I’ve been a big fan of Firefox since way back when it was called Phoenix and the install procedure consisted of “unzip this file somewhere and double click the .exe”. About a year ago, I decided to try using Google Chrome as my default browser for a few weeks, and ended up sticking with it. When Firefox 4.0 RC was released a couple weeks ago, I decided to repeat the experiment to see what changed since 3.6. This time though, I’m changing my mind. These are my reasons why. I can easily imagine someone reading this article and thinking to themselves (or writing in the comments) something like, “These are all trivial! You can fix them with extensions!” They would be half right. Most of these are minor complaints, and this just shows how far web browsers have come. Mozilla’s mission is to make the web better, and they’re doing a fine job. However, not all of these things are fixable with extensions
Sidebar: Firebug and Web Development
Let’s get this bit out of the way first: I spend a lot of time in Firebug and in Chrome’s Developer Tools. I think both equally capable, so which one you use pretty much comes down to which UI you prefer. My personal favorite here is Firebug, which means my Firefox install isn’t going anywhere — In fact, the only reason I didn’t give Firefox 4 a try sooner was because I was waiting for a version of Firebug that worked with it! However, keep in mind that this article is discussing the web browser I use for day-to-day surfing, not development or debugging. (Isn’t it nice that we even have such options these days?)
The Tab Bar
If I were to make a list of things each browser’s tab bar does, they would be identical:
- Tabs are at the top of the window.
- Tabs can be reordered by dragging them around.
- Tabs can be detached from the window by dragging them off the tab bar.
- Tabs can be attached to a different window by dragging a tab from one tab bar to another.
Unfortunately this doesn’t tell the whole story. Tab management is something that Chrome does better, hands down. Why? Presentation. Dragging a tab away from the tab bar gives me immediate visual feedback of what is happening in the form of a big picture of the content, which appears in a new window wherever I drag it to. Do the same thing in Firefox and it looks and feels janky: The new window doesn’t appear where the mouse cursor is, and I don’t get any visual feedback until I release the button. This is something that doesn’t translate well to text, so I made a short video demonstration. It doesn’t seem like a big deal, but moving tabs around in Chrome just feels better. Part of me wonders if the new “Tab Groups” feature in Firefox 4 would even be necessary if rearranging tabs was as slick as in Chrome.
The New Tab Page
The Zoom Button
I use both Windows PCs and Macs throughout the day. One thing that keeps tripping me up on the OS X version of Firefox is the way it handles the Zoom button — you know, that little green control by the close and maximize buttons on the top of the window that no developer really knows what to do with. For the uninitiated, this button is meant to “right-size” the window, that is, make it as large as it needs to be to show all the content without scrollbars. Sometimes this means stretching it to the edges of the screen, sometimes it just means making it a little taller or wider — it depends on what kind of window you’re dealing with. Good developers do this properly, lazy ones just treat it as a “Maximize” button and stretch the window to the edges of the screen. To be fair, “right-sizing” a window is a hard thing to do properly. Heck, even Apple is inconsistent when it comes to what a window will do when Zoom is clicked. Almost every browser on OS X acts this way: Make the window as tall as possible, and then make it wider until there’s no horizontal scrollbar. Firefox, though? It just fills up the whole screen. With a 1920×1200 pixel, 24-inch display, this is a silly waste. The ticket reporting this behavior has been open since 2004.
Both browsers have a pretty robust sync feature, but Chrome lets me synchronize my installed extensions. Firefox Sync doesn’t. I often came across a really cool extension for Firefox and wished I could install it on all the computers I use at once, instead of remembering to do it and tracking it down on AMO again.
Where Firefox 4 shines
Hold on, it’s not all bad! Firefox 4 has some nice perks that really surprised me.
App tabs rock. Anyone who uses the web as much as I do has a few sites that they always want open somewhere, and Firefox makes it easy to do. The Tab Badge and Aaapptabs extensions make them even better by showing me updates and removing the useless navigation UI. While Chrome lets me pin tabs, it doesn’t automatically reopen them when I start the browser like Firefox does.
Chrome may sync my extensions, but it can’t show me a list of tabs I have open on other computers like Firefox Sync does. If I’m in the middle of reading something when I leave for work, no problem. If I want to move to the couch and enjoy a long article on my iPad, Firefox Home makes it easy.
Chrome may have supported userscripts for a long time, and it’s even baked right into the program — no extension required — but the user experience on Firefox is better. Chrome lumps userscripts in with the rest of my extensions, which is an issue if you use a ton of them. Some userscripts just don’t work properly in Chrome, although to be fair, I’m not sure if this is because those particular scripts are poorly written or because Chrome doesn’t fully support the userscript API.
As I said in the beginning, I think both of these browsers are great. Now that Firefox 4 is finally out the door, Mozilla is pushing for more frequent, smaller releases, rather than making us wait a whole year for the next version like we did after 3.6 was released in January 2010. Chrome has been doing this for a while, and while a short release cycle means you miss out on big flashy launch events that drum up interest, it gets new features and improvements into the hands of users sooner. In six months, everything I wrote here might be out of date, and that would be a very good thing.
Filed under Browsers