Living on Firefox Pt. 3: Trying to Tame the Fox

Opening Firefox’s sidebar.

So it’s been roughly five days of living in Firefox. I installed and synced the browser successfully across my two laptops, tablet and phone and was ready to get to work. During the last two days, I went about using Firefox for my daily needs: email, writing google docs, content management for a website with WordPress, note taking and more.

I can’t report that everything went well. But I’ll start with what did go right. And I’m going to focus on the desktop experience. I’ll save mobile Firefox for the next post.

There was a time, maybe one to two years ago, when Firefox seemed ridiculously slow and bloated next to Chrome. It was a chore to launch and browse. The feeling with Chrome was just much better — page handling was more responsive, the interface, with it’s uni-bar was a welcome departure.

Today, Firefox 14 doesn’t suffer from the same lag gap. Firing up Firefox, browsing and using web apps is every bit as crisp and easy as Chrome. Pages load quickly. There was little I ran into that didn’t work in Chrome, from menu bars and forms to page rendering, etc. It was every bit as good at handling the main Google web applications I use constantly: mail, docs, calendar and Google+. It’s good at remembering your passwords and has very easy to use preferences and extensions. Firefox just works..

From a pure browsing standpoint, Firefox is every bit as good a desktop browser as Chrome. However, when you start to look at both browsers’ user interface and compare the experience of navigation of bookmarks, tabs and extensions, Firefox falls behind.

The curiously bad Firefox Speed dial. It’s always blank and impossible to customize.

To begin, Firefox’s new speed dial for a new tab has a bug that I can’t seem to solve. No matter how I direct it to handle its cache in preferences, the speed dial always features nine, large and very empty windows representing my most visited sites. Those items are also frustratingly un-editable making the new tab window nearly useless. It’s way behind both Chrome and Opera as a tool for easy navigation. It’s actually behind Midori, a lightweight browser available for Linux that I’ve used in the past. That this works so poorly puzzles me. I’d have waited until it worked well before I shipped it.

Second, Instead of Chrome’s application pages, that are pretty handy for pinning often-used pages and web applications, Firefox relies on a side bar, executable by Ctrl + B. Here, again, I think Firefox misses on UI. Opera uses the same feature, but makes the sidebar easily accessible with an icon at the bottom right corner of the window. The same would be great for Firefox. I don’t mind key bindings, but an option with the mouse would be really nice.

To add to this, it’s easy to also toggle the Bookmark bar. Here, Chrome takes advantage of a setting that hides the bookmark bar and displays it only on the new tabs page. This makes the new tab page a great way to launch pages in Chrome. It’s a quick means of navigation that’s sorely lacking in Firefox.

Also, tabs. Tab shuffling in Chrome is fluid. Firefox allows you to move tabs, and even to pull one off to create a new window, but it’s not nearly as fluid as Chrome.

Finally, my last bad experience comes with a tip: When installing a Firefox extension, it helps to read the reviews. In my setup haste, I added a note taking app extension that I’ve used in Chrome a long time: Quick Note by Diigo. I was happy to have it and it quickly retrieved all the notes I’d taken in Chrome and synced. However, what I didn’t realize was that a new note I took, a transcription of a 20-minute interview, would evaporate. If I had read the dozens of one-star reviews, I would have avoided it altogether. This is not Mozilla’s fault at all. It’s mine for not reading reviews and Diigo’s for not updating their extension.

The competition: From a UI perspective, Chrome runs rings around Firefox.

As Nice as Firefox is in many bedrock ways — it’s a solid and speedy browser — It’s lack of a good UI compared to Chrome is discouraging. There are developments around the corner, including the application marketplace, which might give rise to a starting point that’s much better than today’s speed dial.

While these things don’t make Firefox bad, they certainly aren’t going to help anyone who gets comfy in Chrome make a switch. Firefox is clearly behind here in a lot of ways. And I’m left wondering if it’s not behind Opera as well.

If anyone knows fixes for my above experiences, I’d love to hear them in comments. I’d love to make Firefox more usable for me.

Living on Firefox Pt. 3: Trying to Tame the Fox
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