This release continues Mozilla’s move away from the unified Firefox look to one that uses native Android interface elements.
The new native interface for Android tablets means faster start-up times and a much speedier Awesome Bar for searching, but it also means the browser is a bit more Android-y and a bit less Firefox-y. For most Firefox fans that’s probably just fine; the significant speed boost more than makes up for the fact that the mobile version looks a bit different than desktop Firefox.
The latest Firefox for Android packs in some other welcome new features as well, including the ability to import bookmarks and browsing history from Android’s stock web browser, a new setting to clear specific types of private data and a much-needed new “find in page” search tool.
This release also includes much of the new web standards support found in Firefox for Android’s desktop cousin, also released today, which means that CSS word-break and other new features will work on mobile devices as well.
For a complete list of new features in Firefox for Android, be sure to check out the full release notes. And while Firefox for Android has been pretty stable in my testing, there are still some known issues, including one bug that occasionally causes the screen to go wonky (“yield unexpected behavior,” in Mozilla’s words) when changing from portrait to landscape and vice versa.
And now Adobe has limited access to Flash in the Google Play Store to any phone on this list of certified devices. For everyone else Flash on Android is a thing of the past.
The reasoning behind Adobe’s decision to pull Flash from the Google Play store is that any devices that don’t have Flash Player installed out of the box are, in Adobe’s words, “increasingly likely to be incompatible with Flash Player.”
There is a way around the new limitations if you’re a developer who needs access to Flash (or, presumably, a user who doesn’t mind hacking your phone): Flash Player for Android will remain available in Adobe’s archive of released Flash Player versions. It’s also worth noting that when we first wrote about the end of Flash on Google Play a number of readers let us know that the Flash plugin actually does seem to work with Android 4.1, so if you’ve just got to have it, head to the archives and give it a shot.
The move shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Adobe already announced last year that it would cease development of its mobile Flash Player. Still, if you were hoping Google might give Flash a bit of a reprieve by including support in the latest version of Android, well, we’ve got bad news for you.
Beginning Aug. 15, Adobe plans to start limiting access to Flash in the Google Play Store to mobile devices that already have Flash installed. In other words, if your Android phone shipped with Flash installed — what Adobe refers to as a “certified version” of mobile Flash — then you can keep getting updates through the Google Play Store. If you’re planning to buy a new phone running Android 4.1, you won’t be installing Flash after the fact.
The reasoning behind the move is that any devices that don’t have Flash Player installed out of the box are, in Adobe’s words, “increasingly likely to be incompatible with Flash Player and will no longer be able to install it from the Google Play Store.”
There is a way around the new limitations if you’re a developer who needs access to Flash (or, presumably, a user who doesn’t mind hacking your phone): Flash Player for Android will remain available in Adobe’s archive of released Flash Player versions. Also, little birds flying around Google I/O this week tell us that the Flash plugin actually does seem to work with Android 4.1. If you’d like to try it for yourself, better hurry up and grab it while you can.
This release is not only significantly faster than previous versions, it features a ground-up redesign using Android’s native user interface widgets and controls.
The result is a web browser that’s a bit more Androidy and a bit less Firefoxy. But that’s just fine with us because the significant speed boost more than makes up for the fact that it looks a bit different than desktop Firefox.
In fact, not only was Firefox 14 faster than previous releases, it was faster than most of the rest of the browsers installed on our Galaxy Nexus running Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich (though it’s worth noting that, unlike Chrome for Android, Firefox for Android will run on pre-ICS phones).
That might be somewhat surprising if you experimented with the first few releases of Firefox for Android, which were disappointingly slow. Those first few versions all used the standard XUL-based interface that powers Firefox on other platforms. But, while the XUL interface meant Firefox on Android looked like Firefox, it seriously lagged at basic tasks like scrolling, zooming and panning.
Toward the end of last year Mozilla decided to ditch the XUL-based interface and go native on Android. The company also stepped up its efforts to optimize performance (which has been a focus for some time in the desktop version of Firefox as well). The work has paid off in this release (and the recent betas), which starts up nearly instantly and remains snappy even with a number of tabs open. Particularly noticeable is the smooth scrolling when swiping down very long pages.
Speed isn’t the only appeal of course, much of what’s great about Firefox on the desktop is also present in the latest mobile version. In some cases there are minor differences, for example the Awesome Bar becomes the Awesome Screen on a phone, but functionality remains the same. As with previous releases, Firefox Sync will automatically bring all your browsing history, bookmarks, passwords and form data to your Android phone.
And yes, Firefox for Android supports Adobe’s Flash plugin.
One thing that’s quite a bit different in this release are the browser add-ons available for Firefox for Android. Ditching the XUL interface might have made Firefox faster, but it also means that any desktop add-ons that use XUL won’t work in the mobile version. At the moment that means there aren’t many add-ons for Mobile Firefox, but now that it’s out of beta we expect more developers will begin building for the platform.
The big question for most Webmonkey readers is whether or not Firefox trumps Google’s Chrome for Android. The answer is … it depends. Both are fast — pretty close to identical in my testing — and both have excellent support for the latest web standards. In the end sync becomes the killer feature. If you use Chrome on the desktop, stick with Chrome on Android. If you use Firefox on the desktop the good news is that Firefox for Android will no longer leave you wanting.
Firefox for Android isn’t sitting still, either. If you don’t mind living on the edge you can try the nightly builds, which are less stable, but will get planned features like the coming tablet UI, the new tabs pane, find in page, bookmarks/history import, reader mode and more before they arrive in the stable version.
Flash Player running in Firefox for Mobile. Photo: Scott Gilbertson/Wired
Mozilla has released an update for its Firefox for Android beta mobile web browser. The latest beta sports a redesigned interface that looks a little less like Firefox and a little more like a native Android application.
If you’d like to help Mozilla test this beta, head on over to the Android marketplace and download a copy today. Unlike the recently updated Chrome for Android, which requires the latest and greatest Android Ice Cream Sandwich, Firefox for Android will run on Android Froyo 2.2 and better (it is, for the moment, only available in English, though).
The Awesome Screen is similar feature-wise to the Awesome Bar in desktop Firefox, but tweaked to make mobile browsing and searching easier. To use it, just tap the location bar and you’ll see a list of your favorite bookmarks, history items and search engines.
Mozilla says the latest Firefox for Android beta starts up faster and some improvements to the underlying code should make for faster response times, better graphics performance and smoother panning and zooming. And while it’s not the only Android browser to do so, Flash fans will be happy to know that Firefox for Android continues to ship with Flash despite Adobe’s decision to stop developing the mobile Flash plugin.