Meet Firefox Quantum, the biggest, most exciting update to Firefox since the original 2004 release

The creators of Firefox Quantum described it best when they said that “it’s by far the biggest update we’ve had since we launched Firefox 1.0 in 2004”.

The creators of Firefox Quantum described the new browser best when they said that “it’s by far the biggest update we’ve had since we launched Firefox 1.0 in 2004”. Firefox Quantum, or Firefox 57, is a brand new, superfast version of Firefox that completely overhauls the original browser, and it was finally launched on 14 November.

Mozilla Firefox Quantum

Mozilla Firefox Quantum

As far as the browser wars are concerned, Chrome is king, but that certainly doesn’t mean that Chrome is the best browser. Mozilla Firefox, which was at one time the go-to alternate browser for those who preferred to avoid the dubious joys that Internet Explorer had to offer, lost out to Chrome and even Opera.

The reasons for this are many, but Firefox’s downfall came primarily from a painfully slow rendering engine. A whole slew of security issues later did not help Mozilla’s case any.

Anyway, all of this is in the past, and Mozilla’s brand-new browser has hopefully addressed the more pressing of these concerns and might finally offer up a worthy competitor to Chrome.

Here’s why you should be excited:

A superfast rendering engine

Quantum now comes with a new CSS engine called Quantum CSS or Stylo. Taking parts from another Mozilla experiment, Servo, the update represents a major overhaul of the traditional Firefox rendering engine.

Quantum CSS is only a part of Servo, but is key to the speed that you’ll experience with Quantum.

A visual analogue of what the Quantum CSS engine means for the new browser.

A visual analogue of what the Quantum CSS engine means for the new browser.

A CSS engine essentially processes the data required to render a web page on your screen. Once processed, it pushes the pixels to your screen. Various browsers use various rendering engines. Firefox originally used Gecko, Chrome and Opera use Blink and Safari uses WebKit.

It's a complicated bit of code that is way beyond the scope of this article to explain. Suffice it to say that Quantum CSS is claimed to be twice as fast as the older Firefox browser and competitively fast, if not faster than, browsers like Chrome and Edge.

An important aspect of Quantum CSS is that it’s finally a multi-threaded rendering engine. In other words, the new engine can make better use of your processor than the earlier, single-threaded Firefox engine. Chrome and other browsers already use multi-threaded rendering.

More components from Servo will replace the older bits of Quantum over time.

From our initial testing, we can confirm that the browser is indeed blazing fast.

More efficiency

If there’s one complaint that everyone has against Chrome, it’s that the browser is a serious memory hog. Chrome loves RAM. If you’re using Chrome right now, just fire up Task Manager and see how much RAM Chrome is using at this moment. Chrome will likely have dozens of services running, all of which will be using up RAM.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Chrome’s approach. Opening various tabs into separate processes is good as it compartmentalises the browsing experience. If one tab is acting up, the rest of your experience will be fine.

Mozilla adopted this approach for Quantum as well, but rather than go all out as Chrome does, Quantum limits the number of processes to four. According to Mozilla, this number is perfect and represents most use cases. And given that the number of processes are limited, the impact on system resources is low.

The browser is also designed to intelligently prioritise the process of the tab that you're active in.

If you wish to, you can manually increase the number of process threads by heading to the ‘Options’ menu.

Photon: A whole new design system

Photon is an entirely new design system for Firefox. It’s more flat and modern, which is nice, but one of the biggest changes to Firefox is that Quantum will now scale to high-DPI displays.

The browser features a new Quantum CSS rendering engine as well as a new design system called Photon

The browser features a new Quantum CSS rendering engine as well as a new design system called Photon. Image: Mozilla

There are also a number of subtle tweaks to the UI in general, like a library for organising bookmarks, feeds and screenshots. And speaking of screenshots, the browser now includes an option for taking screenshots of the viewable area of a page or the entire web page.

The browser also integrates with Pocket, a read-it later type service that Mozilla owns.

VR support

As noted by How-To Geek, Quantum supports WebVR and a low-level programming language to better support virtual reality applications built for the web.

Where are my extensions?

Unfortunately, a side-effect of the new browser engine is that older Firefox extensions aren't supported. The browser now supports WebExtensions, which are similar in implementation to those found in Edge or Chrome.

We're not too disappointed by this, however. Browser extensions are still supported and developers have the opportunity to update to the newer format. Yes, some functionality is lost in the move to WebExtensions, but we're getting a much faster browser in exchange. That's worth the loss.

Firefox Quantum is available on Windows, Mac, Linux and on iOS and Android.


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