Tab Center is probably the coolest, followed by Universal Search, the latter of which should have been baked into Firefox long ago. Activity Stream is rather iffy, but could be great for parents who need a quick view of when and where their kids are surfing on the internet.

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