There was once a time where the internet was just beginning to overcome its wild wild west nature, and sites were leaning toward HTML spec compliance in lieu of (or, more accurately, I suppose, in addition to) Internet Explorer’s way of doing things. Windows users in the know turned to Firefox; Mac users were okay sticking with Safari, but they were still far and few between. Firefox was like the saving grace of the browser world. It was known for leaking memory like a sieve, but it was still safer and more standards-compliant than IE. Time went on, and Chrome happened. Compared to Chrome, Firefox was slow, ugly, lacking in convenience features, it had a lackluster search bar, and that damn memory leak never went away. Firefox largely became relegated to serious FOSS nerds and non-techies whose IT friends told them it was the only real browser a decade ago.
I occasionally installed/updated Firefox for the sake of testing, and these past few years it only got worse. The focus seemed to be goofy UI elements over performance. It got uglier, less pleasant to use, and more sluggish. I assumed it was destined to become relegated to Linux installs. It just… was not palatable. I honestly never expected to recommend Firefox again, and in fact when I did just that to a fellow IT type he assumed that I was drunk on cheap-ass rum.
Firefox 57 introduces a new, clean UI (Photon); and a new, incredibly quick rendering engine. I can’t tell if the rendering engine is just a new version of Gecko, or if the engine itself is called Quantum (the overall new iteration of the browser is known as Quantum), but I do know it’s very snappy. I’m not sure if it is, but it feels faster than Chrome on all but the lowest-end Windows and macOS machines that I’ve been testing it on. It still consumes more memory than other browsers I’ve pitted it against, and its sandboxing and multiprocessor support is a work in process. The UI looks more at home on Win 10 than macOS, but in either case it looks a hell of a lot better than the old UI, and it fades into the background well enough. On very low-end machines (like a Celeron N2840 2.16GHz 2GB Win 8 HP Stream), Firefox feels more sluggish than Chrome – and this sluggishness seems related to the UI rather than the rendering engine.
I’ve been using Quantum (in beta) for a while, alongside Chrome, and that’s really what I want to attempt to get at here. Both have capable UIs, excellent renderers, and excellent multi-device experiences. I don’t particularly like Safari’s UI, but even if I did the UX doesn’t live up to my needs simply because it’s vendor-dependent (while not platform-dependent, the only platforms are Apple’s), and I want to be able to sync things across my Windows, macOS, iOS, and Linux environments. Chrome historically had the most impressive multi-device experience, but I think Firefox has surpassed it – though both are functional. So it’s starting to come down to the small implementation details that really make a user experience pleasant.
As a keyboard user, Firefox wins. Firefox and Chrome1 both have keyboard cursor modes, where one can navigate a page entirely via cursor keys and a visible cursor. This is an accessibility win, but very inefficient compared to a pointing device. Firefox, however, has another good trick – ‘Search for text when you type’, previously known as Type Ahead Find (I think, I know it was grammatically mysterious like that). So long as the focus is on the body, and not a textbox, typing anything begins a search. Ctrl– or Cmd-G goes to the next hit, and Enter ‘clicks’ it. Prefacing the search with a ‘ restricts it to links. It makes for an incredibly efficient navigation method. Chrome has some extensions that work similarly, but I never got on with them and I definitely prefer an inbuilt solution.
Chrome’s search/URL bar is way better2. It seems to automatically pick up new search agents, and they are automatically available when you start typing the respective URL. One hits tab to switch from URL entry to searching the respective site, and it works seamlessly and effortlessly. All custom search agents in Firefox, by contrast, must be set up in preferences. You don’t get a seamless switch from URL to search, but instead must set up search prefixes. So, on Chrome, I start typing ‘amazon.com’, and at any point in the process, I hit tab, and start searching Amazon. With Firefox, I have to have set up a prefix like ‘am’, and remember to do a search like ‘am hello kitty mug’ to get the search results I want. It is not user-friendly, it is not seamless, and it just feels… ancient. Chrome’s method also allows for autocomplete/instant search for these providers, which is only a feature you get with your main search engine in Firefox. It is actually far superior to simply not use this feature in Firefox and use DuckDuckGo bangs instead. The horribly weak search box alone could drive me back to Chrome.
Chrome used to go back or forward (history-wise) if you overscrolled far enough left or right – much like how Chrome mobile works. This no longer seems to work on Chrome desktop, and it doesn’t work on Firefox either. I guess I’m grumpier at Google for teasing and taking away. I know it was a nearly-undiscoverable UI feature, and probably frustrated users who didn’t know why they were jumping around, but it freed up mouse buttons.
I don’t know how to feel about Pocket vs. Google’s ‘save for later’ type solution. Google’s only seems to come up on mobile. Pocket is a separate service, and without doing additional research, it’s unclear how Mozilla ties into it (they bought the service at some point). At least with Google you know you’re the product.
I have had basically no luck streaming on Firefox. Audio streams simply don’t start playing; YouTube and Hulu play for a few seconds and then blank and stop. I assume this will be fixed fairly quickly, but it’s bad right now.
Live Bookmarks are a thing that I think Safari used to do, too? Basically you can have an RSS feed turn into a bookmark folder, and it’s pretty handy. Firefox does this, Chrome has no inbuilt RSS capability. Firefox doesn’t register JSON feed which makes it a half-solution to me, which makes it a non-solution to me. But, it’s a cool feature. I would love to see a more full-featured feed reader built in.
Firefox can push URLs to another device. This is something that I have long wished Chrome would do. Having shared history and being able to pull a URL from another device is nice, but if I’m at work and know I want to read something later, pushing it to my home computer is far superior.
I’ll need to revisit this once I test out Firefox on mobile (my iOS is too far out of date, and I’m not ready to make the leap to 11 yet). As far as the desktop experience is concerned, though, Quantum is a really, really good browser. I’m increasingly using it over Chrome. The UI leaves a bit to be desired, and the URL/search bar is terrible, but the snappiness and keyboard-friendliness are huge wins.