Mozilla Firefox (for iPhone)
Firefox, our Editors’ Choice for Windows Web browsers, has been available on most major computing platforms with one major exception: Apple’s iOS operating system for phones and tablets. Even though (as with all non-Safari browsers on iOS), the new Firefox for iPhone is actually just a shell on top of Safari’s webpage-rendering code, it offers advantages such as syncing and a friendly interface. In general it’s a very well-done first release, though it’s not as polished as the Windows version of Firefox.
The fairly small 40MB download from the iTunes App Store requires iOS 8.2 or later, and it runs on iPhones, iPads (including the new iPad Pro), and iPod touches. It’s available in 41 languages. I installed the browser app on my iPhone 6s. On first run, you’re treated to a five-page tutorial showing its features. After this, you see a sign-in page, but you can cancel out of that if you just want to start browsing. After I signed in, I was greeted by a request to let the app send notifications.
Using Firefox on an iPhone
Tab implementation may be the most important aspect of mobile browser design—how do you easily switch among webpages on that small device? Safari doesn’t use actual tabs in its interface, instead changing the view to a 3D stack when you hit a switcher button. Firefox uses the tried-and-true tab at the top, which looks similar to that of the Android version of Firefox, except you don’t get a settings menu button till you press the tab button and are in tabs view. The downside of having a tab at the top is that it takes up valuable screen space from mobile sites.
Happily, though, when you scroll a page up a little, the tab bar disappears, giving the whole screen over to the site. The tab bar does make it much easier to open a new tab or switch to existing ones than the default Safari browser, which shifts interface gears quite a bit for the same actions.
When you open a new tab, Firefox presents five buttons across the top: Tiles of frequently visited sites, bookmarks, history, cloud-synced tabs from another instance of Firefox you’ve logged into, and a Reader View/Reading List button. That last one is kind of interesting, since most browsers consider Reading List and Reader View as separate features. If you’re on a cluttered page, tapping the button suppresses annoying ads and auto-play videos, but if you’re starting a new tab, it shows pages in your Reading List. You can only add to the Reading List while viewing a page in Reader View. For me, they’re two separate actions, but combining them into a single button on a small mobile screen makes some sense.
After tapping the cloud button, I could see all the tabs open on my PC’s version of Firefox. The history button produced a list of not only sites visited on the iPhone, but also those I’d visited earlier on Firefox on my PC. Bookmarks and tabs can only sync from desktop Firefox to the iOS app, rather than the other way around.
As with Safari, Dolphin Browser, and Mercury Web Browser Pro, you can swipe back and forth through your browsing history with a finger, though Firefox lacks Dolphin’s full gesture support. It also lacks Mercury’s ability to tell websites to send their desktop versions, in case you want to see a full site on the phone rather than the mobile version. Another thing lacking in Firefox for iOS’s interface is any 3D Touch support, which you get with Safari. Of course, that only affects owners of the very latest generation of iPhone.
Firefox supports iOS share sheets so that other apps can send links to the browser, but you can’t set it as the default Web browser that opens when you tap a link from another app, as you’re likely to do from a mail app, for example. But again, that’s on Apple, not Mozilla.
Unlike the desktop version of Firefox, the mobile version only has a single box, because of the limited screen surface, no doubt. This means you don’t get to separate what’s sent to search suggestion providers as you do on the desktop. The mobile browser, however, has a nice way of creating buttons for search suggestions and previous navigations to get you where you want quickly. There are also buttons for your choice of alternative search providers at the bottom of the screen. The box autocompletes addresses you start, giving you another shortcut for getting to the site you want.
The Private Browsing mode in Firefox for iOS is more like the private mode in non-Mozilla desktop: It only prevents browsing history and cookies from being saved during a session. Firefox on the desktop goes a step further by preventing websites from tracking you during a private session. As with most browsers on any platform, you can manually clear history and cookies in Firefox for iOS. Mercury and Safari offer—at extra cost—an ad-blocker, something not yet available in Firefox.
Compatibility and Performance
Since it uses iOS’s underlying page-rendering engines, Firefox had no problem displaying any Web content I threw at it, including video and interactive sites. Sites are used to formatting for iOS devices, and Firefox for iOS enjoys the same well-fitting formatting.
I initially had one performance concern about Firefox for iPhone: Battery consumption. On my iPhone 6s, Firefox accounted for 56 percent of my battery usage after one day, according to the iPhone’s Settings/Battery page. Even when I switched the view to Last 7 Days, Firefox accounted for the second-most battery use, though it had only been installed for two of those seven days. I contacted Mozilla about this concern and they quickly released an update that addressed battery usage by disabling an accessibilty feature until its battery usage is minimized.
Better Browsing for Your iPhone
I was frankly surprised that the very first version of Firefox for iOS could be as polished and feature-complete as it is, aside from the initial battery-usage concern. Sure, it’s not all the way there yet, with more syncing options needed and tracking protection in Private Browsing mode, but an excellent tab design and other tools make it worth setting as your main iPhone Web browser, especially if you use Firefox on the desktop. If you’re interested in trying out other iPhone browsers, check out our Editors’ Choice iOS Web browser, Mercury Web Browser Pro.