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Firefox gets speed boost from Mozilla memory tricks

Too bad website programmers are squandering browser performance boosts.

Mozilla Firefox icon
A Mozilla Firefox sticker
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Firefox is getting smarter about using your computer's memory for a bit of a speed boost.

The changes come in Firefox 61, released Tuesday, the latest version to sport the Quantum brand that for the last half year has embodied Mozilla's effort to restore its browser's reputation and reclaim ground lost to Google's dominant Chrome.

One change, called retained display lists, works by not forgetting work the browser has already done constructing the view of a website for your screen. Instead of recalculating everything when part of the page changes, it recalculates only the aspects of the page that changed. It's more complex, but cuts the time needed to spit out pixels for the screen by 33 percent, Mozilla found.

Another change, tab warming, lowers delays that might annoy you when switching from one tab to another. It notices when you're moving your mouse pointer over to a different tab and, anticipating that you're likely to want to see it, starts stuffing a finished version of the website into your computer's memory for fast display when you click.

"Maybe this is my Canadian-ness showing, but I like to think of it almost like coming in from shoveling snow off of the driveway, and somebody inside has already made hot chocolate for you, because they knew you'd probably be cold," said Mozilla programmer Mike Conley, who led the work.

Tab warming only works on Windows and Linux for now.

Speed boosts are important, but in the long run, they don't necessarily mean a blazing-fast web, because web programmers have been writing web pages with more and more programming code.

"The web is getting slower because no matter how much faster we make Chrome, developers abuse users with ever-larger piles of JS," or JavaScript programming code, Chrome programmer and standards leader Alex Russell said in a May tweet. "What really punches my gut about this is that we just harvested one of the last major TTI wins," he added, referring to the time you have to wait before a website loads enough to become interactive.

It's a fair point, but that doesn't mean browser makers can afford to sit idly while their competitors work on speeding things up.

The new Firefox version has a few other things you might notice, too:

  • It more actively supports TLS 1.3, a faster new version of the Transport Layer Security standard used to encrypt communications between your browser and a website to prevent snooping, tampering and security breaches. "Firefox would fall back to TLS 1.2. We are now gradually disabling the fallback," Mozilla said.
  • People who write extensions to customize Firefox's behavior get new abilities to hide tabs or to take actions when they're opened or closed. It's part of Mozilla's effort to flesh out the extensions foundation it overhauled with Quantum, adopting an approach similar to that used in Chrome.
  • On Firefox for Android, scrolling should be faster.

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