You’ve probably heard a lot about Firefox 4’s new interface, speed and feature improvements, but many of you have already left it for Chrome. Here’s why Firefox’s newest version is worth another look, even if you’re a diehard Chrome user.
I’ve never been much of a Firefox user myself. I switched between browsers a lot until Chrome came out, after which I used it almost exclusively. It was fast, extensible, available on all platforms, and the more it gained in popularity, the better it became. Sure, it had its quirks, but it was the best I could get at the time. Firefox’s slowness really turned me off, so I never really gave it a chance.
With everyone talking about how great Firefox 4 is, though, I decided to try it out. Chrome was starting to irk me in small ways and if Firefox could hold up on its promise of higher speed, it could actually sway me away from Chrome. A few days after switching, I fell in love and haven’t looked back. If you haven’t looked at Firefox in awhile (or never really used it in the past), here’s why you might want to give it another shot.
It’s Pretty Darn Fast
This was the big one. Firefox’s sluggishness was the main thing keeping me away before, but now that Firefox has added some serious speed increases to its browser, it’s not nearly as painful as it used to be. In fact, it’s not painful at all. It might not be quite as fast as Chrome sometimes, but it’s pretty comparable, putting the two on a more level playing field and making Firefox’s other advantages much more worth switching for.
A Minimal, Fully Customisable Interface
Firefox 4’s new interface adds some nice improvements, like tabs on top, the Firefox menu, and the removal of the status bar. They’ve also gotten rid of or moved some of the more clutter-inducing navigation buttons, like the reload button, which is a welcome change.
The changes weren’t perfectly executed, of course—the Firefox menu isn’t in a great spot, and tabs on top doesn’t actually save you any vertical pixels. However, Firefox’s UI is so customisable that it doesn’t really matter. We’ve already shown you how to move the Firefox menu to a more appropriate location, and use the extra space more efficiently for a Chrome-like tabs-on-top setup.
“But Lifehacker”, I can already hear you Chrome fans saying, “how does making Firefox look like Chrome make it better than Chrome? Isn’t it better to not have to do that work?” While Firefox’s UI isn’t as great as Chrome’s out of the box, what makes Firefox decidedly better is that you can customise it to an insane extent. Once you’ve gotten rid of the things you don’t like, you can add the things you do like. Chrome lets you make one change to the navigation bar: you can add a home button. Beyond that, you’re on your own. Firefox lets you add a full screen button, zoom controls, an RSS button, a bookmarks menu, and a ton more out of the box, and even tell it whether to use small or large icons. Sure, you can do a lot of this in Chrome with extra extensions, but Firefox already has it all there.
Furthermore, Firefox has that handy userChrome.css file that lets you really dig down and tweak every pixel of the interface—literally. We feature tweaks for the userChrome file all the time, here on Lifehacker—like this recent URL preview hack, as well as a trick to make the Firefox button a little less annoyingly neon. And, with all the Firefox users out there, you can pretty much Google anything you want to change about Firefox’s interface and find a CSS tweak.
Don’t forget about the Stylish add-on, either, which lets you tweak not just Firefox’s interface, but the interface of nearly any web site you want, which can be extremely handy.
It certainly isn’t new to Firefox 4, but the about:config page is still one of the best features Firefox has to offer. Just like the userChrome.css file, it lets you tweak a ton of different preferences that aren’t available in the normal preferences menu. Want to preview open tabs when you cycle through them using Ctrl+Tab? There’s an about:config tweak for that. Annoyed that Firefox automatically enters “Work Offline” mode when you disconnect? There’s a tweak for that too. There are also tweaks for making spellcheck stand out more, making it ask to save your tabs when you quit, and save memory by waiting to load tabs until you click on them. Sure, Chrome has that neat about:flags page, and it is a bit easier to use—but it doesn’t give you anywhere near the power Firefox’s about:config page does. In the end, both userChrome.css and about:config are all about customisation. Firefox gives you a level of customisation that is just unparalleled in other browsers.
You Can Actually Sync Custom Search Engines
This seems like a small thing, but is actually a huge deal to anyone that uses custom search engines. I use them for every search engine I frequent, whether it’s searching for old posts on Lifehacker, videos on YouTube, or even for guitar tabs on Ultimate-Guitar.com. Not only that, but you can use them to perform nearly any task right from your browser’s address bar, like add an event to your calendar, a task to your to-do list, find directions with Google Maps, and a ton more.
They’ve become such an integral part of my browsing that it’s infuriating that I can’t sync them between Chrome installations—as soon as I pick up one of my other computers or boot into one of my other partitions, I have to create them all over again. Since Firefox actually integrates these into your bookmarks, they sync right along with your bookmarks, whether you’re using Firefox Sync or something like Xmarks. It’s a feature that Chrome is severely lacking, and that Firefox has had all along.
Very strangely, Android users can sync better with Firefox than they can with Chrome—they just need Firefox Mobile. Firefox Mobile syncs with Firefox on your desktop better than Android’s browser ever synced with Chrome. You can sync your bookmarks, history, passwords, form data, and open tabs between the two, so when it’s time to leave your computer and browse on your phone, you can start your session right back up. Chrome only has one-way link sharing with Chrome to Phone, after which you’d need to seek out a bunch of other add-ons to even come close to the same syncability. If you browse on your phone, Firefox makes it easier than ever.
This is something you may not run into often, but it was one of the first things that made me want to leave Chrome. Chrome doesn’t seem to handle SSL certificates in nearly the polished way Firefox does. If you visit a secure page that isn’t trusted, Firefox will let you add an exception with the click of a button. Chrome is much more hard-headed about this, which is annoying when you know the page is trustworthy. In fact, sometimes Chrome won’t even give you the option of going through to the page—it’ll just throw you an error. A browser isn’t very useful when it doesn’t let you access sites you need regularly.
None of this is to say that Firefox is perfect, of course. It doesn’t have quite the “smoothness” that Chrome does, and if you leave it open for more than a day, it’ll steal more of your memory than a bottle of José Cuervo, but overall Firefox’s stability and customisability have won me over. If you’ve given Firefox 4 a try and have any thoughts on the matter—whether you agree or disagree—be sure to share them in the comments below.