The newest nightly builds of Firefox Mobile for Android phones are fast, stable, and — unlike the previously released alpha we told you about last month — actually usable.
Development on Firefox for Android is progressing rapidly, and there are a lot of small tweaks and changes to be found in the new nightly builds. But the big news is that everything actually works now. The browser’s performance is much improved, especially in responsiveness, scrolling and zooming.
You can download it here. But be sure to read the release notes, which cover the system requirements (Android 2.0 and up) and the known issues.
This little browser called Fennec (as the mobile version of Firefox is still known at this point in its life) first arrived on Android phones earlier this year. I took it for a spin when the alpha was released in August, and while I noted it had already come a long way in a short time, I was both perplexed and disappointed after a spending a couple of days with it.
I was left wanting because, having seen just about every iteration of Firefox over the years, and having had a wonderful experience testing the Maemo Linux release of Fennec on a Nokia smartphone, I was used to Mozilla shipping alpha versions that were fast, innovative and left you really pumped about the final product.
Not so with this little guy. The first alpha version of Firefox for Android was slow. Really slow. And buggy. Zooming and scrolling were choppy. The Wired home page would mysteriously reload every 20 seconds, and some sites wouldn’t load at all. I double-checked my Nexus One’s system settings, thinking something must be wrong. Since it was alpha code, I planned to revisit it later and measure the changes.
Then I saw this tweet by Mozilla’s Mike Beltzner Friday morning, and I decided it was time.
This most recent nightly build of Firefox for Android fixes most of the performance issues. Wired.com still doesn’t fare too well (probably our fault), but surfing the rest of the web is much more pleasant in the new Fennec. Scrolling and the pinch-zoom gesture are about as fast as Android’s stock WebKit browser. Page rendering is a touch slower in Fennec than in the Android browser, but we can expect that to improve. Continue Reading “Firefox for Android Is Growing Up Fast” »
Codenamed Fennec, Firefox mobile is based on the same code as the big daddy desktop version of Firefox. It supports the same web standards and it even accepts add-ons. It also syncs up with your other versions of Firefox, so your history, Awesomebar searches, auto-fill form data and passwords will be the same as you move from desktop to mobile and back again throughout your day.
One of the strokes of genius design in the Fennec browser is the unique side-to-side swipe action, which brings up menus for things like tabs, bookmarks and settings. It minimizes the browser chrome and leaves more screen real estate for web pages. This new version has the sync features as well as pinch-to-zoom browsing.
We’ve seen pre-release versions of Fennec running on Android in the past, but they were patchy and bare bones. This is a real-deal alpha release. It may not be entirely stable yet, but it’s come a long way since its meager beginnings.
Fennec for Android is a pre-alpha release, so please be aware that it’s buggy and could freeze your phone, requiring a reboot. Also, memory handling hasn’t been optimized yet, so it might choke or crash your phone when trying to load large pages. Mozilla says Fennec for Android has only been tested on Motorola Droid and Nexus One phones running Android 2.0 and up, so your mileage will certainly vary on other phones.
Still, it’s exciting to see Firefox making its way onto Google’s open source Android platform after months of development. The tiny browser has already shipped on Nokia’s high-end mobiles. I was able to thoroughly test and review Firefox for Nokia’s Maemo OS, and I found it replicated the experience of using the desktop version of Firefox extremely well, even on a much smaller screen.
From the looks of it, Firefox on Android will borrow many of the same design innovations that made the Nokia/Maemo version a pleasure to use. One very cool thing is already available: An experimental version of Weave has been hacked together for this build, so you can sync all your Firefox bookmarks and settings to Android right from the get-go.
The final version will be ready later this year, Mozilla says. The work done here should lend itself to other Android implementations of Firefox in the future, including a larger version for any Android tablets now in development.
Once fully baked on Android, Firefox will play a vital part in shaping the rapid growth of the mobile web. At this point, the development of websites for mobiles has been largely geared towards making them look good on the iPhone and, to a lesser extent, Opera Mobile and Android’s native browser. Android’s browser and Mobile Safari use the same WebKit layout engine, and Opera uses its own.
A burning question that’s been tossed around for years — “Why isn’t Firefox on my phone?” — has finally been answered.
Firefox will begin showing up on mobile devices at the end of this year. I got the chance to test a beta version of Firefox on a pre-release mobile device. The browser, code-named Fennec, is the closest thing yet to a real, desktop-class browser for mobiles.
It does almost everything Firefox on the desktop does, and with the speed, stability and support for web standards one would expect from a browser branded with the Firefox name.
Last week, Wired.com received a Nokia N900 for review. The black, brick-style phone has a touchscreen and a physical keyboard. It runs Maemo, Nokia’s operating system based on Debian Linux, and Maemo has its own, dedicated build of Fennec. I installed Fennec for Maemo Beta 4, the latest stable release, and spent a few days surfing with it.
All the features that endear us to Firefox — tabbed browsing, the smart URL bar, easy bookmarking and history management, spellchecker, password manager, an innovative user interface — are present and working properly. There are still some sticky bugs, but it’s already very usable.
While the mobile web of just a few years ago was clunky, slow and unsatisfying, today’s mobile web is a whole new bag. The iPhone’s Mobile Safari and Google’s Android browser (both based on the same open source WebKit engine), along with the Opera Mobile browser are feature-rich tiny machines. Mobile bandwidth is still limited, but fast enough and getting faster. Cities are blanketed in Wi-Fi hotspots. Flash support is incomplete, but improving quickly. Most of us can see the light at the end of the tunnel when we won’t need the desktop for all but the most serious tasks.
Mozilla has remained largely absent from this revolution until now. Firefox will first be made available for devices running Windows Mobile and Maemo. Later, a version is expected for Android. There won’t be a version of Firefox for the BlackBerry, for Symbian or for the iPhone any time soon, (Mozilla execs get asked the iPhone question all the time, and their answer is always the same — Apple’s restrictions on the device are too tight for Mozilla’s browser to be able to function properly).
Performance is what this browser will be judged on, and at least on the N900, the Fennec team should expect high marks. Pages load very quickly and I encountered few rendering problems in my tests. I hit all my usual destinations: Gmail, Google Reader, Craigslist, Wired, Twitter, Facebook and FriendFeed. Of course, I followed scores of links out to other sites.
Since it’s built on the same code as Firefox (actually, it’s based on Firefox 3.6 code, which hasn’t even made it to the desktop yet), Fennec has excellent support for web standards, Ajax, microformats and for advanced CSS layouts. Flash support is coming soon. The latest nightly builds have it, but it’s buggy — Mozilla’s QA blog notes there are syncing issues with audio and video. The beta I used didn’t have Flash capability.
The N900′s screen is touch-sensitive, so double-tapping on an image or paragraph of text zooms in cleanly without a page refresh. You can see the page element get sharper as you zoom in — just like the iPhone’s browser. Text flows cleanly around images and hardly ever spills out of bounding boxes.
One notable flaw in Fennec is that words often appear a little crushed. Most sites I visited showed kerning and letter spacing issues (Wired.com is one example). On a few sites (like Craigslist) text showed up perfectly fine. Results varied on the rest. These inconsistencies are probably due to a combination of the text styling the website author has chosen and the fact that most sites don’t yet know what to do with Fennec’s user-agent string — the bit of code identifying it as a mobile browser. Websites will serve mobile-optimized sites to mobile browsers, which is why you’ll sometimes get redirected to a different URL or served bigger text when you hit some websites with your iPhone or BlackBerry.
Fennec is such an unknown entity on the web that most sites don’t know it’s a mobile browser. Leading up to launch, we’ll see more sites recognizing it for what it is — a browser running on a tiny screen.
One fix is to install an add-on that lets you change the user-agent string and impersonate a more widely-used mobile browser (this is called “spoofing”), but such an add-on doesn’t exist yet. Visiting the page for the most popular user-agent spoofer for Firefox shows at least one fan has already requested a Fennec version.
Thankfully, Fennec’s page-rendering problems are largely contained to text kerning and spacing. But it gets worse when you zoom in. There’s already a bug report filed for the kerning issues, and they should be fixed before 1.0 arrives.
One Mozilla engineer I e-mailed says the team has been trying to get rid of one of the browser’s visual tics — a slight, side-to-side “jitter” that sometimes happens when you place your finger on the screen to drag it — and that the fix they’ve applied has inadvertently caused the sluggishness to show up in this beta. It should improve in the next beta release.
Beyond performance, the next most critical ingredient for a browser is a well-designed user interface. Fennec has one.
Just as with Firefox’s “Awesome bar,” the Fennec address bar does triple-duty — it’s a URL bar, a Google search box and a history and bookmarks search tool. Results are suggested as you type, and on the N900, it’s snappy.
Swiping the page left or right exposes two additional banks of controls. Swipe to the right and you get a tab manager. It shows thumbnails of all your open browser tabs and a big plus sign you use to open a new tab.
Swipe to the left and you get forward and back controls, the Star button to mark a page as a favorite and a button that brings up the Settings panel.
Hiding these elements just beyond the edges of the page saves as much screen real estate as possible for the web page itself without sacrificing the bells and whistles we’ve come to expect from a modern browser. It’s an innovative twist.
There are a few Fennec add-ons to be found at addons.mozilla.org/mobile. The best ones to try right now are GeoGuide, which shows photos, events and weather for your current location, and Mozilla’s own Weave, which syncs your bookmarks, history, passwords, and tabs between Fennec and your desktop versions of Firefox.
Mobile Firefox will be the first mobile browser with a real add-on architecture. That’s exciting, but there still aren’t very many add-ons for Fennec available. The release candidate stage (once it’s out of beta) is when many Firefox add-on authors will complete the process of adapting their desktop versions to work with Fennec. Meanwhile, Mozilla is waving the start flag — Thursday’s issue of its about:mobile newsletter is aimed squarely at mobilizing mobile add-on developers.
With GeoGuide and Weave installed, Fennec is remarkably stable. In three days of testing, Fennec didn’t crash once, and this is pre-release software. I can’t say the same about Mobile Safari, which has been around for a couple of years and still crashes at least once or twice per day.
This is the arena Fennec will be entering when it’s released later this year. At this stage, it looks like it will be a success — at least on devices where it actually runs.
Note: We couldn’t get the N900 to take good screenshots, so the screenshots shown here are from a Maemo emulator running on Mac OS X.
The recent release saw the disabling of plugins, including Flash, but only temporarily, because of stability issues. Luckily, the project just added “several Mozilla QA team members,” according to platform evangelist Mark Finkle.
There are still four features, including the download manager and scrolling/panning performance, on the requirements list before we see an alpha. Maybe that gives me some time to find a Nokia N800/N810. If you have one and want to check it out, let us know how it goes.