by: Seth Rosenblatt on July 17, 2012
The bottom line: Firefox 14 is a worthy expression of Mozilla's ideals. The browser is competitively fast, sports a minimalist look, and includes some excellently executed features. Unfortunately for the 'fox, that describes most of its competition, too.
Please note that the First Look video below is still applicable to Firefox 14, as is this Firefox How To collection, even though it features Firefox 4.
For those of you who spent last year away from the Internet, it's the year that Firefox went from annual major-point updates to a Chrome-style quick-release cycle. How quick? A new major version number along with a spate of performance and feature improvements lands in the Firefox stable version every six weeks. So, Firefox is on version 14 at the time of this review. As a point of comparison, Chrome is currently on version 20 even though it only launched in 2008.
To put it bluntly: Firefox has benefited from the rapid-release cycle. Both fixes and features get out to users faster than before, which puts a safer, sleeker browser in your hands with fewer overall problems. A vocal, minuscule minority has pooh-poohed the increase in version numbers, but that's hardly a legitimate complaint in a world where mobile apps also update silently and effectively.
These major changes first landed in Firefox 4, released in March 2011, so we're going to be referencing it a fair bit. The browser that you can download now is in the same speed category as its competition; offers many similar features (stronger in some areas and slightly weaker in others); includes broad, cross-platform support for hardware acceleration and other "future-Web" tech and standards; and is a must-have for Android users (download for Android).
Firefox 14 makes a series of visual and performance tweaks that many people will notice instantly. There's a new New Tab page that emulates the frequently visited sites New Tab pages that the competition has had for some time. There's a redesigned default Home page at about:home that offers large icons to give you easy access to downloads, bookmarks, history, add-ons, sync, and settings.
On the performance side, Firefox 14 now has Google's SPDY protocol on by default. That means that Web sites that support it, such as Google.com and Twitter.com, will load faster and safer. SPDY is safer because it forces SSL encryption for all connections.
If you're a tab addict, restarting Firefox will now only load the active tab. Other tabs will be visible and accessible, but they won't load their content until you click on them. Hands-down, Mozilla has mastered the art of the 100-tab browser.
It's important to point out that there are four versions of Firefox available at the moment, and this review only addresses the stable branch, intended for general use. Firefox's other channels -- Firefox beta (download for Windows | Mac | Linux); Firefox Aurora, analogous to Google Chrome's dev channel (download Aurora for Windows | Mac | Linux); and the bleeding-edge, updated-nightly Firefox Minefield (download for all versions) -- are respectively progressively less stable versions of the browser, and aimed at developers.
Installing Firefox 14 was a fine, quick experience. Keep in mind that Firefox now has four "channels," so if you've been on the beta channel since the days of version 3.6, you will stay on it until you download the installer for a different channel. There's no in-channel way to switch channels. If you're updating from version 3.6 to version 14, the process is likely to take several minutes because of the significant code changes.
Firefox uses automatic updates, although Windows users will still see the User Account Control box appear on first install only.
Careful Firefox observers will notice that the browser no longer ships with a separate icon for Safe Mode. Simply hold down Shift; when you click on the Firefox icon to open a box, you will be allowed to customize which settings carry over to Safe Mode.
Firefox automatically installs a Windows 7 Taskbar icon if you choose it as your default browser. Uninstalling the browser does not leave behind any icons or folders if you choose to remove your settings at the same time.
A new feature checks your add-ons to see which ones you installed and which ones come from third-party vendors, such as security suite makers. The browser will now ask you if you'd like to disable any of these third-party add-ons. On top of that, all future third-party add-ons will be blocked from autoinstalling. Instead, you'll be presented with the option to allow them or block them on a per-case basis. This puts Firefox squarely on the side of the user.
If you're a big Firefox fan, you'd better hope that you weren't very attached to 2010's version 3.6 look. Falling in love with the new design won't hurt you, either. The main interface is now completely different from what's come before, and in version 14 ditches the larger back button that debuted in version 3 for uniform button size. Not surprisingly, the new design also brings the browser significantly closer to the minimalist style first adopted by Google Chrome in 2008, although it actually looks most similar to Opera 11.
The menu bar has been squished into an orange button on the upper left, with menu options spread across two columns. Nearly all the submenus have been redesigned as well, although the hot keys remain the same, so the learning curve isn't particularly long. In fact, the menu redesign makes it much easier to get to bookmarks, add-ons, and history, as they now all live on one Menu pane. The Menu button is not available to Mac users, to keep with the Mac OS X theme.
In addition to the major changes to the menu, smaller changes have greatly improved usability. For example, there's now a Get Bookmark Add-ons link in the Bookmarks submenu. The History submenu now has Recently Closed Tabs and Recently Closed Windows sections.
Tabs are now on top by default, and while the forward and back navigation buttons haven't moved, the stop and refresh buttons are now attached to the right side of the location bar, next to the bookmark star. When you're typing a URL, the Go button appears at the end of the location bar as an arrow. While resolving a URL, the box changes from the Go arrow to an X for the new Stop button. It might be hard for some to see since the traditional stop-and-go colors of red and green have been removed. You can customize the Firefox skin with the restartless Personas add-ons.
Right of the location bar lives the traditional search box, with its drop-down list of search engines. Above that on the tab bar there is a new button that lists all your open tabs, and you can add a button to access the Panorama tab-grouping feature. If you don't see the button, you can add it by right-clicking on the interface and choosing Customize, then dragging and dropping the Tab Groups icon next to the List All Tabs button. We don't consider many customizations to be essential, but this one is.
The Status bar that lives at the bottom of the interface is now hidden by default, again in keeping with the minimalist philosophy and the competition. There's a new Add-on bar as well, also hidden by default, to which extension icons can be added if you want to keep add-on icons easily available but out of the way of the main interface.
One of Firefox's singular strengths is its capacity for customization, which remains unparalleled and which is accessible even to novice users. While competing browsers do offer add-ons and extensions, Firefox remains far ahead of all of them in interface customization. And so, if you don't like the new interface, it's quite easy to revert it to an older style -- or just about any other look -- using add-ons and themes.
Features and support
Firefox's features are robust and generally competitive. There is some minor functionality missing in a few cases where the browser remains behind the competition, but Firefox is generally one of the most progressive major browsers available, an early adopter if not always an innovator.
One of the most important features in the modern Firefox is Sync. Sync smoothly synchronizes your bookmarks, passwords, preferences, history, and tabs, not only with other computers, but also with your Android version of Firefox.
To use it, click on the Menu button and choose Set Up Sync from the left column. That will take you to a window where you can connect an existing Firefox Sync account or create a new one. 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.
Another big new feature is support for restartless add-ons. These add-ons are written differently from standard Firefox add-ons, and are expected to become the format for add-ons in the future. As such, relatively speaking, not many restartless add-ons exist -- fewer than 1,000, compared with the thousands of "standard" add-ons.
Firefox's add-on manager has been completely overhauled. There's a lot of useful new technology here, as compared with the version 3.6 manager. Not only can you search for add-ons from within the add-on window using the search box in the upper-right corner, you can add them without having to jump to the external Mozilla Add-on Web site, also known as AMO. The manager calls out the AMO add-on collections, which you can create more explicitly in the Get Add-ons tab. Add-on support in Firefox Sync appears to be more consistent than Chrome's add-on syncer.
The add-on manager also allows you to browse Personas. It's slightly annoying that clicking on an add-on group or collection opens the page in a new browser window, whereas clicking on a specific add-on opens that add-on's download page within the add-on manager. That's a very minor criticism, though.
Other changes to the add-on manager include forward and back buttons specific to the manager, in the upper-left corner, and left-side navigation tabs specifically focusing on Extensions, Appearance, and Plug-ins. Meanwhile, two little improvements to the manager will impress keyboard junkies. There's a new hot key for pulling up the add-on manager, Control-Shift-A, or you can type "about:addons" directly into the location bar to access the add-ons manager in a tab. And of course, there's the third-party add-on guard as mentioned above.
More changes include Twitter as an option for Firefox's built-in search box, setting the browser to initially reload only the active tab after a crash, and an update to dragging tabs that makes it easier to identify them with simple animations.
The tab-grouping feature called Panorama presents your tabs as an array of thumbnail images. The thumbnails reside in rectangular boxes that constitute a group. Tabs can be dragged from one group to another, and groups can be named and moved as well. You can add a tab to an existing group or create a new group by right-clicking on the tab and choosing Move to Group. The hot-key combo Control-Shift-E will also jump between the main interface and the Tab Group window.
The overall idea is to make it easier to switch from one tab to another, to group or regroup related tabs, and to get a global view of what's going on with your tabs. It's potentially a big improvement in browser usage, compared with aiming a mouse at an ever-skinnier tab, cycling through a list with Alt-Tab keystrokes, or pecking at a drop-down menu to reach the tabs that overflowed off into the deep. Tabs now load at launch only for the active group.
The Bookmarks and History menus have been redesigned, and now the hot keys open them by default as sidebars. Go through the Menu button to get the full menus. We were actually quite impressed with the layout of the menu button options for Bookmarks and History, finding it much more useful, with quick access to recently closed tabs and new bookmark tags. This is probably the most useful in-browser bookmark manager around, especially if you enable Sync and use it with your Android phone or tablet.
Another relatively new feature is App Tabs, which reduces the width of a tab to its favicon and pins the tab permanently on the left. The tab will glow when updated, a useful indicator for things like Web mail. And when you start typing into the location bar, one of the search choices will be related open tabs so that you can quickly switch to an existing tab.
The short version of all this is that Firefox is on the cutting edge of the next generation of Web standards, and that benefits you immensely by offering faster rendering times of Web sites that can do more.
Another dev tool, unique to Firefox, is a 3D visualizer called Tilt, that lets developers see in real time how their code will render on the site.
There's a decent list of other, smaller changes to Firefox that are worth pointing out because they'll enhance your work flow in one way or another. One of these is Switch to Tab. Open a new tab and start typing the name of an already-open tab, and the URL will appear in the drop-down with Switch to Tab beneath it. Select that one, and the new tab closes and you're whisked to the pre-existing tab. It's a great trick for cutting down on the amount of time it takes to sift through 45 open tabs, and removes the chance of accidentally having the same tab open twice or more.
The location bar -- or as Mozilla calls it, the Awesome Bar -- retains familiar features, such as the options to search your history and bookmarks and to tap your default search engine to provide you with quick results. However, the "feeling lucky" instant jump to what the browser thinks is the Web site you're most likely to be looking for has been disabled because of internal Mozilla concerns about inadvertently sending personal information to the search provider.
The Do Not Track feature indicates via a header notification that you want to opt out of targeted advertisements. However, it requires that the Web site you're viewing, and therefore that site's developers, respect the header itself. While this is great for future-proofing the Web, as implemented at the time of writing, not many Web sites have taken notice of it. That doesn't mean it won't eventually have a big impact, but that time is not now, and it's better to install an add-on like Adblock Plus or Do Not Track Plus to get more complete ad-tracking protection.
There are two smaller yet important changes to the way that Firefox protects you. One is the Content Security Policy, which is designed to block one of the most common types of browser threats, cross-site scripting attacks, by allowing sites to tell the browser which content is legitimate. Though CSP also places the burden on the sites' developers, it's backward-compatible and aimed mostly at well-known sites hosting immense volumes of data and content.
Another security improvement is the implementation of HTTP Strict Transport Security (HSTS). This prevents your log-in information from being intercepted by telling Firefox to automatically create a secure connection to a site's servers.
The "identity block," the colored left-most section of the URL, has been given a refresh to better call out the Web site you're on, and the URL bar itself now changes the text color of the URL you're on so that the domain is black, for easy identification, while the rest of the URL is gray. This is a small security change, and one that's been previously available to people who are comfortable changing their about:config, but it's definitely a strong visual cue that helps you avoid getting spoofed.
The new feature set alone makes it worth upgrading to the latest version of Firefox. While some older Firefox users may feel that these features add unnecessary bloat to a browser that offers add-ons specifically so that you can customize your browsing experience, Firefox 4 was actually dramatically faster than Firefox 3.6, and there have been significant speed gains ever since. We address the browser's behavior in the section below.
As mentioned earlier, Firefox 14's performance has been greatly improved by the addition of graphics processing unit (GPU) hardware acceleration. It allows the browser to shove certain rendering tasks onto the computer's graphics card, freeing up CPU resources while making page rendering and animations load faster. These tasks include composition support, rendering support, and desktop compositing.
You ought to see the memory improvements in Firefox 14 when the browser is kept open for long periods of time, when multiple tabs are open at once, and when the browser is used concurrently with other programs that also use a lot of memory. The company also noted that its MemShrink initiative was successful in part because of the rapid release cycle that a vocal minority of Firefox users have been criticizing.
Installing Firefox 14 prompts you to opt in to a new anonymous reporting measure called Telemetry. Not unlike security suites, which use your data anonymously to improve threat detection rates, Mozilla plans to crowdsource its performance data to learn more about how the browser performs in real-world situations. Unlike the security suites, Telemetry is opt-in, so Mozilla won't be collecting data without permission. Not surprisingly given Mozilla's reputation for openness, Telemetry is far more open about what it collects and why than similar features from competitors like Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Currently, it looks at four categories: memory usage, CPU core count, cycle collection times, and startup speed. Curious readers can install the About:telemetry add-on to see the personal statistics that Firefox is gathering.
If you've enabled Telemetry and would like to disable it, you can go to Options, Advanced, and uncheck the Submit Performance Data box at the bottom of the General tab.
One interesting publicly available benchmark is JSGameBench from Facebook, which looks to test HTML5 in real-world gaming situations. JSGameBench hasn't posted new results since April 2011, but the ones it did post gave strong marks to the Firefox 4 beta both with and without WebGL. The stable version of Firefox 4 also did well in JSGameBench tests once it was released.
Note that to effectively use hardware acceleration, you must make sure that your graphics card drivers are up-to-date.
In our experience, one of the most positive performance differences between Firefox 3.6 and the current version is that Firefox 14 crashes far, far less. That's due in no small part to improvements made to the plug-in crash protection, which prevents plug-ins like Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, and Microsoft Silverlight from dropping the browser dead. If one of them crashes, simply reload the page.
Definitely a worthy heir to the Firefox name, Firefox 14's one major drawback is that, like its competitors, it still uses massive amounts of RAM. Don't expect that to change as the browser is relied upon to perform more and more tasks that once occurred in other programs. However, it will be less of a problem as hardware improves and Mozilla continues to push initiatives like Telemetry and protection from third-party add-ons.
Firefox 14 faces a challenging and ever-advancing field of competition. Some people have probably abandoned Firefox because of the significant speed differences between version 3.6 and Google Chrome. Others might be turned off by Mozilla's open-armed embrace of the rapid-release cycle, and the diminishing importance of version numbers. Frankly, we find that a bit silly, as it's better to get newer features and fixes as soon as they're ready, instead of waiting for a once-yearly update. Competition has forced Mozilla and others to put out better browsers in order to thrive, and we think that Firefox 14 will keep the browser competitive.