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Firefox update kicks graphics speed up a notch

Graphics get faster in Firefox 58. Also new: better support for when you're on the mobile web.

Firefox Quantum got a mecha-suit mascot.

Firefox Quantum got a mecha-suit mascot.


Mozilla released on Tuesday a new version of its Firefox Quantum browser, boosting its graphics speed and improving a couple of new technologies designed to make the web more powerful.

The browser, version 58, is the first major update since Mozilla's recovery plan hit full stride in November with the debut of Firefox Quantum. A decade ago, Firefox was running circles around Microsoft's Internet Explorer, but the browser market has become much more competitive now with the arrival of Google's Chrome and mobile phones.

Speed is of the essence in Mozilla's recovery plan, and Firefox 58 does better than its predecessor in some graphics tasks by splitting work better across the multiple processor cores that computer chips have these days. The result should be scrolling that's smooth, uninterrupted by the stuttering that in computing circles goes by the disparaging term "jank."

There's evidence that the Quantum plan has brought new and return users to Firefox. But even if you aren't persuaded, the plan is important for the web. Firefox can push other browsers to get better, keep the web a neutral domain instead of the purview of a tech giant like Microsoft or Google, and advance new standards that make the web more useful.

For example, Firefox 58 helps with two new web technologies.

One, called WebAssembly, provides for dramatically faster web apps. Firefox 58 can get WebAssembly software running faster so you don't have to twiddle your thumbs waiting as long after clicking a link.

Another is progressive web apps (PWAs), an initiative that came out of Google to help make the web a better match for the apps we all drop on our phones. Following Chrome's footsteps, Firefox on Android can now let you turn a properly packaged website into an app icon on your phone home screen. Tap on it, and a browser-based app will run full screen, with no address bar or other distractions.

When Firefox detects a website that can become a progressive web app, it shows a home icon with a plus inside. Tapping it lets you add the PWA to your Android phone's home screen.

Screenshots by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Even if you don't embrace the full concept of progressive web apps, the underlying technology can help other websites, for example by letting them work even when you don't have a network connection. Eventually, Google plans to revamp its G Suite apps so all browsers, not just Chrome, can work offline that way.

Under Firefox's covers, there's another speed boost on the way originally called WebRender and now officially Quantum Render. It should speed up graphics another big notch, but it's not due to arrive until Firefox 59 or 60. Mozilla updates its browser about once every six weeks.

One of Firefox 57's rough patches was that it moved to a new foundation for extensions, downloadable modules that customize your browser with tools to do things like block ads, manage passwords or fill out online forms. Firefox helped pioneer the technology, but Mozilla moved to a variation of Chrome's extension foundation and with Firefox 57 stopped supporting the older technology.

Since Firefox 57, though, daily installations of extensions have increased 29 percent, Mozilla said. And one popular extension from the old era, the security-focused NoScript, has now been adapted for the new browser technology.

In announcing Firefox 58, Mozilla also is touting an improvement that came with Firefox 57 -- the ability to block ad trackers. Built into many websites, ad trackers can dramatically slow down page-loading speeds as well as keep an eye on web-browsing behavior you might prefer to keep private. The blocking ability isn't on by default, but if you enable it in Firefox settings, you could see Firefox's average page-load time drop from 7.3 seconds to 3.2 seconds for the top 200 news sites on the web.

Blocking ad trackers is becoming increasingly common. The Brave browser, led by Mozilla and Firefox co-founder Brendan Eich, blocks those trackers (and ads) by default. And Apple's Safari, too, is getting more assertive in squelching ad-tracking technology.

First published Jan. 23, 6 a.m. PT.
Update, Jan. 23 11:38 a.m. PT: Adds details about the Firefox extension transition.

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