Firefox on Android improves, but still bloated

Significant performance improvements and an expanding add-on library are the keystones of Firefox 4 Mobile beta 4, but the Android app still has a long way to go.

After a slow start, Mozilla has cranked out another beta for the mobile version of its next-generation browser, Firefox Mobile 4 beta 4 for Android 2.1 and higher and Maemo that boasts faster page-load times, better JavaScript handling, reduced memory usage, and support for restartless add-ons that are currently making their debut in the desktop version of the Firefox 4 beta.

Along with those improvements, however, remains a massive app to install by mobile comparisons. This fourth beta is actually a third of a megabyte bigger than the previous beta, weighing in at a practically obese 13.70 MB on Android. With ancillary yet associated data, such as bookmarks and add-ons, my installation easily busted the scale at 17.18 MB.

Compared to other Android browsers, there's a lot of work to be done to reduce its size. The Dolphin HD browser weighs in at 3.09 MB, which gets kicked up to 5.82 MB with data. Opera Mini is a slim 1.76 MB, and the default WebKit-based browser is practically anorexic by comparison at 356 KB for the app and 620 KB with my related data. Of course, the default browser lacks add-ons, tabs, and other modern browsing features, but it's certainly the lightest of the bunch.

Beyond Firefox mobile's heft lies a robust, feature-rich browser with deep hooks to your desktop browsing thanks to Firefox Sync, introduced as an add-on in 2009 but baked into the standard Firefox 4 installation. Sync allows you to mirror bookmarks, passwords, history, and other data across multiple computers.

The new beta addresses numerous complaints from beta testers, said Mozilla in beta 4's release notes. These include accelerating startup speed, fixing keyboard bugs, and introducing a new feature to resize text automatically when double-tapping to zoom in on a page.

Performance improvements ought to noticeable, too. According to Mozilla's numbers, JavaScript renders faster on Firefox 4 Mobile beta 4 than on the default Android browser. The company's numbers indicate that the browser is three times faster when tested on Mozilla's Kraken test, slightly faster on Google's V8 test, and twice as fast when compared on the WebKit SunSpider test. Check back here soon for CNET's benchmarks on these tests.

In hands-on treatment on a Dell Streak 5 running Android 2.2, in-app settings transitions felt smooth, while pages also felt like they loaded as fast as in other browsing apps. However, on a Motorola Droid 1--admittedly, rooted and running a third-party ROM from CyanogenMod--the browser loaded pages quickly, but struggled with the hardware and crashed several times during in-app, nonbrowsing behavior. It's hard to imagine users adopting Firefox Mobile without a smaller footprint, but the browser is clearly taking big strides in every iteration towards a general audience appeal.