Firefox for Android changes course, goes native
Firefox for Android used to be a must-use mainly for Firefox fans. It was good at what it did, but it wasn't great, and the competitive field of Android browsers surpassed it on many levels.
As a reaction, Mozilla spent the better part of a year redesigning the browser from the ground up. The new Firefox for Android brings an interface powered by native code, competitive page-load times, and Flash support. As important for Mozilla is that the sum of the new browser's parts will keep its flagship brand relevant on Android as Chrome for Android grows.
Installing Firefox is no different than downloading any other Android app. It weighs around 17MB, perhaps a bit larger than you might be expecting. It's also limited to devices running Android 2.2 Froyo or later, although that's now the vast majority of Androids out there.
Firefox for Android now offers an interface built on native code. This means that there's almost no lag when launching Firefox, and that moving around the interface itself -- such as when you change jump from the Start Screen the "Awesome Page" -- ought to be smooth and near-instantaneous.
Although the new interface is completely different, if you're familiar with Android you ought to find it an easy study. On the right side of the location bar at the top, you'll see either a plus sign or a number that indicates how many tabs are open. Tap it to see tab thumbnails, a Plus sign for opening a new tab, or accessing your synced tabs list. Tap the plus to open a second tab. On Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich and later, you've got a Settings icon on the top right. Legacy versions of Android have their dedicated hardware Settings button, so that icon isn't present for them.
When you tap the location bar, the Start screen is replaced by three columns for Top Sites, Bookmarks, and History navigation. It also highlights the text in the location bar, which serves double-duty here as your search bar. This design existed before, but it's now a much smoother transition thanks to the native code powering Firefox.
When you launch Firefox, below the location bar you'll find your Start Screen. This shows thumbnails of your four most-frequently visited sites, called Top Sites, followed by your tabs from your last browsing session. Below that are add-on suggestions, and then a list of synced tabs.
It's a little confusing that you can access synced tabs from two different places in the browser, but it's also a bit inelegant to simply show a favicon and text list of sites and add-on options. Despite these complaints, this interface is a massive improvement over the previous version.
Features and support
Firefox has never been a slouch in the features department, and Firefox for Android provides all the basics for mobile browsing.
Sync is truly key, and Firefox has nailed it in a way that others haven't. Bookmarks, passwords, open tabs, preferences, and history will sync between to and from your Android device with any other instance of Firefox. Setting up sync is easiest when you've got the two devices next to each other, but it can be done if they're not. Sync also now hooks into the Android account settings, with an icon that looks like a two arrows in a silver circle, so you can toggle it independently of the browser.
Within Firefox Sync, there are two important security points. One is that Firefox encrypts your data before sending it over an encrypted connection to its servers, where it remains encrypted. Mozilla says that the company would not be able to access it even if somebody there wanted to. The second is that you have the option of setting up your own personal sync server. In an age when private data stored by corporations gets hacked and stolen with shocking regularity, setting up a personal sync server is one way to ensure that you bear the responsibility for your own data.
Flash support is present when using the browser on Android 2.3 Gingerbread and newer, and it now has tap-to-play for plug-ins. This means that while you can deactivate plug-ins like Flash, you can also configure the browser to not load them until you tap the space where the player ought to be displayed. This cuts down on page-load times, and while it was once innovative, it's now essential -- especially on mobile devices with data caps.
Like its desktop counterpart, Firefox works with add-ons. They don't sync to the Android version, and the desktop's add-on library far outstrips Firefox for Android, but you do have a growing collection of useful add-ons to choose from.
Zoom is remarkable on Firefox for Android, not just surpassing the previous version but much of the competition, too. This is in no small part because of how Mozilla wrote the browser's hardware acceleration on Android. It's one of those small features that you don't notice until you try to use it and it doesn't work properly. Instead, we found it to be exceptional.
On the security front, Firefox lets you create a Master Password, and supports the Do Not Track header. You can also clear your history, site-specific settings, and private data; disable cookies; and disable password management.
Firefox is known for its aggressive support of HTML5, CSS3, and hardware-integration APIs, and Firefox for Android takes broad advantage of them. Among the numerous ways that Firefox can interact directly with your device, it can control your camera, mobile connection, battery status, screen orientation, and geolocator. This positions Firefox well for the future as an alternative to each site having its own app.
However, the browser lacks some of the more aggressively forward-thinking features available. Dolphin HD is known for its gestures and slick voice integration, while Opera's Turbo is a real boon to those on sluggish connections. Still, head-to-toe overhaul, Firefox is more usable and offers more than it ever did before.
On internal tests that Mozilla provided, the company noted that Firefox for Android is more than twice as fast as the stock Android browser, and nearly twice as fast as the previous version of Firefox when it comes to Web site panning and canvas rendering. On these tests, it also surpassed Chrome, Opera, and Dolphin HD. While these are Mozilla's own numbers, in informal hands-on tests Firefox appeared as fast as or faster than the competition.
CNET is currently revamping its browser benchmarks, and we will update them here as soon as possible.
Rebuilding Firefox was a necessary step for Mozilla to ensure that people would continue to use the Android version. While Firefox faces no easy path on any platform, it's surely one of the most usable Android browsers available.