Firefox 29: Mozilla’s Biggest Browser Upgrade Since 2011?

By Craig Buckler
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Firefox 29 was released on April 29, 2014. The number may not seem significant, but this is the biggest update since Firefox 4.0 was released in March 2011. That version was beset by speed issues and add-on incompatibilities — has Mozilla learned from their mistakes?…

New Australis Theme

It’s been delayed a few times but the new Firefox theme has arrived.

Firefox 29 theme

Firefox 29 menuAt first glance it looks similar to Chrome with its rounded tabs and hamburger icon, but you’ll soon discover differences.

The main menu is a set of icons similar to the Android version. These can lead to slide-out sub-menus when clicked. However, it’s far more customizable and icons can be moved anywhere — even to the classic menu and toolbars (except the add-on bar which has been scrapped). The only item which cannot be moved is the hamburger itself; a slightly unusual decision given that users have been clicking the top-left menu for three years and may prefer it there.

Individual tabs are separated by a subtle line — only the active tab is given an obvious rounded appearance. I like the concept and it’s easier to locate the tab you’re using. My only criticism is they’re a little too rounded and distinctly different from the square-cornered address and search boxes. Mozilla has resisted the temptation to merge the two boxes like other vendors — I can’t say it bothers me either way.

Firefox 29 customization

Australis has quirks. I’m not yet sure whether it’s an improvement or simply different but the enhanced customization is welcome. If you don’t like it, install the Classic Theme Restorer add-on and you’ll be back to where you started.

Finally, I liked the product tour which appears to interact with the browser interface — I’ll be interested to find out how that was done.

New Firefox Sync

Firefox can synchronize open tabs, browsing history, bookmarks, passwords and form data across desktop and mobile installations. Or it should. I often experienced problems, the pairing process could be cumbersome and it was never as seamless as Chrome.

The synchronization system has been overhauled and you now need a Firefox account with a verified email address and password. (I had to wait half an hour for the verification email so there may be a few teething problems.) Perhaps Mozilla should have adopted third-party accounts from Google, Twitter, or Facebook, but it’s better than before.

The old synchronization will continue to work for some time. To switch, you need to unpair all devices and register for a new synchronization account using Firefox 29.

HTML5 Updates

A few minor improvements have appeared…

  • Support for input type="number".
  • Support for input type="color" (has anyone ever needed this?)

But there’s still no date control on the desktop browser — shame!

CSS Updates

The -moz prefix has finally been dropped from the box-sizing property. I’m not sure why it took so long; almost every responsive layout uses the property and even WebKit dropped the prefix! Other minor updates include:

  • An image type of <gradient> is supported for border-image.
  • Flexbox layouts can now use visibility: collapse.
  • A new will-change property hints when something will animate. It must be enabled in about:config by setting layout.css.will-change.enabled to true.
  • Native CSS variables are available as an experimental technology. To enable them, set layout.css.variables.enabled to true in about:config.

JavaScript Updates

There are several new features for JavaScript developers to drool over:

  • Promises are enabled by default
  • Shared Web Workers have been enabled.
  • The gamepad API has been finalized and enabled. This was supposed to happen in earlier releases but it’s definitely there now.
  • The ECMAScript Internationalization API is supported.
  • Malformed JSON strings parsed by JSON.parse() now return more detailed error messages with line and column numbers.

Developer Tool Updates

The developer tools are evolving rapidly with several stunning new features…

  • The network monitor shows pie charts illustrating the quantity and size of all resources with timings for both empty and primed caches.
  • The console has several display improvements, such as showing arrays inline.
  • CSS3 transform previews are available in the Inspector by hovering over the property.
  • The console API is now available to web workers.
  • The Style Editor supports CSS property auto-completion and source maps.

Miscellaneous Updates

Firefox’s speed is undiminished. It’s been fast on Windows for some time but the Mac version feels better too. Memory management is generally better than other browsers.

As well as the usual security fixes, we have also received:

  • New quick-share buttons on Android.
  • Open Web App integration has been improved on mobile devices.
  • Clicking a Web Notification will switch to the originating tab.
  • Malay localization.

Firefox 29 is the most significant upgrade to any browser for some time. (I’m not counting Opera switching to Blink — that was a new browser rather than an update!)

Not everyone will like the new theme and some add-ons are certain to break — developers should consult Australis and add-on compatibility. That said, I didn’t experience issues and the upgrade was as smooth as previous editions.

I’m not convinced the changes will reverse Mozilla’s slow decline in market share but Firefox 29 remains one of the best browsers you can’t buy. It looks great and offers several unique features. Try it.

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  • Michael B.

    Thanks for the helpful review!

    One small thing: I noticed in the tour that’s there an add-on you can use to restore the add-on bar: I installed it, and it works fine.

  • Mirko

    I’ve been a longtime Firefox user, and I am really sad to see them slowly using their marketshare. As you wrote in the article, I am also not sure if this update will help them regain some of the lost users, but all in all, I am quite happy with the update!

    One of the reasons(besides Firefox update) why I am writing this post, is beause that I am quite lost on how did the Google Chrome get their very nice percentage in the browser wars. I can’t believe that the browser that has such poor font rendering on Windows, could have such marketshare???

    People come to the web to read, after all when you throw out fancy images and effects, only thing left is type.
    And to fail at one such important thing and still be a browser used by millions is just crazy.

    I know that Google added a flag to enable direct write rendering in beta 35, and it looks ok, but what where they waiting all those years?

    Now, only if they can implement smooth scroll, as it is nicely done in Firefox, so that there is no stuttering when scrolling down the page(no add-ons please ;))

    • Roman

      Chrome gets sneaked in onto people’s computers without their knowing by other program’s installation programs.

    • Alex Walker

      My reasons back in 2009 ( I think) were:

      – Launch speed – both tabs and whole browsers
      – Not requiring a restart when installing/uninstalling extensions.
      – Sandboxed tabs – if a site crashed, it kills a tab, not the whole browser.
      – I loved searching from the address bar rather than having a search box.
      – The Chrome extensions store and framework feels much more polished and cohesive.

      I know many of those things aren’t a factor now, but they were enough to move me at the time, and Firefox would have to do similarly impressive things for me to switch again.

      Actually, I do run an Ubuntu system along side my OSX system (with shared Synergy keyboard/mouse) and mainly use Firefox on that box for performance reasons — so it has chance.

  • Chris Emerson

    They removed the button to toggle the bookmarks sidebar, but the sidebar itself is still there – only now accessible via the keyboard shortcut or a multi-click process only. Why on earth would they do that? It makes no sense!

    • `CTRL+B` has always been my go-to for my bookmarks.

    • Yea, I find it interesting that they changed the way the button worked too. I prefer the Bookmark toolbar myself, so it’s not a big deal, but it’s actually even harder to toggle the toolbar if you have the bookmarks button in the toolbar vs in the menu. Good thing I don’t bother toggling often.

  • JoaoReynolds

    I ditched Firefox with the 2011 update and went for chrome. I see them as equal now but it’s not worth moving everything back over. True, @disqus_2hViSJjtld:disqus, Chrome does have horrible text rendering – but I can get past that personally. Craig, just to answer your question, I have used the HTML5 color picker and sometimes a javascript color picker for a few apps. One situation enabled the user to color-code categories they created. The other situation was an app used by High Schools and I needed to enable the user to add a custom color scheme to their site so it matched their school colors.

  • jokeyrhyme

    Memory management is only better in Firefox due to its continued lack of per-tab process isolation.

    • Craig Buckler

      That’s correct, but I’m yet to find it’s a problem or limitation. Chrome and IE can still crash and make other tabs unstable.

      • jokeyrhyme

        There are other issues caused by this. Open the debugger in multiple tabs. Pause in tab A. Pause in tab B. Now try to Unpause in tab A. You can’t.

  • Mozilla was once my favorite, this new upgrade seems really good. But still i prefer chrome over opera and firefox

    • Mike Mx Kowalski

      Who needs that spying crap chrome is.

  • Craig Buckler

    Glad to hear someone’s using a color picker!

  • I use type=”color” very often in experimental projects. With more browsers supporting it, i will surely use it on more projects!

  • Godsend! Thanks for the reference!

  • Christian Z.

    One good reason to use Firefox is because it comes from a non-profit organization. Or people can continue to use Google products exclusively. Also, when I signed up for Sync my verification e-mail came almost immediately.

  • Malachi

    First installed the add-on bar restorer.. then installed the classic theme restorer and got rid of the add-on bar restorer. Now am getting forecastfox back.. however, it does NOT want to stay in the status bar. Every time I restart the browser it’s gone again.. ugh..

  • RichardJWA

    I’ve long been in the habit of working with maximised windows and one of the things that I liked about Firefox was the way that (unlike IE) new windows opened via a link were maximised. Since upgrading to Firefox 29 this no longer happens, all windows opened via links now open unmaximised. Can’t see anything in about:config to control this. Research continues…

  • millzee

    Its absolutely crap! so far behind chrome and as bad a IE now!

  • Carl Miller

    New firefox update is so bad, they have even made the ui look like Chrome tut tut tut. I open chrome and open firefox and I cannot tell which is which now. well played FF!

  • Pump Action Yoghurt Gun

    Tabs have moved above the URL bar. Search and URL boxes have swapped positions for no apparent reason. Buttons are missing. I used Firefox since version 1 and for the first time I’m seriously looking at other options. Why can we not be trusted to have choice in how our browser is laid out. Why have they forced this piece of *#@$ on us. WHY!!!

  • Bobby Ramdin

    text rendering is weird, having now to apply css fixes targeted for FF not just IE and chrome’s weird 1px issue. WT* is going on…………?

  • josh

    They’re updating just to update. Someone at FF *and* at Chrome have a fetish with increasing version numbers even for the most minute change. We changed a color, oh – wait, that will be a version number increase.

    v29 is the fugly “Windows Metro”, the “IOS 7 fugly user interface”….. its a massive failure.

    Just make it stop, please!