Firefox for Android beta: A good first effort

The first beta of Mozilla's browser for Android is critical to keeping Firefox relevant in the mobile-computing era. Here's a First Look at the software.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
5 min read
The first beta of Firefox for Android brings Mozilla's browser to a major new audience.
The first beta of Firefox for Android brings Mozilla's browser to a major new audience. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The first beta of Firefox 4 for Android arrived Thursday, offering users of Google's mobile operating system a browser interface with both smart new features and some weaknesses.

I tried the new beta on HTC's Google Nexus One, and I came away impressed overall--far more satisfied than with unstable and slower nightly builds for developers that I'd tried before. It's not going to be my default phone browser at this stage, but I'm not going to uninstall it, either.

Fennec background
Before we get to my impressions, though, here's the background. Mozilla is trying to reach the fast-growing and increasingly important mobile world with its "Fennec" version of Firefox. Android is the second operating system it supports after Maemo, which comes with Nokia's N900, which is as much a small computer as smartphone. Today, that market is dominated by browsers based on the open-source WebKit project, including those built into iOS, Android, WebOS, and Bada browsers and coming with BlackBerry OS.

Android is critical to Mozilla's mobile effort: with Apple blocking typical browsers for iOS devices, Google's operating system is the best remaining avenue to mainstream mobile relevance.

Unlike most Android applications, Firefox is native software that runs on the underlying Linux operating system and ARM processor rather than Android's higher-level Java-like foundation (now the subject of Oracle's lawsuit against Google). That native nature means Firefox compatibility is a more finicky issue: you'll have to check the supported devices list, which so far includes four tested phones and five untested.

Firefox, which needs Android 2.0 or later, is feature-packed. It uses the same browser engine as regular Firefox and therefore supports cutting-edge Web technologies such as Canvas and Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG) for 2D graphics, Web workers for background processing, and HTML5's built-in audio and video. It can run many add-ons, a differentiator in the mobile-browsing world. And it's got the new JaegerMonkey JavaScript engine, which was powerful enough to run the full desktop version of Gmail in my tests.

Three advantages over Android
Three things jumped out at me as superior to Android's built-in browser, which by the way I'm using on a phone with Android 2.2, aka Froyo.

A look at Firefox beta 1 for Android

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First, there's Firefox Sync. This lets you keep open tabs, browsing history, passwords, and bookmarks synchronized between whatever computers and mobile devices you have running Firefox. In practice, I'm not sure I want to inflict on my mobile phone the dozens of tabs I have openon my personal computers, but passwords sync in particular is a wonderful way to bypass the mobile-phone difficulties of Web page login pages.

Second, there's the superior window management. The native browser lets you move among windows by clicking Android's menu button and going to a window-selection screen.

I much prefer Firefox's approach. The tabs are in a vertically stacked list that's tucked away to the left of the browser window. You can reach it by sliding the main window off to the right with an easy drag gesture. It's set up nicely so you don't do this inadvertently.

Firefox for Android running Gmail
Firefox for Android uses the personal-computer version of the browser's engine, which was powerful enough to run the desktop version of Gmail. However it crashed once doing so, and in this case, it reverted to Gmail's basic HTML interface. Stephen Shankland/CNET

A button on the bottom of the list lets you fire up a new tab. When there are more than seven, on my phone, a second vertical column of tabs forms to the right. Each tab has a thumbnail of the page, which can be a little hard to see given that each browser thumbnail is about two-thirds the size of my actual thumbnail. But I still find it a faster way to switch among tabs, something I didn't realize until Firefox I'd been subconsciously avoiding somewhat on the Android browser.

However, I did have one problem: each tab also has a big "X" to close it, and if you're not careful or have big thumbs, it's easy to close a tab instead of select it.

If you slide the main browser window the other way, you get a nice interface for adding a bookmark, going forward or backward through your browsing history, and configuring Firefox. This is the kind of thing that you might expect to see available through the Android menu, which in my testing led only to a blank screen.

Third, I liked the welcome screen. It shows a nicely formatted list of recently visited Windows that I find far more useful than a blank search box in the Android browser. Sure, I like searching, but I do a lot more.

This QR code is a link to the beta download site for the beta version of Firefox 4 for Android. You'll need to set your Android phone to accept software not from the Android Market to install the browser.
This QR code is a link to the beta download site for the beta version of Firefox 4 for Android. You'll need to set your Android phone to accept software not from the Android Market to install the browser. You can scan the QR code with an application such as ZXing. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Now onto the gripe list. It's longer, but bear in mind that this is not just beta software, but the first beta Mozilla has ever produced for Android.

First, Firefox isn't fast, even though performance is a focus of this release. Even if you have a Wi-Fi connection, all mobile browsers in my experience are frustrating compared to those running on desktops and laptop. But I found Firefox just wasn't peppy.

Part of this, I suspect, is that Firefox seems aimed to intercept higher-performance hardware coming after today's phones; Mozilla seems to have aimed for features and utility rather than bare-bones practicality. But some performance attributes are quite nice, notably scrolling and panning, which respond quickly and bring "inertia" so you can flick your view around.

And historically, beta software is usually slower than better-tuned production releases, so don't read too much into this.

I had two crashes, once apparently some user-interface interaction that went haywire and once when I tried to load Gmail with eight other windows already loaded. Firefox ground to a halt and crashed. Other times, though, I was able to use Gmail, even with its new priority in-box, an impressive feat.

Another problem I had was with zooming to read text. Firefox, like the iPhone and Android browsers, will zoom into a column of text on a larger page when you double-tap on it. However, unlike those alternatives, it didn't automatically scale the font size to something readable. I ended up rotating the screen to a horizontal orientation to try to squeeze in a few more pixels per letter, and even then I did a lot of squinting.

The good news is this problem is a known shortcoming. And it's not so much an issue with mobile-optimized sites I tried, such as Flickr and Facebook.

Firefox is big--more than 30MB including the application and data, which is much larger than any other application I have on my phone. The closest is Google Earth at half the size, which I had to delete to make room. Mozilla has said it hopes to pare the size down, though.

Another complaint is with the fonts. I found blocks of text less readable in general than with other mobile browsers.

Last, I had some difficulties with the user interface. For example, while setting up Sync, I couldn't move from the username field to the password field by scrolling the scroll wheel, as is customary on Android. Instead, I had to use the back button to hide the keyboard, manually scroll the page with my finger, then tap the next text input field.

Overall, though, Firefox for Android is a reasonable first effort. That's good, given how important mobile computing has become and Android's ascendance within that domain.

Updated 5 a.m. PDT with further detail about JavaScript, performance, and add-ons.