Menu

Firefox 16

  • Category: Software
  • Review Date: 10/17/2012
  • Bottom line: Firefox remains a browser to be reckoned with: its clean design, fast performance, and vanguard support for Web technologies shouldn't be ignored. Web devs in particular should take notice.
  • Pros: Clean, minimal interface. Fast performance. Innovative tab implementation. Highly customizable. Good HTML5 support. Good security. Most cross-platform support. Syncing for tabs, history, passwords and now Extensions. Graphics hardware acceleration. Independent from large vendor. Host of developer tools.
  • Cons: Lacks client-side tracking protection like that found in IE9. Lacks Chrome's built in Flash, PDF reader, and Instant page view.
Editor Rating: 4.00

By Michael Muchmore

After a somewhat fitful initial release, Firefox 16 (actually 16.0.1) is now the prevailing version of Mozilla's independent, open-source browser. You might say that the update only adds new features for developers, but those in turn can mean new Web capabilities for ordinary browser users. Case in point: the browser's new support for CSS Transformations and Gradients can add visual effects to pages, and its new support for Web apps means sites can shed their browser skin and live as standalone programs on your desktop.

Partly because of its constant improvements and innovations and partly because it's not the product of a large corporation but rather an international open-source-contributed effort, I'm still a big Firefox fan. And there's not much that other browsers can do that Firefox can't. It has lots of HTML5 support, the best extension and customization capabilities, and a unique "Panorama" tab organizer. While you can get all this Mozilla goodness for Windows, Mac, or Linux, I evaluated the Windows version for this review. On the mobile side, you can read our review of review of Firefox for Android.

Firefox for the desktop's big interface changes all came along in version 4. That was when Mozilla started emulating Google's Chrome (free, 4.5 stars) Web browser in JavaScript speed and minimalist interface, as other Windows browser competitors Internet Explorer 9 (free, 3.5 stars) and Opera 12 (free, 3.5 stars) have done, too.

Firefox 16 can nearly match Chrome on JavaScript speed, and holds its own when it comes to HTML5 support and a trimmed down interface that gives the Web page center stage. But when compared side-by-side with Chrome, Firefox falls just a bit short in terms of HTML5 support and whiz-bang features like Chrome Instant, which loads pages from your history before you even finish typing their addresses or search terms in the address bar. It also lacks Chrome's integrated support for Adobe Flash and PDFs.

But while we're still waiting for "Do Not Track" privacy support in Chrome, it's been available in Firefox since version 9. Firefox 7 added better use of memory by the browser itself, addressing one of the most common complaints I've heard about Firefox over the past few years. It also sped up startup times, in which Firefox has long trailed competing browsers.

Install
A simple 16MB download gets you the Firefox 16 Windows installer. When you run it you'll lose your old version of Firefox. The latest Firefox is available for Mac (30MB) and Linux (17MB) as well as for Windows 7, Vista, and XP—the last of which even Internet Explorer 9 (Free, 4 stars) can't claim. You can import bookmarks from any other installed browsers on first run, but setup is as uncomplicated as it is for Chrome. Firefox also now makes it easy to choose a search provider other than Google, but surprisingly, not as easy as Chrome does. Mozilla also offers a Firefox with Bing version, which uses Microsoft's Web search built in.

Mozilla has been working towards silent updates for Firefox since at least the summer of 2010. And starting with version 15 this effort finally came to fruition—you no longer need to explicitly update Firefox; it happens after a restart of the browser without an interrupting update procedure. The Firefox installation gets around Windows' User Access dialog in a more orthodox way than Google Chrome's automatic updates. Chrome installs in a non-standard, non program folder, which some consider a potential security risk. Firefox, however, uses a "service" rather than a standard program process for the update to avoid the UAC dialog.

Interface
Firefox's interface is in line with the trend of "less is more"—less space taken up by the browser frame and controls and more space for Web pages. The page tabs have moved above the address bar, and as with Opera 12, there's just a single menu option in the form of the orange Firefox button at top left. You can re-enable the standard menus by hitting the Alt key.

Firefox's new-tab page has tiles for most-accessed sites on the new-tab page, and includes lots of settings on its default home page. As in most other browsers, you can customize what's on these thumbnails, and they shrink and enlarge as you resize the browser window. You can also remove sites and pin and unpin them to the new-tab page. But you can't specify which sites to include: They're chosen by frequency of your visits.

It's not quite up to the level of Safari's beautiful 3D Top Sites page or Opera's Speed Dial, which even offers live information on its pinned tiles. Most other browsers let you re-open closed sessions—Firefox's default home page lets you do this, but I'd like to see the choice on the new-tab page, too. If you don't want the tile view, a button at top right turns it off, reverting to the plain white, blank tab page.

The Home button is to the right of the search bar, and a bookmark button appears to the right of that. That bookmark button only appears when you don't want the bookmark toolbar taking up browser window space. This gives you one-click access to frequently needed Web addresses. But I wish that, like IE's star button, the button also let you see recent page history. You can still call up the full bookmark manager, which lets you do things like importing bookmarks from other browsers, search, and organize. And the full History dialog does let you see all recent visits, but it's not as convenient as IE's star dropdown.

Firefox is one of the last remaining browsers to still use separate address and search boxes, which is good for those who like to keep those two activities separate. That doesn't mean, however, that a search won't work in the address bar, aka the "awesome bar." That tool, which drops down suggestions from your history and favorites whenever you start typing, was pioneered by Firefox and copied by all other browsers. Another tweak is that when one of its suggested sites is already open in a tab, you can click on a "Switch to tab" link, preventing you from opening more tabs unnecessarily—a useful tweak.

As part of its leading extensibility, Firefox has always been the browser most open to allowing different search providers, including specialized search like shopping, reference, or social. It was one of the first to support the OpenSearch format. The other popular browsers now do so, too, but Firefox can automatically detect search services on a page and let you add them from the search bar. And Firefox's built-in Twitter search option makes it easy to find Twitter personalities worth following as well as popular photos and videos on the social network.

Panorama and Pinned Tabs
Firefox's unique "Panorama" feature offers a revolutionary way to organize tab groups and will be especially welcomed by those who like to have lots of tabs open. Just click the Mondrian icon all the way to the top-right of the window, and you'll see rectangles containing page thumbnails. You can drag tabs between groups, and resize and move the group boxes themselves around. You can even give a name to a tab group to keep organized.

When you click on a page thumbnail in any tab group, that page will maximize in the browser window, and you'll only see tabs from its group. It takes a bit of a rethinking, as you won't see all of your pages' tabs, but a click of the group icon gets you to them. I only wish that Panorama had some automation of the group creation, similar to IE's color grouping of tabs. And unlike Opera's nifty stacked-tabs, Firefox's groups are a click away on their own page, rather than always in front of you.

Another tab-related feature seems clearly Chrome-inspired—pinned tabs. If there are sites you always want access to, just as in Chrome, you can pin their tabs to the left side of the tab bar. These pinned tabs appear narrower, showing just the site icon. The pinned sites will also load automatically when you start Firefox. But you can't create an app shortcut icon for use on your desktop or Windows 7 taskbar, as you can with IE9 and Chrome.

Firefox Sync
Chrome and Opera have had bookmark and settings syncing for a while, but Firefox does an excellent job at implementing this on-the-go convenience. Not only will Firefox sync bookmarks and settings, but it also opens tabs, history, passwords, forms, and Add-ons (including extensions). The data is encrypted locally so that no one can intercept those passwords while they're on their way to Mozilla's servers.

The setup creates a key that you need to enter into the other PCs or mobile devices running Firefox that you want to keep in sync; the process isn't arduous, but it's not as simple as Chrome's sign in. IE9 has yet to offer any syncing option. I'm still occasionally amazed to see the same page I was viewing at work 45 minutes ago magically waiting for me on my home copy of Firefox. And now the same holds for Firefox on Android and Mercury for iOS.

Add-ons (aka Extensions)
Firefox has long been praised and adopted for the multitude of customizations it offers through third-party extensions. Though Chrome and the rest now all offer extensions, too, Firefox's deliver the most in-depth browser modifications. I already mentioned the protection from app installations adding extensions without your knowledge in the "Install" section above.

Interface-wise, in another nod to Chrome, Firefox's add-ons manager resides in what looks like a Web page. In its present form, it's a little harder to simply find the most popular extensions and their ratings, but you can still head to the Mozilla Web page for this. Firefox is still customizable in appearance, too, thanks to Personas and Themes.

Firefox extensions are considered compatible as long as they ran in version 4, when the system was overhauled, so you won't be left without cherished extensions after the upgrade. Extensions can also hotfix themselves without user intervention.

Performance
Before I get into benchmarks, a word about startup time. For the past few years, Firefox has lagged behind the competition in taking longer to get going, especially after a reboot. Mozilla has been working on the problem for the last few month, and, while, yes, Firefox still takes a tad longer to start up than Internet Explorer and Chrome, it's now to the point where the lag isn't big enough to affect your browser decision. This is especially the case for subsequent launches of the browser after you've already run it.

On my hardly state-of-the-art 2.53GHz dual-core Windows 7 laptop with 3GB RAM, after a reboot Firefox's cold start time was 7.4 seconds—in the middle of the browser pack. While that's hardly an eternity on an aging laptop, Firefox still trails Chrome's 5.3 seconds and IE9's 5.7 seconds, but it's better than earlier versions, which often took a dozen seconds. Opera and Safari held up the rear, with 10.1-second and 13.4-second cold startup times, respectively. So Firefox is no longer the straggler among browsers when it comes to startup time.

A restart of the browser without rebooting the PC made the differences in startup time negligible, as you can see in the second column of this table:

Browser

Cold Startup Time (seconds)

Warm Startup Time (seconds)

Chrome 21

5.3

1.5

Internet Explorer 9

5.7

1.5

Firefox 16

7.4

1.6

Opera 12

10.1

2.9

Safari 5.1.7

13.4

2.6

Though Firefox had been much faster at JavaScript than IE8, IE9 changed that picture. I tested with a Core 2 Duo 2.53GHz Windows 7 (32-bit) laptop with 3GB of DDR2 memory. I shut down any unessential processes for five averaged test runs.

On the popular SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark, Firefox picked up nicely, but the difference among browsers is negligible at this point. Most browsers have already optimized to the hilt for this test, so the results of all are pretty closely clustered. There's essentially no difference between version 15 and 16 here, as makes sense.

Browser

SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)

Google Chrome 21

249

Firefox 15

250

Firefox 16

253

Internet Explorer 9

260

Maxthon 3.4

296

Opera 12

302

Safari 5.1.7

302

On Google's JavaScript benchmark, V8, Firefox 4 showed a massive more-than six-fold improvement over its predecessor; since then, Firefox 9 showed the biggest improvement among its recent releases, with a 36 percent improvement over version 8. The latest version, 16, keeps pretty much on par with its predecessor. Surprisingly, upstart browser Maxthon unseats the browser from the creator of the benchmark, Google:

Browser

Google V8 (v.7) Score
(higher is better)

Maxthon 3.4

9767

Google Chrome 20

9353

Firefox 16

5876

Firefox 15

5955

Opera 11.61

3498

Safari 5.1.2

2679

Internet Explorer 9

2048

And on Mozilla's own Kraken JavaScript benchmark, Chrome has overtaken the test maker's own browser, Firefox, though not by much. Firefox 16 makes little progress over 15, and is still far faster on this test than IE, Opera, and Safari. Mozilla contends that this benchmark reflects more realistic workloads than the other two JavaScript benchmarks, and it takes quite a bit longer to run.

Browser

Mozilla Kraken 1.1 Score in ms
(lower is better)

Google Chrome 21

3260

Maxthon 3.4

3299

Firefox 16

4141

Firefox 15

4086

Opera 12

12336

Safari 5.1.2

14881

Internet Explorer 9

16794

Hardware acceleration is a way for browser software to take advantage of a computer's graphics processor to speed up page rendering. Unlike IE9's hardware acceleration, Firefox's works on any operating system; IE9 is limited to Windows 7 or Vista. I ran one Microsoft and one Mozilla demo test designed to show hardware acceleration, but keep in mind, the results of this test depend to a great deal on your graphics hardware.

The Microsoft demo, Psychedelic Browsing, spins a color wheel and plays spacy sounds, reporting RPM as a result. Firefox does well on this test, beating Chrome and all other comers besides IE. Opera hasn't yet implemented hardware acceleration by default, and I only saw evidence of it in Safari when that browser was running on a Mac. Here were my results, using a 3.4GHz quad-core desktop with an ATI Radeon HD4290 graphics card:

Browser

Psychedelic Browsing
RPM (higher is better)

Google Chrome 21

3516 (correct sound)

Internet Explorer 9

3303 (correct sound)

Firefox 16

3197 (no sound)

Firefox 15

3145 (no sound)

Opera 12

782 (no sound)

Maxthon 3.4

57 (correct sound)

Safari 5.1.7

10 (correct sound)

One final test of hardware acceleration (which, it is worth noting, comes from Mozilla itself): the Hardware Acceleration Stress test, which spins a spiral of photos in the browser window and reports a score in frames per second. This test showed the browsers furthest along in implementing hardware acceleration (particularly for CSS) to good advantage. Note the benchmark doesn't report frame rates over 60FPS, since that's the limit of standard LCDs. Because of that, it's pretty much a pass/fail test, where anything under 60 is a fail:

Browser on 3.4GHz quad core with ATI Radeon HD 4290

Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test
FPS (higher is better)

Firefox 16

60+

Firefox 15

60+

Internet Explorer 9

60+

Google Chrome 21

60+

Opera 12 (with hardware acceleration enabled)

42

Maxthon 3.4

20

Safari 5.1.7

12

Compatibility
"Support for HTML5" is far from being a binary yes or no state of affairs. Trying different HTML sites put out by the different browser builders makes this clear pretty quickly. It's not news that Firefox still passes the Web Standards Project's Acid3 test, with 100 out of a possible 100. More granular, however, is HTML5Test, which shows how many HTML5 elements and features a browser recognizes out of 500. It also notes "bonus" points for features that aren't required parts of HTML5, but are good to have, such as extra video codecs. Firefox 16 shows just a 2-point gain over version 14, and Opera 12 still beats it, with some new HTML5 support not even found in Chrome. But Firefox 16's "un-prefixing" of several CSS3 features deserves much higher marks for standards support advancement than this test indicates.

Browser

HTML5Test.com Score (higher is better)

Bonus Points

Google Chrome 21

437

13

Maxthon 3.4

422

15

Opera 12

385

9

Firefox 16

348

9

Firefox 15

346

9

Safari 5.1.7

319

9

Internet Explorer 10 RTM

319

6

Internet Explorer 9

138

5

Chrome still asserts its leadership position among the more popular browsers. Firefox and Opera aren't too far behind, though IE has a good ways to go. The IE team is clearly focused on Internet Explorer 10, which will ship with Windows 8 and brings Microsoft's browser closer to the fold, with a score of 316 and 6 bonus points. This test isn't the last word, though: the body actually responsible for Web standards, the W3C, is developing an HTML5 Test Suite. When finished, that set of tests will be definitive, and it will be interesting to see how the browsers pan out then.

Firefox supports HTML5 video using WebM, drag-and-drop, Web fonts, some CSS3 features like transformations, and WebGL for Web-based 3D graphics. WebGL support includes Cross-Origin Resource Sharing (CORS), which lets developers securely load WebGL textures from different domains. But according to HTML5Test.com, it falls short of Chrome in HTML5 Forms support, and behind Opera in support for access to the webcam.

Firefox 14 brought the Pointer Lock API, which allows applications like first-person games better control of the mouse. And version 15 added to Web game developers' arsenal with more WebGL enhancements and support for compressed textures and high-precision event timer. With browser-based games getting a more native look and feel all the time, this is a move in the right direction. The API isn't included in the HTML5Test cited above, so we can add some points mentally, getting Firefox closer to Opera, Chrome, and Maxthon.

Firefox also supports SPDY v3, a replacement for the Web's standard transport protocol, HTTP. SPDY speeds up communications through compression and by reducing the number of server interactions required to load a webpage. SPDY—short for "speedy" and not an acronym—has not yet been officially sanctioned by the Internet standards bodies. It's been primarily developed by Google, which actually owns the trademark for the term "SPDY." When browsing to sites owned by that Web behemoth, Firefox users may see faster response. The only other large site to come out with SPDY support on its servers so far is Twitter.

Developer Tools
The biggest addition in Firefox 16 is the new Developer Toolbar, which adds a command line that can streamline a slew of Web developer actions. Accessible from the Web developer menu, the toolbar autocompletes any commands the developer starts to enter, and offers keyboard shortcuts to access the Web Console, Debugger, Style Editor, a new cookie editor, and more. It can even open extensions or snap screenshots of page elements.

Already, Firefox's JavaScript debugger works remotely for debugging Firefox for Android Web apps. This joins tools like the Web Console, Scratchpad, Style Editor, Page Inspector, Style Inspector, HTML view and Page Inspector. Firefox 11 added two tools for developers, both heavy in the eye-candy department. The first is an innovative visual layout tool called Tilt, which lets coders see their pages in layers of related content. Tilt uses WebGL to create a 3D view of a website's component structures. You access Tilt by selecting "3D" View in Page Inspector. After this, you can hover the mouse cursor over any page element to get more information.

The browser's Style Editor lets coders make changes to CSS style sheets and see the results instantly. The separate dialog box lets you make changes to styles and see them reflected immediately on the page in the browser. Once changes are made, the Style Editor lets you save the changes in a new CSS file.

Firefox's Scratchpad uses the Eclipse Orion code editor and Page and Style Inspectors provide detailed CSS information. Anti-aliasing for WebGL content can smooth out rough edges, and CSS3D Transforms will bring 3D animation to 2D objects. Finally of interest is support for full-screen Web applications.

In real-world anecdotal site testing, Firefox is as reliable as it gets. All major sites have long targeted it for compatibility. I had no trouble logging into and viewing accounts at financial sites, our traffic analysis site, and the new Outlook.com webmail, all of which have tripped other new browsers occasionally. HD video and fonts were smooth and sharp.

Privacy and Security
Firefox has long offered a raft of security features, including phishing and malware site protections, and integration with antivirus software. Add-on installation requires a secure connection, but Firefox doesn't go as far as Chrome's sandboxing technology to completely isolate its code. Firefox's support for standards lets sites make them even more secure: Content Security Policy (CSP), which lets sites prevent XSS (cross-site scripting) attacks. This can prevent, say, a commenter on a site from executing script. Another proposed standard, HSTS, or HTTP Strict Transport Security, lets sites establish a secure connection even before you log in.

These are great initiatives, but they'll only work if the sites implement them. Another such standard Mozilla is the Do Not Track HTTP header. Firefox includes an API call that Web sites can use JavaScript to check whether you've set this to indicate you don't want to be tracked. But compared with Microsoft's Tracking Protection feature in IE9, the Mozilla answer relies on the ad networks to abide by users wishes, whereas Microsoft just blocks the trackers from communicating with your browser.

Firefox's director of engineering Johnathan Nightingale, told me that the block-list approach used by IE isn't always effective, since ad sites could always set up new domains. But in my tests, I found that, even with the Do Not Track checkbox checked, all the cookies from ad networks like DoubleClick and Google Ads were still being downloaded to my system, while IE9's Tracking Protection completely blocked these interactions.

Firefox prevents add-on installation by third-party software installers, as mentioned above. Rogue extensions have shown up in the past, and though it's unlikely software that you intentionally install would add one of these to your browser, this procedure is another layer of protection.

No Reason Not to Use Firefox
Firefox is still on the cutting edge of Web browsers, offering the first implementations of user conveniences like Panorama for tabs and for Web technologies like Do Not Track and Pointer Lock. It offers Web developers the most options, and it's still the number-two browser worldwide, used by hundreds of millions. Firefox 16 is a pleasure to browse with; it's fast, and truly open. Mozilla has built a beautiful, responsive, compatible, secure, and flexible piece of software. It's also the only major browser that doesn't come from a billion-dollar company profiting from Web services and sites. For some users this last fact is reason enough to use Firefox.

It's just by a nose, but our Editors' Choice browser for Windows, Google Chrome, still remains slightly faster and more capable, with built-in Flash and PDF support, nifty Instant page display, and more HTML5 support. Firefox increasingly seems to be mimicking Chrome, and has some unique attractions of its own, so unless you need some of Google's Chrome-only services, Firefox 16 is also a very good choice among browsers for Windows.

Read more Web browser reviews:
Firefox 16
Opera Mini 7 (for iPad)
Maxthon 2.7 (for Android)
Mercury Web Browser Pro (for iPad)
Dolphin Browser for iPad

This review is in partnership with PCMag.com.


Share This Article
Share |