I’ve been running an experiment recently. The goal of the experiment was to see how Firefox stacked up against Chrome. Before this I never really used Firefox for any stretch of time, I’ve always been a Chrome user.
I decided to switch to Firefox as an experiment because I felt more and more uneasy about the amount of influence Google’s products had in my life. I use Gmail, Google Maps and YouTube daily and while I’ve switched over to Startpage as my search engine, I’ve gone with them instead of DuckDuckGo because Startpage practically gives you Google’s results.
By switching to Firefox I wanted to move away from Google’s perhaps most influental product. I also wanted to give a bit less information about myself to Google and leaving Chrome behind seemed like a good way to do that.
First and second impressions
Right after getting set up with Firefox what struck me was how good it was. Right off the bat I couldn’t see any major differences or drawbacks. There was a mobile browser with cross-device sync, modern pages loaded fast, scrolling was decent, it had pretty good theming and overall Firefox didn’t seem that much different from Chrome.
After I made the switch it actually even felt more comfortable. I use Chrome for work so it was kind of neat to have a separate browser I could use in my free time. It felt a bit like getting home and changing from workboots into a pair of slippers: I’m done with work today, let me switch over to Firefox now.
For about two months I used Firefox without giving it a second thought. I did notice some sites being slightly slower to load, caching didn’t seem that smart and it was a bit more likely to get bogged down with a more resource heavy page and drag the CPU with it than I would have liked, but overall Firefox felt like a proper, modern browser on par with Chrome.
I didn’t hit any major roadblocks until the YouTube design change.
YouTube and a new laptop
The recent YouTube design change came at about the time when I was switching over from a Macbook Pro to a Dell XPS 13. I got a bit bored with how closed down and tough to manage macOS was plus I started seeing some troubling performance issues on the Macbook so it was time for me to come home and be a full time Linux user again. On the Macbook I already saw some glitches with Firefox, which mostly seemed like rendering issues but I chalked it up to the Macbook being a bit long in the tooth anyway.
I decided to go all out with the Dell and went for the i7 model with the QHD screen. This gives me a pretty great laptop but battery life does suffer, so I’ve been looking out for ways to optimize for low CPU use.
During the past few days (esentially since the YouTube design switch) I’ve been seeing Firefox struggle with the new Youtube interface, sometimes not being able to load videos and consistently loading the video first, and then taking sometimes several seconds to load everything else around it. This started to draw my attention to other pages that had similar issues in Firefox, just less pronounced.
Along with the visual issues and Firefox often taking quite a bit of time to even start loading pages that other times load instantly I’ve also started to see pretty strong CPU use. Having just one tab open with a YouTube video playing in it often ran my system up to loads of over 3 and never below 2. Comparing this to viewing the same video in Chrome I get loads between 1.50 and 2.
I’m singling out YouTube here as that’s the biggest culprit, but other media heavy sites ran my CPU up to similar levels.
Besides the video issues what puzzled me most was the seeming caching issues. Pages that I visit many times a day (like my favorite news sites or reddit’s home page) sometimes loaded very quickly and other times, often within minutes of the last load and without Firefox closing in between, took many seconds to even start rendering, as if I was loading them for the first time on a shaky connection.
Being on a fairly powerful system (at least for an ultrabook) these issues started to really bug me along with the extra heat, fan spinning and battery life sacrifices that accompanied them.
The switch back
After lots of pondering and equal amounts of fan noise I decided I’ll go back to Chrome as my main browser, at least for now. I feel like I’m giving up on a more free and more independent tool, but at the end of the day that’s all it is: a tool. If it’s making it harder for me to browse the web or it eats up my battery, it’s not serving it’s purpose well.
I’d love to see Firefox come out on top and keep going strong as a viable modern browser because I believe we need much more competition for the likes of Google. We’re heading in a direction of more and more centralization with a near monopoly in desktop operating systems, in mobile operating systems, in web search and more and more in browsing as well. Google is showing with Chrome that a great browser is possible and countless rapidly evolving Linux distributions are showing that a great FOSS product is possible that can often beat the proprietary alternatives in many categories. I hope Firefox finds a way to combine the two and show that a great FOSS browser is possible as well.
I’m not going far from Firefox and I hope to see great developments in the coming months and years.