Open Source

Firefox gains serious speed and reliability and loses some bloat

Firefox 49 has been released. Can the one-time ruler of the browser space return to its glory days? Jack Wallen offers up his take on Mozilla's latest.

firefoxhero.jpg
Image: Jack Wallen

There's no way around it. Firefox has struggled. As of this writing, Firefox 47 is the top of the Firefox market share heap at a scant 3.14 %. Given that Chrome 52 holds 23.96 % and IE 11 holds 17.74 %, the chances of Firefox displacing either, anytime soon, is slim. If you scroll way down on the browser market share listing, you'll notice Firefox 49 (the latest release) is at .19 %. Considering 49 is the stable release candidate that was only recently unleashed, that is understandable (to a point).

Thing is, Firefox 49 is a really, really good browser. But is it good enough to give the open source browser any significant gains in the realm of market share? Let's take a look at what the Mozilla developers have brought to the fore with the latest release of their flagship browser and see how much hope it holds for the future of the software that was once leader among its peers.

Electrolysis

Starting with FF48, the browser began sporting a feature similar to that of Chrome. Now each tab gets its own process. For Firefox, this is called Electrolysis and it's impressive.

By default Electrolysis is disabled. To enable it, you have to do the following:

  1. Open Firefox
  2. Enter about:config in the address bar
  3. Set browser.tabs.remote.autostart to true
  4. Set extensions.e10sBloc­kedByAddons to false
  5. Set extensions.e10sBloc­ksEnabling to false
  6. Restart Firefox

Once you've done that, you should notice a significant increase in performance (in both startup and page rendering), as well as stability and security. According to the developers, the page rendering gains for Electrolysis-enabled releases of Firefox could exceed over 700%. I have not officially benchmarked the gains, but real-world testing does clearly show that when Electrolysis is enabled, page rendering is not only seriously faster, it's also much smoother.

Widevine support

With the 49th release, Firefox finally gets Google's Widevine CDM (Content Decryption Management) support. What does this mean? In a word, Netflix. From Mozilla:

"Widevine support is an alternative solution for streaming services that currently rely on Silverlight for playback of DRM-protected video content. It will allow websites to show DRM-protected video content in Firefox without the use of NPAPI plugins. This is an important step on Mozilla's roadmap to remove NPAPI plugin support."

What is interesting about this, however, is that if you go to the Widevine page, you clearly see that Linux is not supported. To get this to work, you have to install a User Agent switcher. The configuration I've found works the best for Netflix is Chrome on Linux (which is ironic, considering Widevine doesn't actually support Linux). With this particular combo, Netflix works fine in Firefox 49.

Narrator

There's a new feature, tucked inside the Reader Mode, that really caught me by surprise. If you go to a page and click on the reader icon (the tiny book at the right end of the address bar), you'll see a sidebar appear on the left side of the window (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A
Image: Jack Wallen
The Reader mode toolbar.

The icon that rests second from the bottom is the Narrator icon. Click that button a popup will appear (Figure B). From that popup, click the play button and Firefox will begin narrating the page for you. There is nothing to install or enable...it just works (and works really well). When you click the icon, a popup will open that allows you to control the playback (stop, back, forward, speed, and voice).

Figure B

Figure B
Image: Jack Wallen
The Narrator in action.

This is one of those features you may never use; but on the off-chance you need it, you'll be thankful it's there.

Goodbye Hello and tab groups

That's right, the short-lived Hello system is gone. And that's fine, as it never managed to gain any traction. Another feature that never really saw much popularity was Tab Groups. That too has been jettisoned. It's good to see the Mozilla developers getting rid of the bits and pieces that have really served no purpose other than to add bloat to a browser that had already grown too large.

Taking the place of Tab Groups is Synced Tabs. Naturally, you have to be signed into a Firefox account, but this is something you'll certainly want to do (so that all of your bookmarks, passwords, history, add-ons, preferences, and now tabs will be in sync across all your devices).

Answer the question

In the end, Firefox 49 is all about speed. This has been the one major issue dogging the open source browser for a very long time. With the latest release, Firefox finally pulls neck and neck, with the competition, in the race for that ever-elusive title of "speedster". That's big, considering how much of a lead Chrome had on Firefox.

Will that performance increase translate to a higher market share for Firefox? I believe, once people have an Electrolysis-enabled Firefox installed (eventually all Firefox browsers will ship with this feature ready to go), there will be a significant change in the numbers. However, because Chrome is the default browser on Android, I cannot imagine any browser overtaking Google's flagship in the near or distant future.

Even so, if Firefox can manage to pull off second place in this contest, it will be a massive win for Mozilla. Thanks to the new features (and the removal of old features), Firefox 49 might well be the release to breathe new life into the gasping open source browser. It's incredibly fast, smooth, reliable, and has just the right amount of features to make me seriously considering dropping Chrome in favor of the browser that had been my default for over a decade.

Bravo, Mozilla.

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About Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.

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