14 April 2011

Firefox 4 for Android: Desktop-Like Browsing for Your Phone

Formerly known as Fennec, Firefox 4 for Android devices is among the most feature-rich mobile browsers to date.

For all the rapid improvement that both Apple's iOS and Google's Android have seen, one thing about both mobile operating systems hasn't changed much at all: their browsers. True, their technical underpinnings have been refined. But featurewise, they haven't evolved at anywhere near the pace of their counterparts on PCs, where the competition among browsers is never-ending.

That's one reason why I'm in favor of browser competition being as healthy on smartphones and tablets as it is on computers. On iOS, that's not going to happen anytime soon--Apple doesn't permit full-blown browsers with their own rendering engines in the App Store. (Ones that use the Safari engine, such as the excellent Atomic Web Browser, are permissible; so is Opera Mini, which does most of its work on Opera's servers, not on your phone.)

On Android, however, there's nothing stopping other companies from competing with the OS's built-in browser. Opera announced new versions of both Opera Mini and Opera Mobile for Android a couple of weeks ago. And now Mozilla has released the final version of Firefox 4 for Android.

I first wrote about the Android incarnation of Firefox last April, when it was known as Fennec and was a very rough draft. (In the interim, Mozilla decided to call it Firefox 4; that's more straightforward but should not be interpreted as evidence that the mobile browser is a carbon copy of its recently-released PC cousin.) It's come a long way-this finished version has a decidedly Firefoxy feel and is among the most feature-rich mobile browsers to date.

Some highlights:

  • It has a clever interface that lets you swipe to the right to see thumbnails of tabls, and swipe to the left to get navigational tools and settings, thereby letting you bypass your phone's menu button (always a plus in my book);
  • It has a mobilized version of Firefox's Awesome Bar that lets you type into the address bar to search your history, Google, Amazon, and other sources;
  • It has Add-ons! Just as with the browser I know think of as Traditional Firefox, this one lets third-party developers build extensions that add new features and change stuff around. Among the ones already available: one that lets you change the browser user agent screen to fool sites into thinking you're using another browser, a mobile version of Adblock Plus, a text-zooming utility, and one that lets you tweet from the address bar;
  • You can sync your history, bookmarks, tabs, and other settings with other copies of Firefox on other devices;
  • It sports a rendering engine which Mozilla touts as being much faster than the one used by Google's browser. It did feel pretty darn snappy to me, although the browser launched slowly on an HTC Evo 4G, with a splash screen and a "please wait" message;
  • You can save any page as a PDF, which is useful for salting away information you'll want to refer to later.

Stick to Mobile Phones

Firefox for Android doesn't render Google's standard browser obsolete overnight. For me, the biggest catch is that so many mobile Web sites are designed to work best on the Webkit-based browsers used by iOS and Android. If you go to Google Docs in Firefox and try to edit a file, for instance, you get a warning that your browser isn't supported. (I tried changing Firefox's agent string to claim that the browser was iOS, but that only made maters worse.)

The browser runs on Android 2.0 and above, but it's a phone app, not a tablet one; it'll work on tablets, but just scales up the interface to fit the larger screen. Mozilla says it might build a tablet-specific Firefox eventually.

Oh, and Firefox for Android doesn't support Flash, even when it's on a phone that has Flash installed. This doesn't strike me as a major downside, but you might feel differently; Mozilla says it might enable Flash later, but it's mostly focusing on making HTML5 work as well as possible.

I like Firefox for Android. I like the fact that it gives Google some incentive to add more features to Android's default browser. And maybe I'm a nutty optimist, but I think that the better browsing gets on Android phones, the more likely it is that Apple will beef up iOS's Safari. (I'm not so optimistic that I believe Apple will permit other full-fledged browsers such as Firefox onto iOS anytime soon, but you never know.)

In short, I'm glad that Firefox has finally landed on Android in a version that's ready for prime time. If you've tried it, let us know what you think...

The above article was originally published at: http://www.pcworld.com/printable/article/id,223822

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