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Should you use Firefox Mobile or the stock N900 MicroB browser? [A Comparison]

February 5, 2010 in Featured, Mobile Phone Software

Firefox Mobile 1.0? Or MicroB?

There’s a browser war going on, but it’s not the typical IE vs. Firefox series of battles. No, on the N900 it’s Mozilla vs. Mozilla, brother vs. brother, with the stock MicroB browser on one side and the latest Firefox Mobile 1.0 on the other. Which one is better? It’s a tough call, that’s for sure.

I tested both browsers under the same conditions (Home wi-fi connection, clean reboot, empty caches) with my Nokia N900. For the timing tests, I used XNote Timer and took the average of three times.

And now for today’s events…

Startup Time

How long it takes each browser to open and load the default screen, after a clean reboot.

Firefox: 7.06 secs
MicroB: (stock browser) 3.79 secs

Loading Static Web Pages

How long it takes to open up the famous “Nokia Phone Blog” and others.

Firefox
The Nokia Phone Blog: 11.96 secs
Consumerist: 14.17 secs
eBay: 7.56 secs

MicroB
The Nokia Phone Blog: 8.75 secs
Consumerist: 13.47 secs
eBay: 7.09 secs

In addition to loading pages slightly faster than Firefox, MicroB seemed to be more responsive when scrolling around large web pages.

Loading Flash Web Pages

The time necessary to load Macromedia’s official Flash page with embedded video, and a Colbie Caillat YouTube music video – “Begin Again”.

Firefox
Flash.com (redirects to macromedia flash site): 32.42 secs
YouTube video: 12.45 secs

MicroB
Flash.com: 40.05 secs
YouTube video, same as above: 13.17 secs

Firefox definitely seems to handle Flash loading better than MicroB. I’m not quite sure why. When it came to actual videos, however, both browsers sucked pretty equally, with lots of choppiness.

Ease of Use/User Interface

Firefox
Firefox uses a finger-friendly swiping interface mechanic, with tabs on left side, options/bookmarks on the right, and the menu bar on top. Overall it’s quite intuitive, even though you’ll probably open the side menus accidentally at some point when navigating regular web sites.

My problems with the Firefox user interface were fairly minor – for some reason, Firefox tends to display nearly everything in a Times New Roman/Serif-ish type of font. I don’t know why. Nor did I see any options to change it (even in about:config, but I could have missed it). Keypad scrolling is painfully slow, since there’s no kinetic scrolling when using the arrow keys. And there’s definitely a lack of polish when it comes to icons, buttons, and other animations.

MicroB
MicroB interface is simple and clean. I liked being able to zoom in and out of web pages quickly by drawing circles on the screen, but at the same time the whole “mouseover” mode never really felt (or worked) right for me. And why is there no real “back” button? The back arrow goes to the History screen, which means an extra tap + another second or two waiting for the history screen to appear. Considering how much the back button gets used, I’m surprised that Nokia added an intermediate step instead of just emulating normal browser behavior of going back to the previous page immediately.

Bugginess/Stability

How often a browser crashes, or exhibits “unpredictable” behavior.

Firefox
Occasionally quit after opening. I couldn’t really duplicate the problem with much accuracy though.

MicroB
No issues, even when attempting to load bloatware sites like Yahoo! Mail.

Memory Usage

This one was probably the least scientific of all the tests. To measure memory usage, I power-cycled the phone, connected to my wi-fi network, opened up each browser, and went to Facebook.com. I then monitored the memory usage with the top command in X Terminal.

Firefox: 20.0% memory usage
MicroB: 27.9% total memory usage (12.8% browserd + 9.6% browserd + 5.5% browser)

I thought this was kind of interesting, considering that I have previously figured MicroB to be the smaller, leaner of the two when it came to memory footprints (not to mention that Firefox’s reputation with regards to memory usage hasn’t been too solid). However, apparently to decrease browser loading time, the MicroB browser was broken up into a couple different components – more about that here. So while MicroB definitely starts up faster, it also eats up more memory.

Extensions and Add-ons

Firefox
Decent support for extensions. There’s an add-on search and installation is as simple as tapping the “Add to Firefox” button. To get Flash working, however, you’ll need to follow these steps.

One extension of some note is Weave, which allows you to sync your Firefox settings over multiple devices, such as your phone and pc – keeping the same preferences, tabs, bookmarks, and history everywhere. It’s pretty cool to say the least.

MicroB
Bare-bones add-on support. No direct search capabilities, although you can always find extensions with Google. You’re also stuck with the “Nokia Single Sign On For Ovi” plug-in – it can’t be uninstalled. Bleh.

Browser-Exclusive Features

Firefox
Tabbed browsing, extensions search, Weave, customizability.

MicroB
Save webpages/images, find on page.

Conclusion

It’s hard to say with certainty which browser is truly “better”. If you’re looking for the speediest one of the two, the stock MicroB browser is quicker starting up and rendering static (non-Flash) pages. However, Firefox is slightly faster when it comes to Flash intensive pages like YouTube. It’s also more featured than the competition, even though it’s missing simple things like saving web pages and images.

Personally, I find myself using MicroB for the most part, except when I want to take advantage of Firefox’s Weave Sync plugin to view the tabs I currently have open on my pc. MicroB just seems faster, especially when scrolling around.

***

Tags

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steven george
6/28/2010
2:32 am

I do like the Weave functionality with Firefox and the ability to sync with my desktop bookmarks

Andrew Willson
4/17/2010
12:37 pm

I will know try MicroB browser on my mobile phone

Greg
4/4/2010
7:11 pm

The weave extension now works with MicroB, have fun.

David
2/24/2010
4:00 pm

Hi,

I love these awesome features… and yes, it’s hard to choose the best one.

Thanks! It’s clear and detailed :)

Robert
2/12/2010
11:13 am

Hey, great objective review of the browsers, I enjoyed reading it.

Just a quick note, found this out recently through experimentation. Nokia left out a dedicated “back” button on the touch screen – but not on the keyboard. Try pressing the backspace key when not in a text box, it’ll take you directly to the previous page.

Keep up the good articles!

-Rob

Big D
2/8/2010
2:57 pm

The MicroB browser is, IMHO, by far better than the current incarnation of Firefox. It feels faster/cleaner and the controls seem to be easier for me to use (not really digging the hidden header and sidebar controls). I also like the hardware integration allowing for zooming with the volume key, or via gestures.

However, I do like the Weave functionality with Firefox and the ability to sync with my desktop bookmarks, but you can export your bookmarks from Firefox on your PC/Mac and then import them into the MicroB browser (at least gets’em on your device, albeit not nearly as clean a process).

Reply to Andrew Willson


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