Firefox 4 for Android is feature rich but slow

Read Jack Wallen's first impressions of how well Firefox 4 for Android handles bookmarks, add-ons, syncing, PDF rendering, and more. See if he ultimately prefers Android's built-in browser or Firefox 4.

The Android platform offers one of the fastest browsing experiences of any mobile platform because of its Google Chrome-based browser. However, Android users have been clambering for more browser features and a browsing experience that more closely resembles a desktop browser.

Enter Mozilla's Firefox 4 browser for Android, which brings a near-desktop experience to your mobile device. But is Firefox 4 for Android a worthy replacement to the default Android browser? Let's take a look at this mobile browser and find out.


Firefox 4 for Android has an impressive feature list for a mobile browser:

  • Seamlessly syncs your desktop to mobile bookmarks, browsing history, cookies, and more
  • Awesome screen -- Smart list of shortcuts, bookmarks, and tabs (even from your sync'd computers)
  • Add-ons support
  • Tabs
  • Multiple search engines
  • Full screen view
  • One-touch bookmarking
  • Location-aware browsing
  • Download manager
  • Auto-update
  • Password manager
  • Advanced security features
  • HTML5 support
  • Multi-process support
  • Layers support
  • Off-line browsing
  • Text rendering
All of the features work well, though some features work a little differently in the mobile version of Firefox than in the desktop version. For example, tabbed browsing is done in such a way that the tabs don't steal precious screen space. As you can see in Figure A, the tabs are set up so that the browser window must be swiped to the side to reveal open tabs. This is a nice way to save space, and I find it much more effective than the built-in browser's tab management. Figure A

It takes more moves to switch back and forth between tabs, but this allows for more tabs to be open at once and still have easy access to all tabs.


One of my biggest beefs with most mobile browsers is that bookmark tools are cumbersome. In some mobile browsers, if you want to add a bookmark, you might as well do it by manually editing a flat-text configuration file. In Firefox 4 for Android, it's very easy to add bookmarks - you just follow these simple steps:

  1. Navigate to the site to be bookmarked.
  2. Slide the page to the left.
  3. Tap the Star icon (Figure B).
Figure B

The right and left pointing arrows are the Back and Forward buttons for Firefox.
When the bookmark is added, a small prompt will appear asking if you want to edit the bookmark. If you want to give the bookmark a unique name, click the Edit button and then, when the new window appears (Figure C), enter the information and click Done. Figure C

You can add tags to bookmarks to speed up searching.


What would the Firefox experience be without the ability to add extra features and plugins? If you want to install an add-on in Firefox 4 for Android, follow these steps:

  1. Tap the handset's Menu button.
  2. Tap the Add-ons button.
  3. Search the Add-on catalog (Figure D) for the desired add-on.
  4. Select the add-on to be installed.
  5. Tap the Add To Firefox button.
  6. After the download/install is complete, restart Firefox by tapping the Restart button.
Figure D

Scroll around or search through the catalog, and you will find a lot of outstanding extensions for Firefox Mobile.

Site options

A very nice feature of Firefox 4 for Android is the ability to save a page as a PDF document; this allows for offline reading, sharing, printing, and other uses. In order to save a web page as a PDF, follow these steps:

  1. Navigate to the site in question.
  2. Tap the handset's Menu button.
  3. Tap the Site Options button.
  4. Tap Save As PDF (Figure E).
  5. Locate the newly created PDF in /mnt/sdcard/download.
Figure E

The Share Page option allows you to send a link via Bluetooth, Email, Messaging, and more.

The PDF rendering in Firefox 4 for Android is impressive. I have rendered a number of web pages in Firefox Mobile from my Android phone, and I have yet to find a page that doesn't render well -- this includes web pages with images.


The ability to sync the mobile version of Firefox to your desktop version is handy. In order to do this, the desktop version of Firefox you're using must already be set up for syncing (this requires signing up for a free account). Once the desktop version of Firefox is ready, you can add the Firefox Mobile device to the desktop by following these steps:

  1. With Firefox Mobile open, tap the handset's Menu button.
  2. Tap the Preferences button.
  3. Enable Sync by sliding the sync slider to the right.
  4. Tap the Connect button.
  5. When the new window populates with the secret key for the mobile device, record this key.
  6. Open Firefox on the desktop.
  7. Go to Edit | Preferences | Sync.
  8. Click the Add A Device link.
  9. When prompted, enter the secret key created for the mobile device.
  10. Tap Next.

Your devices will begin to sync. When syncing is complete, the bookmarks for all the sync'd devices will be the same.

A major drawback

I only use Chromium on Linux for browsing because of its incredible speed, so I am disappointed that Firefox 4 for Android is very slow to open and to render pages. It seems pages are loaded into cache before rendering on the screen; even when connected to high-speed wireless, the page rendering is way too slow. This seems to be indicative of how Firefox is evolving -- that is, opting for features over performance.

Bottom line

If you are looking for the fastest possible browsing experience on your Android mobile, you should stick with the built-in browser. If you are looking for a browser that offers lots of features, bells, and whistles, Firefox 4 for Android is hard to beat.

For me, the speed issue is a deal breaker. Until Firefox 4 for Android can come close to the speeds of the built-in browser, I'm going to pass on it, even though some of the extra features (especially the one-touch bookmarks and the way it handles tabs) make this mobile browser a delight to use.