Firefox for Android Hands-On: No Chrome Killer
Officially launched in the Google Play store last week, the new Firefox for Android boasts an improved user interface, faster load times, and bookmark / password sync across devices. We had the chance to go hands-on with the new browser, which offers a great user experience, but nothing that would lure Chrome users away.
Set Up and Sync
We launched the Firefox browser and it took us to the Awesome Page (shown below on the right)-- the Firefox landing page that has real-time previews of 4 of your top (aka most visited) sites, which is reminiscent of the top sites feature in Safari. The Awesome Page also prompts you to set up Firefox Sync, a service that syncs bookmarks, history and tabs from your other devices that run the Firefox browser.
In just 5 minutes, we created an account on our desktop's Firefox browser and bookmarked buzzfeed.com. We then clicked on ‘add a device’ under ‘options’ on the desktop version of Firefox and logged into Firefox sync on the phone which gave us 3 unique pairing codes that we typed into the 3 empty fields in the desktop browser. Firefox sync gives you the option to pick and choose what you want to sync, or you can sync everything -- browsing history, bookmarks, add-ons, passwords, preferences and tabs. After syncing, all of our organized bookmarks showed up in the same order.
As with many mobile browsers-- as opposed to desktop browsers -- open tabs are not lined up horizontally above the URL field. Instead, we were able to tap on the number next to the URL field to view all the tabs in a clean, uncluttered drop down that has a small picture of the site with the title of the site to the left. We were able to add a new tab right in the screen where we could get a lineup of all of our current tabs. Though you can't actually see multiple tabs in the browser bar at once, there is a number next to the URL field that says how many tabs are open in the back.
There is a neat option to save a page as a pdf (pictured above on the left) that saves into the phone’s download folder so that it can be emailed out or read offline. When we looked at the saved copy of shiotheshiba.com, we were disappointed that it only saved the text from the page and not the photos -- which for this photo-heavy page was pointless. We would have liked the option to opt in or out of saving the photos for when saving a long-form NY Times article versus a photo heavy page.
Firefox Android comes with a pretty standard set of security options. Using the settings menu, you can tell sites not to track your activities, toggle “remember passwords" and “enable cookies”, clear history and clear cache. The only thing that stood out was the ability to set a master password that you have to type in every time the browser uses the auto-fill feature.
Despite Mozilla's claim that the new Firefox browser is “significantly faster than the stock browser that ships on Android phones”, we did not find that to be true in real-world testing. To see how Firefox compares to Chrome and the stock Android 4.0 browser, we loaded four websites: nytimes.com, espn.com, laptopmag.com and the photo-heavy shiotheshiba.com on a Samsung Galaxy S III with the cache disabled. To insure consistency, we loaded each site three times on each browser, timed the page loads with a stop watch and averaged the results.
As you can see in the chart above, we found that Chrome was the fastest browser to load all of the pages and Firefox came in second only about half the time, making it about on par with the stock browser. Those aren't exactly boast-worthy results.
We were really excited to browse through Firefox's list of mobile add-ons, but felt really let down upon seeing our limited options. As shown above, we tried to install Watch UK TV and got the message that it is not compatible with this version of Firefox-- even though it is listed under the Firefox mobile add-ons site. We received the same message for 8 out of 10 add-ons we chose at random. We really wish that it wouldn't show us the add-ons that are not yet compatible with Firefox. For now, only the five on the featured list (as of the publish date of this article) work on this browser-- "Full Screen", "Phony", "Adblock Plus", "URL Fixer", and "Cloud Viewer".
Some of the major shortcomings include the inability to highlight text in the browser, the lack of the find on page feature, and inconsistent rendering of pages when the page orientation is changed.
Most of those issues listed above can be endured except for the inability to highlight text in the browser. We tried to select a quote from an article from nytimes.com and at first we thought the phone was misbehaving and then we realized that we cannot copy and paste in the browser. This was extremely disappointing and inconvenient.
Although Firefox for Android will attract users who prefer the PC or Mac versions of the software to Chrome, it doesn't provide the speed or special features that would make anyone want to switch from Chrome or even the stock browser. If it had more add-ons, Firefox for Android might gain a leg up on the compeition, but as of today, the only thing that this browser has going for it is the interface, the non-cluttered user experience and the ability to sync their bookmarks and browser activities from their desktop to their phone using Firefox Sync.
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