Firefox Quantum challenges Chrome in browser speed

A beta version lets you test whether Mozilla's newly named web browser, replete with changes built over more than a year, is a match for Google.

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
4 min read
Firefox Quantum sports a simpler logo than earlier versions of Mozilla's browser.

Firefox Quantum sports a simpler logo than earlier versions of Mozilla's browser.


The speed boost and new features coming to the next version of Firefox are dramatic enough that Mozilla has given it a brand-new name: Firefox Quantum.

The idea, of course, is that the upcoming version 57 is a quantum leap over predecessors -- or, in the words of Mozilla CEO Chris Beard, a "big bang." Company executives acknowledged they let Firefox languish, but now Mozilla is fighting back against the dominance of Google Chrome.

I've been using Firefox 57 daily since its very raw "Nightly" version launched a month and a half ago, and I can confirm Mozilla isn't blowing smoke. It really is a lot snappier starting up and loading web pages, making my online life feel easier if not effortless.

"It's going to be more exciting for the next year than any other browser," promised Nick Nguyen, Mozilla vice president of Firefox product. "We rethought the architecture for how a browser should work."

Mozilla stops short of declaring victory over Chrome. But as judged on one important metric, page-load speed, "Firefox Quantum is often perceivably faster" while using 30 percent less memory, Nguyen said in a blog post Tuesday. And it's twice as fast as Firefox a year ago.

You may be happy with Chrome, which accounts for 55 percent of browser usage today, according to analytics firm StatCounter. But there's reason to root for Apple Safari, Microsoft Edge, Firefox and other browsers. Different browsers challenge each other by advancing the web's abilities, introducing new security and privacy features, and speeding up websites and web apps. Chrome's dominance undermines the web's independence with sites that don't work on other browsers, like Google Allo, Google Play Music and offline features of Google Docs.

The new Firefox revamp includes lots of under-the-covers improvements, like Quantum Flow, which stamps out dozens of performance bugs, and Quantum CSS, aka Stylo, which speeds up website formatting. More obvious from the outside is a new interface called Photon that wipes out Firefox's rounded tabs and adds a "page action" menu into the address bar. It also builds in the Pocket bookmarking service Mozilla acquired and uses it to recommend sites you might be interested in. A screenshot tool generates a website link so you can easily share what you see by email or Twitter. Mozilla even simplified the Firefox logo, a fox wrapping itself around the globe. 

More improvements are in the pipeline for later Firefox versions, too, including Quantum Render, which should speed up Firefox's ability to paint web pages onto your screen.

Firefox icons through the ages

Some of Firefox's icons through the ages. From left to right are the Firefox icon that lasted until Firefox Quantum, a tongue-in-cheek Calvin-and-Hobbes variation, the original Phoenix icon used before Mozilla renamed the project Firefox, the original Firefox 1.0 icon, a joke version with the Doge meme, the new Firefox Nightly icon and, last, the new Firefox Quantum icon.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Firefox Quantum name itself will last through the current transition period but isn't expected to be permanent. For example, Quantum Render, aka WebRender, probably won't arrive until Firefox 59 or 60. "We have some pretty big improvements to make the browser better, so we're going to keep Quantum around for awhile," Nguyen said.

If you don't remember two decades ago when Microsoft's Internet Explorer vanquished Firefox's progenitor, Netscape Navigator, here's a little refresher. Microsoft essentially stopped updating IE after that victory, hobbling web innovation. That's why, 15 years ago, Mozilla began a project initially called Phoenix to start over and in 2004 released Firefox 1.0. Firefox succeeded in reigniting browser competition and technological progress, laying the foundation for innovative web-based tools like Google Maps and Facebook.

Mozilla is hoping for similar success with Firefox Quantum, due to arrive in final form Nov. 14. It'll be tough, though: Google's Chrome team has deep talent and is working hard to improve Google's browser. And Google has a strong presence on phones, a crucial market where Firefox is a rarity.

Mozilla aspires to use Firefox to represent us well on the net. Firefox doesn't go as far as some other browsers, though. Brave, from Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich, blocks ads by default and will be updated later with a privacy-focused ad system that pays us a portion of the ad revenue. Google will block intrusive ads starting in 2018 and only will autoplay videos that are silent. Safari blocks some tracking technology that advertisers and publishers use to see what we do online, and it now stops autoplaying videos, too.

Extension indigestion

One caveat for Firefox Quantum is that it can't use older add-ons, like the LastPass password manager, that you may have installed to customize what the browser can do. That's because Mozilla has embraced Google's approach to browser extensions, and add-on authors must retool their extensions. For widely used add-ons that don't work in the new version, Firefox will recommend alternatives.

Firefox Quantum comes with a new interface called Photon. Here's how it's used to bookmark a site or save it for later reading with Mozilla's Pocket service.


There are now 4,500 extensions that work with Firefox's customization technology, though, so the change is well underway. Mozilla also hopes to raise extension visibility by recommending good ones to us. And Firefox has hired a new product manager to expand extensions technology beyond what Chrome can do. Extensions were one of Firefox 1.0's big selling points.

"All the hard work is happening now to get web extension developers the information they need," Nguyen said. "We hope to repay that effort in the next few months by giving extension developers opportunities they wouldn't get anywhere else."

Quantum CSS and Quantum Render both draw on a Mozilla research project called Servo, a browser engine written with Mozilla's Rust programming language. Rust includes protections that make software safer from network attacks and make it easier to take advantage of modern machines whose chips have multiple processing cores.

It's ready for prime time now, Nguyen said. Stylo "showed how Rust can really have an impact in a browser with hundreds of millions of users."

First published Sept. 26, 9:30 a.m. PT
Update, 1:25 p.m.:
Adds context and further comment from Mozilla.

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