Hands on: Firefox 5 review

A brave new world, or just a big new number?

Hands on Firefox 5 review

Do version numbers matter? It appears that they do. With Google's Chrome well into double figures, we'll probably have Chrome 99 by Christmas - and that means Firefox's more sober numbering system runs the risk of making Mozilla's browser look old.

Hence Firefox 5, which doesn't actually have very many new things compared to Firefox 4 and which will shortly be followed by Firefox 6.

Firefox 6 release date is September 2011. What do we get in the meantime?

The big list of what's new in Firefox 5

There's a new button that tells websites not to track you, and Firefox now supports CSS animations.


...that's it.

OK, there's a bit more than that - but it's all underneath the surface. WebGL security has been tightened up, there's been some tweaking to improve JavaScript performance and memory usage, life's much easier for extension developers and there's improved HTML5 standards support.

However, for end users there's very little to see here - and even the CSS animation support appears to be incomplete: when we tested .net magazine's nifty animated 404 page, which uses CSS animation and works just fine in Chrome, it stayed stationary on our iMac.

CSS animation

STUCK: CSS animation means the covers move in Chrome - but they stayed firmly in their place in Firefox

FIrefox 5 user interface

Like its predecessor, the Firefox 5 user interface doesn't quite work on the Mac - it isn't as Apple-y as Safari or as pretty as Chrome, and even applying themes doesn't help much - but it's a lovely thing on Windows.

Whichever version you use, you get the ability to turn open tabs into App Tabs, which keeps key web-based services such as Gmail or Twitter visible without taking up too much space, and you can organise tabs into Tab Groups, which is handy if you're researching something involving multiple topics.

Annoyingly, the only way to save your Tab Groups is by shutting down Firefox; unless you've disabled Firefox's session restore, your groups will be intact when you open the browser again. It'd be much better if you could save groups as you do bookmarks: while you can save a tab group using Firefox's Bookmarks > Bookmark All Tabs option, which only saves the currently selected group. A Save Tab Groups option would be handy here.

As before, Firefox has an address bar and a search box, although if you don't type a URL the address bar takes you to a web search anyway.

Firefox 5 search

EMPTY BOX: Does Firefox really need a separate search box? If it isn't a URL or in your history, the Address Bar searches anyway

The new button that tells websites not to track you

Firefox is the first multi-platform to support the new Do Not Track system, which tells websites not to snoop on you (it's in Safari and Internet Explorer too). It's an online equivalent of the Telephone Preference Service, which stops firms cold-calling you at home: with Do Not Track enabled, your browser tells advertisers and other firms that they shouldn't follow you around the internet or use behavioural targeting when they blast you with ads. The information is sent in the form of an HTTP header every time you request data from the web.

Do Not Track is a good idea, not least because the alternative is having to set opt-out cookies for every online snooper, which would take an eternity. However, as with the Telephone Preference Service, Do Not Track relies on firms playing fair. If a firm decides not to respect Do Not Track requests, there's not much you can do about it.

Do not track

DO NOT TRACK: Well, that was easy: implementing Do Not Track is a matter of clicking on a single tick box

Firefox 5 performance

We ran the trusty SunSpider JavaScript benchmarks on a Sandy Bridge Apple iMac, and Firefox was comfortably ahead: it raced through the benchmarks in 200.4ms, compared to 207.9ms for Chrome 13 and 270.1ms for Safari 5.

Those numbers don't tell the full story, though: the Safari benchmark took ten minutes, with the browser wading through the tests like it was wearing wellies full of treacle, demanding nearly 2GB of RAM and crashing on multiple attempts.

Firefox whizzed through the benchmarks using less than 300MB of RAM, and we haven't seen any signs of catastrophic memory leaks either. That doesn't mean they aren't there, but so far we haven't seen any.

While Firefox isn't a true multi-process browser like Chrome, it does run plug-ins in a separate process, enabling you to kill them if they misbehave without taking all your other tabs down too. That's particularly important on Macs, where Flash has a tendency to fall over.

Firefox 5 extensions

Firefox remains the best browser for tinkerers, control freaks and anybody who wants their browser to be more than a browser. The extraordinary collection of add-ons includes web development tools, scripts to change the way sites behave, tools for various online services and plugins for every imaginable purpose. No other browser comes close.

Firefox 5 addons

POWER UP: Firefox remains the most expandable browser around, with add-ons for every conceivable kind of task

Firefox 5 verdict

Let's be honest: if Mozilla hadn't changed its release numbering system Firefox 5 would have been a point release rather than a whole new version. Most of the improvements are for add-on creators and web developers, and there's not much for end-users to get excited about: if you didn't like Firefox 4 you're not going to like Firefox 5 either. Nevertheless it's one of the fastest browsers around, and no other browser can touch it for sheer expandability.


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