Firefox 4 RC (for Android) Hands On

Firefox 4 RC for Android may eventually torch the stock Android browser. It’s faster than previous releases, dons a trimmer interface, and tucks new tricks up its e-sleeve, notably smart taps and single-click bookmarks.

Pile on the Add-Ons — for customizing the browser’s look and feel (and functionality)—and Firefox Sync — for synchronizing bookmarks, history, passwords, and preferences with your desktops — and Mozilla moguls will find plenty of reasons to bookmark the mobile browser.

Yet, despite bringing a real frontrunner to the desktop market, Firefox is still just a candidate in the mobile space. It’s faster than previous builds, but, compared with Android’s stock browser and Opera Mobile 11, it doesn’t lap the pack. It lacks multimedia dexterity: Firefox doesn’t yet support Flash and cannot access a surprising amount of HTML5 content. And if you’re reading this on an Android tablet, this fox isn’t available on Honeycomb, yet. For Mozilla users who prize synchronicity, the Release Candidate is worth a click; however, for anyone who isn’t wedded to Firefox on the desktop, hold out for additional support.


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The Big Picture on the Small Screen
Mozilla has bred a leaner fox with keener eyes. Firefox dedicates the entire screen to web pages. Swiping from the right bezel towards the screen reveals a tray with navigation buttons (back and forward), settings, and a star icon for single-click bookmarking. Under settings, you can manage downloads, add Add-ons—though, with about 150 in total, mobile availability is still limited—and adjust settings. For those accustomed to the stock browser’s wrap text feature, Mozilla’s “Reformat on zoom” option is a must-enable.

Closing the tray and returning your web page is as easy as swiping towards the bezel. Swiping on the left side of the screen reveals a tray with your open tabs and a folder stuffed with browsing history and bookmarks. And whether you’re in the left or right tray, a search bar drapes from top of screen, complete with mobile Add-ons (in this case, search options) for Google, Amazon, Twitter, and Wikipedia. Compared to the stock browser, which requires you to use the phone’s physical buttons to navigate between windows or explore history, Mozilla has created a more elegant and intuitive solution.

Phone Home, Home Phone
In addition to its streamlined interface, Firefox Sync is the definitive enticement to download the mobile Release Candidate. The process is simple. From the latest version of the desktop client, sign up for a free account and synchronize data through the Sync pane in Firefox settings. To access that data on your phone, open your mobile settings and Enable Sync. Mozilla gives you a code to input on your desktop to pair the two. Voilà: all of your desktop preferences, saved passwords, bookmarks and history flow into your mobile client; conversely, mobile changes appear at home. If Firefox is your default browser, Sync puts the home in phone—and visa versa.

A Spry Fox…
The other key enhancement for Android users occurs under the hood. In the release notes, Mozilla claims to have improved startup speed and page load times. For the most part, it’s true.

I tested Firefox 4 RC on a Spring HTC Evo 4G running the most current available version of Android (2.2) with the latest version of Adobe Flash (10.2); I used two preliminary JavaScript benchmark tests: SunSpider (0.9.1) and Google V8 (version 6). In the SunSpider test where a lower score is desirable, Firefox led the pack (3080.4 ms), followed by Opera (4133.2) and the stock browser (4564.2). When it came to the V8 test, however, results mixed: the stock browser took the lead (310), with Firefox (296) nipping its heals, and Opera (179) playing the role of laggard. In real-world use, it feels a whole lot closer. Firefox is quick, but not quick enough to replace the stock browser.

…At a Cost
That added octane doesn’t come cheaply. According the release notes, Mozilla disabled Adobe Flash and other plugins because it “compromised user experience.” Compared to both Opera Mobile 11 and the stock browser, through which I browsed and played Flash videos—if sluggishly—Firefox webpages looked like Swiss cheese. Add to Flash-less-ness the browser’s limitations with HTML5 video (lacking H.264 support), and even the New York Times homepage starts to look patchy. If you’re looking to view any web video on the go, I’d highly recommend waiting for the Gold Master, in which Mozilla might permit users to enable video plugins, even if it does “compromise user experience.”

This Fox is Still a Kit
Firefox 4 RC for Android transfers to the mobile browser much of what invigorated the desktop client, including a fresh new look with a speedier engine, Add-ons, and Firefox Sync. Unfortunately, those valuable new features enter in medias res. The new look is welcome, but the speed bump comes at the cost of multimedia dexterity. While mobile Add-ons hold promise, there aren’t enough available (yet) to customize the browser. And Firefox Sync is an exciting addition, but its value only extends to Mozilla faithful. If Firefox is your default desktop browser, the latest version of Firefox for Android grows that experience, though I would recommend waiting a little bit longer until this fox finds its legs

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