In brief, these are the channels:
- Stable: For users who just need a stable browser that works.
- Beta: This channel is “close to stable”, but not really stable yet. By using the Beta channel, you’re helping Mozilla test new features.
- Aurora: The “less than stable” channel; you’re approaching cutting-edge territory here, and taking an active part in the development effort.
- Nightly: Fresh from the oven, may unexpectedly break at any time. This is as bleeding-edge as it gets.
Now let’s see how you can get each version, and learn a bit about switching channels.
This is the build you can get right off Get Firefox. Simply press the big green button, and the safest version of Firefox will be downloaded to your computer. At the time of this writing, this is version 4.0.1:
Beta & Aurora
To start using the Beta and Aurora builds, go to the Firefox Channels homepage and take your pick:
Note where it says “Coming Soon!” under the Beta version — we’ll be revisiting this point. At this time, the only “testing” build you can get from this page is the Aurora build. But it turns out that from within Aurora, you can switch between the Stable, Beta and Aurora channels. Just click the menu button, go to Help > About Aurora, and click the Change link shown in the screenshot:
You will then be taken to a channel selection screen with a dropdown and an explanation for each of the channels:
I was able to join the Beta channel from this screen. I switched to “Beta” and clicked Apply and Update. Firefox then fetched a 17.2MB download and smoothly switched to the Beta channel:
This goes to show that even Mozilla might be slightly confused by its own release cycle. How come you can switch to Beta from within Aurora, but can’t download the Beta from the channels page, where it tells you it is “coming soon”?
If using Aurora feels a bit tame, you can kick things up a notch and start using the Nightly builds. To download the installer, go here and grab the installer for your platform. Note the decidedly less flashy interface here:
Once installed, the Firefox nightly build sets up a shortcut in your Start menu simply called “Nightly“. At the time of this writing, the nightly build was version 6.0a1:
Note that even though this is a more advanced build than Aurora, it does not have a built-in channel switcher. It installs itself alongside Aurora/Beta and the stable version. This means you can be testing or using three different versions of Firefox at the same time, on the same computer.
Unlike Chrome, where you can have Canary and “regular” Chrome running at the same time, you can only have a single Firefox build running at any one time on your computer. So if you’ve got an open browsing session in Nightly and click the Aurora shortcut on your Start menu, you’ll simply get a new Firefox Nightly window. Confusing, I know.
A Word of Warning
For some strange reason, both the Nightly and Beta assume you want them to act as the default browser for your computer. That means that during the installation process, you’re going to have to consciously look for the “set as default” step and opt out of making an experimental, unstable browser your default browser. An interesting design choice by Mozilla, no doubt.
Trying out new and experimental software builds isn’t always comfortable, and it sure can get confusing. But Mozilla is a true community effort, and if you believe in its core mission, this can be a nice way to participate and contribute towards making Firefox a faster, more stable browser. Let us know in the comments if you use one of the test versions and how it works out for you.