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Sunday, 11 December 2011

Bye-Bye, Firefox

It's been a long time coming. In October last year I wrote a post wondering what browser to switch to or whether to stick with Mozilla's Firefox. And that was even before the current madness, upping version numbers all the time with little if any perceivable benefit to the end user. The stability problems were easily overcome, just by re-enabling those little helpers called hosts file, Adblock and Noscript. It's a testimony though to how bug-ridden websites are that all those are needed just for a
browser not to abnormally exit.

I've been using Firefox since the 0.7 preview, and with eight years that makes it the longest serving main browser on my machines. I really enjoyed it, but after 1.5 there was a definite change, incorporating ever more and getting bigger and bloatier, but we soldiered on. Part of it was due to philosophy and idealism, keep the web open, Netscape heritage and all that, and in part because of the great and manifold extensions available only for Firefox, slow and leaky as it was. With all its flaws since the 2.x series it was still the best browser around. What happened that I'm going to quit?

The Big Three

The fact is that Firefox just isn't good enough any more, and now there is real competition. Waiting for the slow page scrolling issue to be fixed in Firefox is like waiting for the GNOME project to add a news ticker plugin for the panel in the style of Knewsticker - it never happened. They had a stock quote applet but apparently nobody cared for the news. The recent rapid release mania did not really yield any benefits. Firefox might have become marginally faster in start up and page loading time, but if you've got a couple of tabs open it again slows down dramatically. This was particularly obvious on a Windows 7 installation. It actually seemed a lot more responsive in Linux, so my guess is everything is slower in Windows. In the end I can't really see much difference between Firefox 4.0 and 8.0 in practical everyday use, apart from that a Twitter search engine has been added. For that half of my extensions do not work any longer or have been discontinued, and the remaining ones like tab tiling and speed dial, which were incidentally all pioneered by Opera, can be found as built in functionality in other browsers or, in the case of Adblock, can be added just as easily. Both Chrome and Opera have been building their own arsenal of extensions for quite a while now, and Firefox has just lost that advantage. Some extensions I only used to mimic Opera functionality in the first place.

There are only three choices if what you're after is a fully fledged browser that can be your main window to the internet, including playing Youtube, logging in to web mail and Blogger and the like and displaying pages correctly, and which is cross-platform. For me it also needs to offer bookmark and ideally password synchronization, and as a real bonus make your web apps or widgets, extensions and themes available on all installations as well after logging in.

Based on above Google-Chrome/ Chromium would be most suitable, but it is still prone to crashes and hardly a day goes by without. May not sound like much, but I consider that unacceptable for something that is supposed to become my main browser. Then there's a perceived lack of functionality, although for a quick fire up and go it's probably a good choice and a fallback option.

But myself and many other thinking people who care about this sort of stuff are wary of handing even more data and power over to one entity. Who can be sure that Chromium is really neutered and respects our privacy? At this point, although I like Google products, I'm considering being less active there and ending my Google+ experiment, and possibly moving away from Gmail as well, although that will take more time. There's nothing Google has done to me personally, but it's never healthy to put all your eggs in one basket and concentrate too much power in one hand. I like to decentralize, and Twitter or Identi.ca combined with another free email solution or even a paid for one like Hushmail should do the trick just as well if running your own mail server is not practical. Chrome has some great apps like Full Screen Weather, which has satellite, map and terrain view, and the TV streaming app, but it's not worth compromising your data for it.

This leaves Opera. I've used Opera many times and at various stages over the years since 3.x but never felt completely at home with it. 11 is quite different though, it has evolved to that level where it can act as a replacement without feeling somewhat awkward. It is available for Windows, Linux and BSD and several mobile platforms. Some cool widgets and extensions are available, but mostly I just want to suppress ads. Even a note taking utility is already part of it, and Opera Link and Opera Unite take care of synchronizing. I've been testing this setup now for several weeks and have come to the conclusion that currently Opera is the best of the big three.
Because Firefox was such a slouch in Windows I replaced it there first, and what a good move. No more waiting for ages for a page to scroll up or down. Bookmarks were imported just fine from the account I had set up under Linux, previously imported from Firefox and re-ordered. Today I removed Firefox from all other installations except one, to still have access to all the passwords saved in password manager over the years, and it feels good. So long as they say, and thanks for all the fish.

Not So Serious Alternatives

Of course there are more browsers around I've looked into. Dillo and several console style browsers for when you want to go basic and just concentrate on the text, no distractions and quite secure, but it won't let you do your online banking.

The Seamonkey suite quite surprised me on Puppy Linux by how fast it was, but I never gave it a full workout and it looks too old now for my taste. Still, it could save resources if you're using both Thunderbird and Firefox, because it is essentially the browser and email component in one, with a web page designer tool, chat and an address book thrown in.

Midori, the browser linked to the Xfce desktop, too unstable and crash-prone.

Arora, a very nice browser based on QT and Webkit, does not need KDE to run. Largely stable and with some innovative functionality it already includes an ad blocker, as does Midori, and Ctrl+F11 starts something called Access keys which assigns letters to web page elements for easy navigation via keyboard. It also has a ClickToFlash plugin, similar to Flashblock for Firefox, active by default, and Arora had no trouble finding and using Flash on my installation. The only thing I was missing was a side panel. Unfortunately all these smaller projects are let down by their lack of bookmark synchronization. A good browser and one to watch.

Ugly as sin, but fast
Epiphany, tied to the GNOME desktop, but it blew me away with its absolute raw speed at start up and while browsing. It has swapped out the Gecko engine for Webkit and it shows. Blindingly fast, and I would have stayed with Epiphany if not for the sync and cross-platform issues. The GTK3 interface looks a bit out of place, not to say ugly, without theming support in another desktop environment, but if you're focused on the task that's not a big deal. The extensions package also has an ad blocker among many other plugins, and Greasemonkey. In terms of speed and minimal interface design a bit like Chrome, just not from Google. A good choice if already on a GTK+ desktop like Xfce. Apparently it needs a wrapper to use Flash, but the Webgl extension allowed me to view Youtube HTML5 video. Epiphany just became my second choice in Linux, behind Opera.

7 comments:

  1. You may be right about Opera being the better browser, but I really got tired of websites just not working from one day to another, because nobody officially supports Opera and they are not 100% compatible with IE, FF or at least Webkit Javascript.

    Besides Firefox is much more customizable, the amount of optimization you can do with Addons and user CSS (you can basically re- model the whole UI) is just amazing, and in my opinion well worth waiting half a second longer for Gmail to load.

    ReplyDelete
  2. That may occasionally be a problem. I've encountered problems with some websites as well but it seems better in recent releases of Opera. On the odd occasion I hope to get around it changing the identifier, or if that doesn't help using a backup browser. Thanks for commenting!

    ReplyDelete
  3. I keep Firefox on my system largely because of the It's All Text! extension, which allows me to open up the text editor of my choice in little text boxes like this one (there doesn't seem to be an Opera equivalent). Some sites like to default to their cell phone versions when they detect Opera, but that's more of an annoyance than anything. I agree, the number of sites that reject Opera or look just plain weird in it does seem to be declining.

    Epiphany has a lot going for it, but I never could get used to the unusual way it organizes bookmarks. I should see how it runs under MATE.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Hi Eddie, nice hearing from you again. Let us know how MATE fared in your opinion. Cheers -

    ReplyDelete
  5. I've used Opera on and off for a few years. But I am never sure how standard/correct it is. I run it at work (older Dell / Win XP box) and it doesn't even render Distrowatch correctly. (Perhaps it is something that I did wrong or 11.6 doesnt' play well with XP???) But for general surfing, I would like to know that I am seeing the web site as the designers intended it...

    ReplyDelete
  6. Something that keeps me hooked on Firefox is FireFTP. I used Chrome for a while but here recently it's been having a lot of profile issues and I've gotten sick of it. The reason I'm not going with Opera is it does things I don't like, like downloading links before you agree to actually save the file, or using a boot screen asking you what you would like to do by default because it gives the actual browser extra time to load. Opera also is at a disadvantage on a GTK system because if I remember correctly it uses QT. Anyways, I have found that Firefox recently has gotten faster and more stable, with memory leak issues apparently resolved. They really are stepping it up to try to catch up with Chrome.

    ReplyDelete
  7. @Jonquil
    That's true, but these days I already have it installed as I like several QT applications, namely SMplayer, VLC and qBittorrent.

    If I remember correctly there's also a static version of Opera, with everything you need in the package.

    ReplyDelete

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