Firefox Australis: a Brighter Future for the Original Alternate Browser

It’s been quite some time since I’ve used Firefox on a daily basis. It simply hasn’t felt that Macish in a while, especially since Apple gave us the minimal scrollbars and multitouch gestures in Safari with OS X Lion. And if you want the latest apps and extensions, Google Chrome’s the browser with the most action these days. Firefox seemed left to being the default browser on Ubuntu, and not much else.

Yet, Firefox — the descendant of Netscape — was the original alternate browser for most of us back when Microsoft’s Internet Explorer was king of the land. In today’s Webkit-dominated landscape, it’s still the leading alternate that’s paving its own path to rendering the web. It’s hard to want to lose that.

That’s why Australis, the new Firefox redesign that’s coming in Firefox 28, is so exciting. It’s got UI innovations that keep Firefox unique and exciting, along with more OS X integration that ever that make it feel a perfect part of your Mac. And it’s ready to use today if you’re brave enough to rely on nightly alpha releases of a browser.

The Same Old Fox, in a Brand-New Skin

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The first thing new thing you’ll notice in the new Firefox is its redesigned tab bar. Gone is the blocky from current versions of Firefox, along with equally clunky menus. The new tab and menu bar look far more suspiciously close to Chrome than ever before — and yet, they’ve done far better at maintaining a unique a unique feel than I would have imagined. The new tabs are round and bubbly — a design technique that spills over into other parts of the new Firefox – with the animated playfulness when moving them around that feels more like Safari than the relatively stiff-feeling Chrome. And while still ever so slightly thicker than Chrome’s tab/menu bar (which itself is slightly thicker than Safari’s tab bar), the new Firefox UI is far slimmer than it’s ever been before.

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Firefox now, for the first time in forever, feels almost just like a native OS X app, with only a very few lapses. It’s now got the full disappearing scrollbars and smooth, bounce-at-the-end scrolling, but also surprisingly has full Safari-style two-finger swipe to go back and forward with peek previews of the page you’re going back to. A small enhancement, sure, but one that gives it an edge over Chrome on OS X now. There’s still no pinch-to-zoom, but the CMD+ zoom is full-page zoom like you’d expect in Safari and any touch-centric browsers — something Chrome for OS X oddly still doesn’t have. Firefox still relies on its own spell check instead of the default OS X spellcheck, which is unfortunate, but you will at least find 3-finger-tap dictionary support working better than before.

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Then, there’s customization. Firefox used to be the only browser to consider if you wanted great extensions, and it’s still got tons of powerful extensions like DownThemAll that can’t be beat on other browsers. The only problem was that your browser UI would quickly get bloated with all the extra buttons. That’s finally been solved in a rather nice way with Australis’ new customization features. Right-click on the toolbar and select Customize, and the whole UI will shrink a bit to reveal a core canvas underneath the UI, and all of the buttons you can have in your toolbar. You can arrange them as you wish, or move them to the browser menu — an ingenious option that makes it easy to have a minimalist browser experience while still having a ton of extensions. The redesigned menus and popovers look slick, and with the customization options, you’ll likely be opening the menu more often than ever.

Firefox, even with its current UI, still has some features that put the other browsers to shame, from its nice download tool to its incredibly nice web inspector and console. Sadly, though, its selection of more modern extensions like Evernote and Buffer are often dated, more limited versions of their Safari and Chrome counterparts. That’s something we hope will quickly change if the new Australis UI reboots Firefox’ popularity as much as I happen to think it will. There’s still other rough spots — default drop-down menus in websites like WordPress’ admin look like they were ripped out of Windows 95, and it feels rather odd to have an address bar and a search bar in 2013, but overall, Firefox feels more modern than it has in a long time.

An Alpha You Might Want to Run by Default

Running beta — and especially alpha — software is always a risky bet performance-wise, but the current Firefox Nightly’s are slick enough that it’s a risk worth taking. Overall performance in the latest Firefox feels great, and in general usage today as I’ve used Firefox Nightly as my main browser, it’s felt as smooth as you’d expect from a modern browser with sites and web apps. If anything, it feels like it loads pages faster — but that’s tough to pin down, and obviously isn’t fully optimized right now in daily builds so detailed testing is pointless right now. You will notice in OS X Mavericks that your battery meter will say FirefoxNightly is using significant energy, and it does seem a tad CPU-hungry right now, but that’s where the upcoming optimizations will need to come in.

At the very least, the new Firefox right now feels great for normal use, and if you’ve been itching for a new Firefox for Mac experience, I’d recommend trying it out. You can download the Firefox Nightly builds from nightly.firefox.com and install it alongside your normal Firefox install to try it out. If you’re a Firefox fan that’s wished for a more native Mac feel, I happen to bet you’ll be hooked.

Firefox has sure come a long ways from its original version, and it’s nice to finally be excited about the next Firefox again. Here’s to hoping this restarts the neck-to-neck browser competitions that have all but died out over the past year.


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