Hands on with Firefox Mobile for the Nokia N900

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Thanks to Mozilla we got our hands on a Nokia N900 for a few weeks and had the opportunity to give its new Firefox Mobile browser a thorough test drive. Firefox Mobile has a long development history that started in late 2008 when Mozilla announced its very early alpha browser first for the Maemo platform and then for the Windows Mobile platform. While the Windows Mobile version may have been abandoned, the Maemo version just came out of beta earlier this year and is still going strong. Despite its enthusiasm, Firefox Mobile is entering a very crowded mobile browser field that is dominated by Opera Mobile, Opera Mini and the built-in WebKit browsers found on the iPhone, Android, and WebOS handsets. With most smartphone platforms now rocking very capable browsers, how does Firefox Mobile stand up to the competition? Hit the jump to find out.

Firefox Mobile distinguishes itself from its competition with three different features that are designed to enhance the mobile browsing experience. These features include the Awesome bar, Extensions, and Weave Sync, and together these three features will form the crux of this review.

awesome-bar

Awesome Bar

In Firefox Mobile, Mozilla attempts to capture some of the core functionality of the desktop version of Firefox and tries to bring those qualities to the mobile browser. The Awesome Bar, shown above, is one such example of this cross-over technology. On the mobile device, the Awesome Bar functions in a manner similar to the desktop client by providing URL entry assistance. Start typing your URL and Firefox will complete your entry by scanning through your browser history and searching your bookmarked and tagged websites.

As many users of Firefox on the desktop know, the desktop version of the Awesome Bar can sometimes be more of a hindrance than a help when it tries to enter a URL on your behalf. On the mobile device, though, it is a welcome feature that makes entering long URLs drop dead easy. By the time you have reached the third or fourth letter past the “www”, Firefox Mobile has a list of potential website addresses that closely match your entry. You don’t have to hunt and peck for letters or search for the “.com” button when you use this feature on Firefox Mobile.

Though the Awesome Bar does perform awesomely, it is not a feature that is unique to Firefox Mobile. Other mobile browsers offer similar functionality and pull up a list of previously visited websites while you are typing in a URL.

firefox-mobile-add-ons

Extensions/Add-Ons

Just like the desktop version of Firefox, Firefox Mobile also offers support for add-ons which can be an easy way to add extra functionality to your mobile browser. Though there are not as many extensions for the mobile version of Firefox, the ones that are available are especially suited for the mobile browser. You can add in a mobile extension that allows you to post to Twitter directly from the URL bar, an extension that enables in-browser YouTube videos, a URL fixer add-on that automatically fixes URL typing errors, and even the ever popular Adblock Plus.

Extensions can be added by visiting Firefox’s Add-On web page which when viewed on the N900 will take you directly to the mobile section of Mozilla’s website. Extensions can also be added by accessing the settings menu and navigating to the add-ons menu (shown above) where you can view and configure installed extensions and search for new extensions. Extensions are added via a simple one-click method which will automatically download and install the add-on, just like you would in the desktop browser.

Extensions were well integrated into the mobile browser and we saw no deleterious effect from running, on average, four extensions at a time. The browser remained stable and performed smoothly even with multiple extensions running simultaneously. Being able to add and remove functionality via add-ons is a definite advantage for Firefox Mobile and one that is not currently available on any other mobile platform.

weave sync desktop


Weave Sync

One of the add-ons that Mozilla pimps is its Weave Sync, which allows you to sync important browser information between your desktop PCs and your mobile device. Weave Sync requires you to install the add-on to your desktop version of Firefox (as shown above) and the mobile browser on the N900. Once the add-on is installed, you will have to create a Weave account and add your login credentials to both the desktop and mobile browser. In the next step, you setup a syncing schedule and you are ready to start syncing your tabs, passwords, history and bookmarks between your desktop and mobile device.

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Weave Sync worked well as long as you remember the one golden rule, “Make sure you don’t have 20 tabs open when you sync”. Weave Sync quickly and easily synced open tabs from one client to the other, a feature which is useful when you switch between multiple platforms several times a day. The only time that we ran into a problem was when we accidentally synced a desktop client that had about 20-30 open tabs with the mobile browser. Though Firefox Mobile did not crash, it did slow to a crawl until we were able to exit from the Weave Sync interface and re-sync with a more reasonable number of open tabs. Overall, Weave Sync is an excellent addition to the browser. Being able to access your browser history, passwords, and bookmarks on multiple devices is a feature that we used over and over again.

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Web Page Rendering

As seen from the screenshot above and the one below, Firefox Mobile does an excellent job of rendering full websites and formatting them for a mobile device. Because Firefox 3.6 is the underlying engine for Firefox Mobile, websites will serve up the full version of their website. No dumbed-down mobile versions for users of this browser. Even BGR’s website, which is pulled up as a mobile-formatted site on the iPhone and the DROID, rendered out in its full glory in Firefox Mobile. You can see a little issue with the layout of the page, but all in all, things look great on here.

firefox-mobile-bgr-post

Lest you think we are biased, we also loaded up Amazon (see below) and the New York Times (also below) as a comparison and to show that Firefox Mobile can render even complex content accurately on a mobile device. These beautiful renderings do come with a drawback as Firefox Mobile was a bit on the slow side. The initial content on the pages loaded up quickly but it took a good 15-20 seconds to render the entire content on a complex web page. As expected, mobile websites and simple websites like google.com loaded up in the blink of an eye, but these bigger sites caused Firefox to hiccup ever so slightly. An impatient man who does not let the page finish loading before scrolling downward will be greeted with those unsightly grey and white check boxes.

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firefox-mobile-nyt

 

UI and Overall Impressions

The browser interface was well thought out with the navigational elements of the browser hidden on both the left and right side of the screen. If you swipe from left to right, a left sidebar pops out that lets you open a new tab, displays all open tabs, and provides access to the tabs that are synced to your desktop via Weave. If you swipe from right to left, you will see a right hand navigational bar (as shown below) that allows you to quickly add the current page as a bookmark, navigate forward and backward, and access the browser settings. All in all, Firefox Mobile has a nice layout that allows you to maximize screen real estate and call up the navigational elements only when needed.

firefox-mobile-right-nav-bar

When viewing web content on the screen, a double-tap will zoom in and a second double-tap will zoom out. Zooming in and out was smooth but inconsistent at times with double-taps not being registered by the device. Some of this could be attributed to the resistive screen of the N900 which was not as responsive as a capacitive screen or even as responsive as some resistive screens that we have used in the past. In addition to having some issues zooming in and out of a web page, link selection at times was also difficult. When reading forums for example, the tiny navigation controls that allow you to move from page to page were often difficult to select. Sometimes I was able to zoom in on the controls, other times not and when I finally tried to select a link, I often jumped two or three pages ahead instead of one.

In all fairness, double-tapping is not the only means for zooming. Firefox Mobile allows you to use the Ctrl-up and Ctrl-down buttons but using buttons instead of your finger seems counter-intuitive. The same applies to using a stylus. Though one is included with the N900, it just seems so 90’s to use one with a device that is supposedly at the cutting edge of mobile technology.

Despite these nuances, the overall browsing experience was pleasurable. We would recommend Firefox Mobile as a browser for those power users who want the capability of a desktop browser on a mobile device. You may have to compromise some speed, but if you live or die by the extensions that you can install, and dream about syncing your device with every desktop that you own, then Firefox Mobile may be the browser for you. Currently, Firefox Mobile is only available on the Maemo 5-powered Nokia N900. Our experience with the device was mixed and although we really enjoyed it, we’d be hard pressed to buy one just to use Firefox Mobile.  If you have other uses for the N900, then you could probably justify it, but if you can wait until the end of the year, Mozilla is developing an Android version of Firefox Mobile which, at this point in time, promises to be much more interesting than its Maemo counterpart.

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