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Firefox makes a Metro move

The first release of a Windows 8-optimized Firefox arrives, but it's a rough alpha that Mozilla confirms won't be ready anytime soon.

Firefox Metro Preview, with its tabs showing.

With only a few weeks to go before Microsoft's big Windows overhaul, Mozilla puts forward its first version of Firefox preview optimized for Windows 8's touch interface.

How to install it Once you download and run the Firefox Metro Preview (download installer) in Windows 8, you must close Firefox in Metro and Desktop if you already have them installed, then open the Control Panel and set Internet Explorer as the default browser.

From there, run in Desktop mode the Firefox Nightly EXE that you just downloaded and set it as the Default when prompted. A Windows 8 prompt will open, choose Nightly as the default, and then in Firefox, go to Options/Advanced/General and set it as the default browser there, too.

What works and what doesn't -- so far The Metro Preview version of Firefox is being worked on in an experimental branch of the Firefox Nightly builds called Elm. Erica Jostedt, Mozilla's Senior Manager of Product Communications, confirmed that it doesn't have a ship date yet. "We don't have the set timeline yet -- it's a preview right now that's updated nightly, but on the Elm branch. When it lands on mozilla-central, it's officially on the trains," she wrote in an e-mail to CNET.

"Elm is the experimental repository where most of our Metro development work has been happening. This repository produces nightly builds, much like the Firefox Nightly channel," wrote Asa Dotzler, Firefox's product manager. Those builds will update automatically every day, but they're not part of the regular Firefox release schedule.

The Firefox Metro Preview build has a lot of standard Firefox features working, as well as some Metro optimizations. It has an option for always showing tabs, as well as a more Internet Explorer 10-style tab preview that hides from view after a few seconds. It also offers an IE10-inspired way to pin tabs as tiles to your Start screen, and a different take on present Bookmarks, History, and Downloads that looks like the bird's eye view of horizontal tiles used in Semantic Zoom.

The Bookmarks and Recent History screen in the Firefox Metro Preview. Mozilla

It has more features optimized for Windows 8 than Google Chrome does. Chrome's Metro support landed a few months ago, but hasn't seen much public development since then and basically resembles the Desktop mode version. The Firefox Metro Preview also showcases the Australis interface, which remakes Firefox visually to look much more like its Android counterpart.

Firefox Sync was partially working in the Metro preview. History data appeared to synchronize, for example, but Bookmarks didn't -- at least not after 30 minutes. A reboot was required to get the History to appear, too.

However, it's too buggy for regular use. The touch screen support was uneven, at times sluggish. Some sites loaded slowly, and sites with even moderate Flash implementation were basically unusable. If you're on Windows 8 and want a more stable experience, you can sacrifice the Metro features and run the current stable build.

While it's good to see the three major browsers all on board the new version of Windows, the slow start for Firefox and Chrome raises the question of how much ground they're willing to cede to Internet Explorer 10. A Metro-optimized browser could be essential for success in a post-Windows 8 world, but that's entirely dependent on the public reaction to Windows 8. We'll begin to see that when the operating system reaches the public in just a few short weeks, on October 26.