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Can Firefox be your Android browser?


Mozilla Firefox might be a beloved desktop browser, but on Android, its market share looks like nothing but a rounding error. That might be one of many reasons why Mozilla decided to rewrite its mobile browser from scratch with a new rendering engine, a revamped interface, better performance, and more privacy features. Now that Mozilla has had more than half a year to fine-tune the product, I decided to give this new Firefox a thorough test on my Android phone to see how it compares against the standard most people stick with, Google Chrome.

Interface and user experience

Firefox lets you choose between a bottom-based and a top-based interface. Depending on which you go with, you’ll find the address bar, tab switcher, and menu button on the bottom or the top of your screen. Like on Chrome, you can switch between tabs by swiping left and right over the address bar or instead of using the dedicated button.

I’m not the biggest fan of the tab switching UI Firefox settled on. No matter which toolbar position you choose, the tab switcher button opens up in a menu sliding up from the bottom of the screen, displaying all of your tabs as a list with a small preview of their contents on the left. In contrast to a previous design with tabs on the new tab page, it feels tacked on and like a last-minute decision. Regardless, open tabs can be swiped away left or right. If you prefer a grid view, you can switch that on in the settings.

The new tab page provides a quick overview of your most visited websites, your collections (a place where you can group and save tabs), and a quick toggle to open incognito mode. The address bar has a handy built-in QR code reader, and you can select your preferred search engine on the fly — neither feature is available in Chrome. You can also voice-type your queries. When you visit a website, you’ll see a shield icon next to its address. Tap it to enable or disable Firefox’s tracking protection. There’s also a link to settings that allow you to adjust your protection level granularly.

In the three-dot overflow menu, you’ll find quick access to your downloads, history, bookmarks, synced tabs, and add-ons, which we’ll expand on later. The app settings (also accessible from the overflow menu) give you access to the usual entries for deleting data, site permissions, data collections, notifications, turning on sync, password storage, etc. You can customize Firefox to your liking here, and even switch the interface to another language.

Overall, the Firefox interface is easy to navigate, so you’ll unlikely face any issues if you come to it from Chrome.

Chrome’s last redesign happened ages ago, and it still solely relies on a top toolbar that’s getting increasingly hard to reach as our phones grow taller. Google experimented with a few other solutions like Chrome Duet, but the tests were ultimately scrapped.

I’m not a fan of how Firefox integrates with other apps when you use it as your default browser. Like Chrome, it’s capable of displaying custom tabs, but when you choose to have the address at the bottom, you’ll also find the custom tab action bar at the bottom. I’d love to have independent options. Then there’s a super small complaint: the animations for opening and closing custom tabs are either missing completely or aren’t as fluid they are in Chrome.

Additional features

Firefox has some extra features up its sleeve, such as a reading mode. When the browser detects that you’re reading an article, it will offer to give you a stripped-down, image-less, and distraction-free version of it in the address bar.

Collections are a form of bookmarks replacement that I don’t find myself using too much (just like I don’t use bookmarks). You can add tabs to them from the tab switcher. It’s probably good for saving something you’d like to read later and isn’t intended as a permanent storage solution like bookmarks, but it feels like the concept isn’t fully fleshed out. That’s probably because the original idea has been watered down —collections were supposed to be automatically created based on your latest browsing sessions.

Sync allows you to pick up your browsing session from Firefox on another device, just like Chrome does. The feature makes sure bookmarks, history, and passwords are shared across your Firefox installs on phones and desktops. With Firefox Lockwise, you can even autofill your passwords in Android apps outside Firefox.

A Search widget gives you quick access to the address bar right from your home screen, much like Chrome.

Firefox also has a dark mode that respects your system-wide preference.

In contrast to Chrome, Firefox supports extensions. Unlike the legacy version of the Mozilla browser, only a handful are officially available right now, but the company is working on bringing back the full suite of add-ons in a future update. You can already give any extension a try in the unstable Nightly version of Firefox, but if you want to stick with the stable release, you’re limited to this selection for now:

  • Google Search Fixer
  • uBlock Origin
  • Ghostery
  • Dark Reader
  • AdGuard AdBlocker
  • HTTPS Everywhere
  • Privacy Badger
  • NoScript Security Suite
  • FoxyProxy Standard
  • Bitwarden
  • Search by Image
  • Decentraleyes
  • Tomato Clock
  • YouTube High Definition
  • Privacy Possum
  • LeechBlock NG
  • Web Archives
  • Video Background Play Fix

Password autofill from third-party password managers feels wonky to me with the pop-up often not appearing, but that’s also a problem I have with Chrome. If you’re a Bitwarden user, you can mitigate any issues by installing the browser extension and using it to autofill.

I dearly miss pull-to-refresh, a gesture available in almost any other Android app you could think of, but Mozilla is working on adding it. Firefox also hasn’t added a tablet interface to the redesigned app yet, so using the browser on a tablet or on a Chromebook (as an Android app) is an awful experience.

Performance

The new Firefox is based on Mozilla’s rewritten Gecko rendering engine, and it’s much faster than the old app, especially when you activate the strictest tracker blocking level. Even so, it’s still not quite as fast and consistent as Chrome. That’s because Google’s product is the most used browser and everyone optimizes their websites for it. Google itself is particularly guilty of this — the company specifically tunes its websites for its own browser and rendering engine, and on top of that, it distributes an older search UI to Firefox. You can at least get the Chrome-like Search UI with the Google Search Fixer extension, though that won’t solve performance problems due to bad optimization.

Scrolling used to be another weak spot, but it’s gotten much better in recent versions. Compared to Chrome, the scrolling inertia used to feel wonky on Android, with unexpected jumps following small movements. But that’s mostly a thing of the past. Scrolling still isn’t 100% in line with Chrome, but it’s predictable and smooth and no big entry hurdle anymore.

Privacy

Mozilla says that “Firefox products are designed to protect your privacy” and its browser stays true to that motto. Firefox blocks online trackers and invasive ads by default, and you can even enable a strict mode that blocks most third-party cookies and trackers entirely. In Chrome, Google only lets you block third-party cookies optionally and some resource-intense ads, a feature that you still have to enable manually.

The latest version of Firefox (85) introduced further measures that help against so-called supercookies that can track you across websites even when you disable third-party cookies. The browser also lets you delete browsing data on quit, which you can activate in the settings. You can choose which data is supposed to be deleted every time you hit “quit” in the overflow menu.

Unfortunately, Mozilla does collect some usage data by default. You’ll have to turn that off manually in the settings under “Data collection.” There’s “Usage and technical data,” and “marketing data.” You might want to use the F-Droid alternative Fennec based on the same code but without all of the tracking.

If you want to decouple your life from Google a bit, Firefox for Android is a viable alternative. The experience still isn’t as consistently smooth as Chrome, but it’s close enough — and you gain a few features that aren’t available in Google’s mobile browser, like extensions, a reading mode, and advanced privacy protection. So you’ll have to ask yourself what you value in a browser. The easy choice is to use the pre-installed app without needing to set anything else up, and if you don’t care too much about blocking trackers or extra privacy, there’s probably no reason for you to switch. But if you’re interested in what Firefox enables in terms of both features and privacy, it might be worth trying Mozilla’s latest browser iteration in spite of the occasional performance quirk.

You can download Firefox from the Play Store, F-Droid (the Fennec version with the proprietary bits and telemetry removed), or APK Mirror.

Firefox Browser: fast, private & safe web browser
Firefox Browser: fast, private & safe web browser

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