Firefox pushes ahead on Android with Fennec browser

Built-in Firefox Sync and improved responsiveness get Mozilla's Fennec mobile browser off to a good start.

Even as Mozilla's Firefox recently garnered the No. 2 spot in the worldwide Web browser market overall, the software has taken a step closer to staking its claim on the Android platform as well.

"Fennec"--Mozilla's code name for Firefox mobile--is now available as an alpha version for users of Android and Nokia N900 phones, and it builds upon the pre-alpha release from April with a raft of powerful new features that could make it competitive with Google's native Android browser.

Firefox Sync

First and foremost, Fennec now includes Firefox Sync built-in, giving users seamless access to Awesome Bar browsing history, bookmarks, passwords, form-fill data and open tabs. Also available on the Firefox Home for iPhone app, the cloud-based service stores data on your open tabs, browsing history and bookmarks so that you can access them from both the desktop and your mobile device.

Password protection keeps your information safe. For users with multiple Internet-connected devices, meanwhile, the feature makes it much easier to keep a consistent experience across devices used to access the Web; it also means less repeated searching and retyping of URLs.

Perhaps most important of all, however, is that it smooths the way toward adoption of Firefox on Android devices by desktop users of the browser.

On the desktop, Firefox Sync is currently an add-on for versions 3.5 and 3.6 of the browser, but it will also be built into the forthcoming Firefox 4. Fennec and Firefox 4 are built on the same technology platform, Mozilla says.

'Electrolysis'

A responsiveness-focused addition in this alpha release of Fennec is a new feature called "Electrolysis."

Electrolysis allows the browser interface to run in a separate process from the one rendering Web content, which means it can react much faster to user input while pages are loading or while CPU-intensive JavaScript is running.

Another feature planned for the upcoming beta release will improve performance even more, Mozilla says. Called "Layers," that feature will focus on graphics-intensive actions like scrolling, zooming, animations and video. Mozilla is working to optimize such actions as well using the hardware-accelerated graphics-rendering capabilities increasingly seen in today's mobile devices, it says.

Touch-Friendly UI

Then, too, there's Fennec's support for browser add-ons, a key differentiator that has helped Firefox achieve the success it has on the desktop. You can search for and install add-ons directly to your Android phone or Nokia N900 from the Add-ons Manager, located in the software's browser tools.

The browser's user interface, meanwhile, is distinct in that it keeps the screen relatively uncluttered by placing tabs and tools out of the way, at the very edges of the screen. To access them, you swipe right or left, depending on which you want to use.

A video from Mozilla displays the Fennec alpha version in action.

Android 2.0 or Later

Fennec is now available for download and testing on phones with Android 2.0 or later as well as on the Nokia N900. As with any alpha release, it should be used with caution, since there are known bugs and instabilities.

There's certainly not going to be any shortage of competitors in the mobile browsing arena; among myriad other contenders, for instance is the like-minded Dolphin Browser HD. Nevertheless, like Firefox 4 on the desktop, Fennec looks to be off to a promising start.

Follow Katherine Noyes on Twitter: @Noyesk.

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Katherine Noyes

PC World (US online)
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