Firefox for Android: All-New and Much, Much Better

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Jared Newman / TIME.com

In the latest version of Firefox for Android, Mozilla basically threw out everything but the rendering engine, and started over.

It was a necessary change, given how unenjoyable the previous versions of mobile Firefox were. The browser took too long to start up, so it immediately felt bloated. Touch response was prone to stutter and lag. The interface, with its two sidebar menus that you’d reach by swiping left or right across the screen, too often got in the way of browsing the web.

“We tore it down, and we rebuilt it,” Johnathan Nightingale, Mozilla’s senior director of Firefox engineering, said in an interview.

The latest version of Firefox for Android is like a completely different browser.

On my Samsung Galaxy S II, the new Firefox glides smoothly through any web page, whether it’s optimized for mobile browsing or not. The sidebar menus are gone, so when you want to switch tabs or open a new one, you tap a little “plus” icon in the top-right corner, and a list of thumbnail images drops down from the top of the screen. When you tap on the address bar, up pops a list of your most-visited sites, bookmarks and browsing history. Overall, text looks more modern, and pages are easier to read.

Old Firefox on the left, new Firefox on the right

As with previous versions of Firefox for Android, support for add-ons is intact, so you can tweak the browser with tools such as full-screen view and the ability to always show the desktop versions of web pages. The mobile browser also supports Do Not Track, which tells participating ad networks not to collect details on your browsing habits. And of course, users of desktop Firefox can sync their bookmarks, tabs and personal data across platforms.

This is, however, the first version of Firefox for Android to support Adobe Flash. By default, Flash content is disabled, so you can enable it for videos and games while preventing Flash-based ads from popping up. The usefulness of Flash is diminished on mobile browsers, but it’s still nice to have a choice.

If you think of the new Firefox for Android as version 1.0–technically, it’s not–some of its omissions are understandable. At the moment you can’t select text on a page, find text within a page or get search suggestions as you type in the address bar. All those features are coming soon, Nightingale said, along with a “readability mode” that renders text and images cleanly on the page. Mozilla’s also working on a new tablet-optimized version of Firefox for Android.

But I did have one nitpick that won’t likely go away soon: Some websites–and Google sites in particular–present low-quality mobile versions of their pages in Firefox for Android, instead of the smartphone-optimized versions you get on the iPhone or in the native Android browser. It’s not Mozilla’s fault, but the fault of the websites, who haven’t done the necessary work to present more full-featured versions of their sites in Firefox. Still, Nightingale said, it’ll be up to Mozilla to evangelize its browser so webmasters don’t ignore it. That might be easier of lots of people start using Firefox for Android regularly.

I, for one, am considering it, since my phone doesn’t run a new enough version of Android to support Google Chrome, and I’ve never been happy with the stock browsers on Android phones. I’ve been using Dolphin Mini up until now, but would abandon it for a slicker interface (and one that isn’t an ugly pea green). Firefox for Android, at long last, does the trick.

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