App Review: Firefox Beta For Android

I remember when the first builds of Firefox for Android came out. I was a die-hard Firefox user at the time, and I was very excited. I finally got my hands on it, and fired it up. And waited. And waited. And waited. Why is it taking so long to start? This became commonplace, as Firefox was such a heavy browser, it took ages to start. I tried to bear with it, I gave it so many chances. But it was just unusable. Checking Twitter and pressing links resulted in waiting longer for the browser to start than what it would have taken me to open the stock browser, check the page, and leave. It was a decent (if laggy) browser, but it was plagued with issues and the slowness just put the nail in the coffin.

A few days ago, I saw that a new beta build of Firefox was available for Android in the Play Store. I was extremely wary, considering I have now switched to Chrome for its sheer speed on my computer. I’ve gone back to Firefox a few times, but through 6 updates, nothing has changed. It’s a great browser, and I love it, but it’s still bloated. Chrome, while always causing problems, makes up for it with speed, ease of use, and great looks. It really does it all (even if it’s very much an unfinished product. But what Google product isn’t?). So I assumed Firefox Beta for Android would be the same thing. A few new features, a few refinements, but the same old browser I know and love dislike.

For purely journalistic purposes, I install it on my Samsung Galaxy SII to see how well it would run. I mentally prepare myself, and make sure I don’t need to use my phone for the next 30 seconds while it loads. I press the icon… and it opens instantly. I was shocked! The loading speed was fast, the UI was very nice, and there was really nothing bad about it in my first few minutes of using it. I immediately decided to use it as my main browser on both my Galaxy SII and my Galaxy Tab 10.1 and to see how I fare. As a heavy Chrome desktop user, I didn’t know how well I’d do without Chrome Beta for Android, especially with its magnificent tab syncing. But I went for it anyway.

User Interface

This is the newly redesigned UI for Firefox Beta for Android. I’d say it’s pretty gorgeous. The curve next to the tab button is amazing. And the greatest thing about it is that the UI is fully optimized for Android 4.0. A menu button shows up next to the tab button, with a black background fitting in very well with the rest of the top bar. There is no virtual menu button on the Galaxy Nexus or the HTC One series, which is great. Mozilla team really though this through.

The tablet interface is equally as beautiful. I do mind the favorite and menu icons though. They bug me, for some reason. It’s not obvious in the screenshots, but when using it, something isn’t right. But it’s a beta, so I can’t complain.

To get to your tabs, you press the tab button or swipe in from the left edge of the screen. To get rid of them, you swipe them away. It’s a nice interface, and I actually like the tabs to be on the side. I can thumb through tabs really easily.

The overscroll effect (which only seems to work on the phone UI) is independent from your OS. It has a very nice bounce effect. Zooming out creates a lot of space around it, and letting go makes it shoot back in. It’s very nice and enjoyable to use. I’m not a big fan of the new overscroll glow in Gingerbread and Ice Cream Sandwich, so it’s nice to have this.

Usability

This browser is definitely very smooth. Since I use Samsung’s TouchWiz software on my SII, it’s incredibly optimized and paired with the Exynos’ power, is probably the smoothest experience you can get on any Android phone (outside of the HTC One X, as I haven’t used one yet). The stock browser is modified to be as smooth as possible, and it truly is. Firefox is quite close though, which surprised me. It’s very smooth and fluid, aside from the occasional hiccup. The zooming has no stuttering. I was very impressed. In comparison, Chrome Beta is very stuttery and is never smooth, on either my SII or Tab 10.1. So this is a great reason to use it over Chrome.

Another thing is Firefox Sync. Since I don’t use Firefox on my computer, I couldn’t test this out, but it should appeal to Firefox users. It syncs bookmarks and I believe active sessions between your phone, tablet, and computer. Very useful, as I use this same feature in Chrome.

It also has a lot of add-ons available. I currently use one on my tablet to change the user agent. I was very disappointed to not find a setting for that, but the add-on adds a field in settings for changing it. There are a ton more to alter your browsing experience, and I have to say I’m pleased with the amount of support it’s gotten, considering it’s a beta.

Speed

Here is where Firefox really falters. It takes a significantly longer time to load pages, especially on my tablet. by significant, I don’t mean a second. Sometimes it can load pages for 10 or even 15 seconds, when stock browser (on both the TouchWizzed SII and the AOSP Tab 10.1) loads the pages in less than 3. Sometimes it loads then nice and fast, but a good one third of the time, it will be very slow. This bothered me, and yesterday I finally caved and switched back to using the stock browser on my Tab for an extended browsing session.

Conclusion

All in all, I’m very happy with Firefox Beta for Android. Even with its slowness, I still really like it on my phone. I may not use it on my Tab anymore, due to the slowness bugging me on extended browsing sessions, but for light browsing it’s wonderful. I do use Chrome for tab sync, but Chrome bugs me a lot, whereas Firefox is a pleasure to use due to the refined UI and lack of bugs. I like to use a variety of browsers, and I can confidently say that Firefox Beta will be used a lot. It also doesn’t have a big impact on battery life, when Chrome tends to drain my phone battery a lot faster than stock browser or Firefox. So I suggest you go try it out. Hopefully you won’t have any issues with speed, and I’m sure you’ll still enjoy your experience.

Update

Firefox Beta was updated in the Play Store a little while ago. It definitely seems snappier, much less delay on my phone. So now it should be a “must download” for everyone. Great browser.

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