To test out the new Firefox for Android, just install it from the Google Play marketplace.
This release is not only significantly faster than previous versions, it features a ground-up redesign using Android’s native user interface widgets and controls.
The result is a web browser that’s a bit more Androidy and a bit less Firefoxy. But that’s just fine with us because the significant speed boost more than makes up for the fact that it looks a bit different than desktop Firefox.
In fact, not only was Firefox 14 faster than previous releases, it was faster than most of the rest of the browsers installed on our Galaxy Nexus running Android 4 Ice Cream Sandwich (though it’s worth noting that, unlike Chrome for Android, Firefox for Android will run on pre-ICS phones).
That might be somewhat surprising if you experimented with the first few releases of Firefox for Android, which were disappointingly slow. Those first few versions all used the standard XUL-based interface that powers Firefox on other platforms. But, while the XUL interface meant Firefox on Android looked like Firefox, it seriously lagged at basic tasks like scrolling, zooming and panning.
Toward the end of last year Mozilla decided to ditch the XUL-based interface and go native on Android. The company also stepped up its efforts to optimize performance (which has been a focus for some time in the desktop version of Firefox as well). The work has paid off in this release (and the recent betas), which starts up nearly instantly and remains snappy even with a number of tabs open. Particularly noticeable is the smooth scrolling when swiping down very long pages.
Speed isn’t the only appeal of course, much of what’s great about Firefox on the desktop is also present in the latest mobile version. In some cases there are minor differences, for example the Awesome Bar becomes the Awesome Screen on a phone, but functionality remains the same. As with previous releases, Firefox Sync will automatically bring all your browsing history, bookmarks, passwords and form data to your Android phone.
And yes, Firefox for Android supports Adobe’s Flash plugin.
One thing that’s quite a bit different in this release are the browser add-ons available for Firefox for Android. Ditching the XUL interface might have made Firefox faster, but it also means that any desktop add-ons that use XUL won’t work in the mobile version. At the moment that means there aren’t many add-ons for Mobile Firefox, but now that it’s out of beta we expect more developers will begin building for the platform.
The big question for most Webmonkey readers is whether or not Firefox trumps Google’s Chrome for Android. The answer is … it depends. Both are fast — pretty close to identical in my testing — and both have excellent support for the latest web standards. In the end sync becomes the killer feature. If you use Chrome on the desktop, stick with Chrome on Android. If you use Firefox on the desktop the good news is that Firefox for Android will no longer leave you wanting.
Firefox for Android isn’t sitting still, either. If you don’t mind living on the edge you can try the nightly builds, which are less stable, but will get planned features like the coming tablet UI, the new tabs pane, find in page, bookmarks/history import, reader mode and more before they arrive in the stable version.