Firefox 14 For Android Graduates From Beta, We Go Hands-On

When Mozilla first pushed their latest beta version of Firefox into the Google Play Store last month, it raised a few eyebrows thanks to its dramatic redesign and its claims of “significant” performance enhancements. Now that new version of Firefox (version 14, if you’re keeping track) has cast off its beta trappings, but is it worth your time? Read on to find out.

The name of Mozilla’s game with their latest mobile version of Firefox is performance. Users who took the plunge with Firefox for Android in the early days (and even the not-so-early days) were left with a novel browsing experience that could often be marred by downright slow performance.

“It was a solid product if you were on a high end phone but it was a problem for anything less than that,” said Johnathan Nightingale, Director of Firefox Engineering. “We decided to rebuild it with performance as the focus, and rip apart anything that was slow.” The Android version of Firefox 14 actually went to beta before the desktop version did because the team was concerned about nailing down performance on as many Android devices as they could.

Their effort is certainly apparent in the final product — unlike the previous version (which would temporarily black out the screen on my Galaxy Nexus for a few seconds before displaying the homepage), Firefox 14 springs to life nearly instantaneously after tapping its icon. Loading pages is generally quicker to boot (though still not as downright quick as Chrome), and swiping down through long pages of content is perceptibly smoother than the version that preceded it.

But Firefox’s performance on new devices is only part of the equation. I took the new build for a spin on something decidedly less robust — the Gingerbread-powered Samsung Galaxy Player 3.6, which sports a single-core 1GHz processor. As you would expect, the experience is decidedly less buttery thanks to some pokey hardware, but FF14 still managed to outperform the device’s stock browser in terms of page loading speed and general usability. It’s bound to be a welcome change for users with older or less powerful devices looking for a way to cruise the web with a bit more panache

Firefox 14 is also notable for its inclusion of Flash support, a move that may seem a bit puzzling considering the group’s focus on open web standards like HTML5. Still, it’s hard to deny that there’s still gobs of Flash content peppering the web, and a member of Mozilla’s mobile team mentioned that it took “a bunch of engineering work” to get things working properly across the multiple versions of Android that Firefox 14 plays well with. It goes without saying that running Flash content on an Android device has never really been the most pleasant experience, but it’s here and it works if you somehow feel as though your life is somehow less meaningful without it.

To sweeten the pot for existing Firefox users, the bookmark syncing Firefox Sync feature still allows users to access bookmarks, browser histories, saved passwords, and tabs stored on different devices.

Mozilla has also completely revamped their original mobile UI in favor of one that places much more emphasis on the address bar. It took a ton of getting used to but I was fan of Mozilla’s original concept, one that had users swiping to the left and right to access a list view of their other browser tabs and a control panel for bookmarking and back and forward through webpages. Now all that functionality is crammed into a smaller area, and naturally some changes had to be made.

Perhaps most frustrating is the fact that the reload button has been relegated to a life hidden away from plain sight. In order to reload a page, users now have to tap the menu button first in order to find the option, something that seems terribly odd since it used to live right inside the address bar. Not all of the design tweaks are questionable, as the tab view button nestled next to the address bar displays a running total of how many tabs are open — tapping that button also displays those tabs as real-time thumbnails.

At this point though, Firefox for Android also lacks a few features that have become widely used in rival browsers. The ability to request the desktop version of a page (as seen in the stock ICS browser and the Chrome’s Android beta) immediately comes to mind because of how often I need to use it, though Mozilla’s mobile team confirmed that the feature would appear in a new release sometime this summer. As such, it becomes clear that Firefox isn’t going to be for everyone — fans of sheer performance have Chrome (though Nightingale says that he’d put Firefox 14 against Chrome anyday), and browsers like Dolphin offer features like gesture-based navigation and voice control to wow their users.

But in the end, Mozilla doesn’t view this as a contest. Rivals like Chrome and Dolphin bring different browsing experiences to the table, and Nightingale noted that the cross-pollination of features and ideas will only strengthen the choices users have when it comes to exploring the web. That’s what Mozilla is really after here, and with Firefox 14 they’re doing their part to contribute to a better web.

“We hope that other browsers will copy the things we build,” he remarked. “That’s a success criteria for us.”

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