Firefox has been playing catch-up ever since Google’s Chrome captured the desktop and mobile markets with its blend of functionality and speed. Now, Mozilla is aiming to leapfrog its competitor with Firefox Quantum, an update to the bones of Firefox that focuses on how browsers will work with future devices. We went hands-on with Quantum, to see if Google has reason to worry.
Octo-men, beavers and more
One of the first things you might notice when you fire up Firefox Quantum is the new logo. It’s livelier than it used to be, a bit more colorful, and a lot more modern, like the browser itself.
Quantum feels like a modern browser should.
This is a slick and modern-looking browser, not the old-school Firefox you might be accustomed to. The new UI and design language even puts Chrome’s brand of minimalism to shame — by comparison, Chrome looks dated.
The new design is the result of behind-the-scenes labors known as the Photon Project, a research initiative dedicated to digging deep into what people expect from their browsers. It worked. Quantum feels like a modern browser should. Tabs are squared, animations are glassy-smooth, and all the settings and preferences are right where they should be.
Thanks to Project Photon, Firefox Quantum feels a bit more intuitive than other browsers. Even if you haven’t used Firefox for years, jumping into Quantum feels just familiar enough that you know where everything is, but different enough that you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised by little design flourishes here and there.
For instance, check out the adorable animal above. The new UI employs cartoon octopoids, and other anthropomorphized animals, of equal or greater cuteness. What other browser can claim that?
You’ll find some quality of life changes here, too. With Pocket fully integrated into the browser, you don’t need to set up an external add-on to save pages to read for later. This feature is one shared by Microsoft Edge, in recent updates. Menus are easier to navigate, and the search bar offers helpful suggestions, without getting in your way or digging deep into your personal data.
A Game of Cores
Web browsing, and its perceived speed, is bottlenecked by three factors — your internet connection, your computer, and your browser. The Mozilla Corporation can’t roll out gigabit fiber to everyone’s doorstep any more than it can buy everyone a new computer every year, but it can make sure Firefox leverages every possible advantage.
To do that, Firefox Quantum is the first web browser that actively taps into the power of your computer’s multi-core processor. Most browsers, like Chrome, aren’t coded with attention to multi-core chips. Given the speed of modern multi-core processors, that’s not much of a hindrance — but it is a hindrance. There’s unused power lying idle.
Firefox Quantum aims to tap into those extra cores by putting them to work. This smart resource allocation means Firefox Quantum is technically the quickest browser on the market, depending on your benchmark.
Beating Chrome on speed tests is great for advertising, but shaving a few milliseconds off of how long it takes to load up Reddit isn’t that important, and Mozilla knows that. They’re playing the long game now, building a browser that will perform great today, yet also scales with the speed of future hardware.
Rather than kicking out a browser that runs better by shutting out all other system processes, Firefox Quantum runs faster by using resources other applications don’t take advantage of. Because of Quantum’s careful allocation of resources, it also typically uses less of your RAM than the competition — this is the resource browsers like Chrome rely on heavily for their speed.
This innovation, paired with the ubiquity of multi-core processors, means Firefox Quantum isn’t just faster today. It’s likely to maintain speed over time, without having to horde your PC’s resources.
Multi-core processors are already common, and as new processors like AMD’s Ryzen show, they’re going to become even more common, and reach even higher core counts, at lower and lower prices. By rebuilding the engine purring away at the heart of Firefox, Mozilla clearly hopes to take advantage of that. What use is a 16-core processor if you’re only using one core for web browsing?
Should you jump aboard the good ship Quantum?
Aside from cute cartoons and a sharp UI, Firefox Quantum is — at its heart — still Firefox. That means you’re never going to have quite the same level of Google integration you get from Chrome, though you can import your Chrome settings and bookmarks flawlessly.
We think Firefox Quantum is worth a look if you’re a little tired of Chrome, Edge, or Safari. Just don’t expect an earth-shattering new browsing experience. The internet is still the internet, no matter which window you use to view it. That said, you should keep an eye on Firefox Quantum — there’s awesome stuff happening at Mozilla.
You’ll be able to grab the full version of Firefox Quantum for free over at the official website as of November 14.
Updated 11-13-17 to reflect latest Firefox Quantum release.
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