Fennec's performance impressed us, but Mozilla seems to be dragging its heels on getting it out there. There are a lot of complications when it comes to developing a mobile browser because of the number of different platforms, form factors and operating systems but, with the competition already offering compelling alternatives, Mozilla is going to have to do something special if it wants to attract attention.
Open source; fast page loading; built-in support for Flash; easy navigation.
Limited features in this beta version; long time to market; no intelligent zoom.
Mozilla recently launched a beta version of Fennec, its new mobile web browser. This is still an early version for testing, and is currently available only for the Nokia N810 Internet Tablet. Nokia was kind enough to send one to us so that we could check out Mozilla's long awaited debut into the mobile web browser market.
The initial focus of Fennec development was on building a user experience that reflects Firefox's design principles. Not all the features that are set to be in the final release are available yet, but the majority are ready to go.
It's worth bearing in mind that the N810 doesn't have a SIM card in it and only connects over Wi-Fi, so some of the usual problems with surfing the internet over a mobile data connection aren't going to be reflected here.
Firing up Fennec presents you with a nice clean Google search bar, surrounded by a few logos for Mozilla and Nokia. This looks pretty impressive on the N810's big touch screen, and will be even more appreciated on smaller devices. You can change the default home page if you want but, unlike Firefox 3, the home page is limited to a single site.
A slight change is that the address bar is at the bottom. This might be specific to the N810, but it works well. The address bar also includes all the functionality of Mozilla's 'Awesome Bar' which, although poorly named, searches through history, tags and bookmarks when you begin typing.
Search terms can be entered straight into the address bar, and the closest matching page will automatically be loaded. Combined with the N810's predictive text, you can usually enter the address very quickly.
Like many touch-screen interfaces, the equivalent of a right click is perfor med by touching and holding on the screen for a few seconds to bring up the context-sensitive menu. This allows you to open links in a new window, copy and paste text and so on.
Bookmarks are handled in pretty much the same way as any other browser. Currently bookmark folders are not supported, but this is another feature that's set to be included in the full release version.
According to Mozilla, a lot of work has been done on the front-end code and a number of optimisations to the platform have been made to speed up panning, scrolling and zooming.
Rendering of even fairly complex pages is excellent and very speedy The work that has been done really shows, as navigating around web pages is smooth and easy. It is quick even when loading Flash videos, and playback is generally pretty smooth provided the memory is not already being pushed to the limit.
There are a number of zoom options, depending on what you're most comfortable with, including the ability to fit the width of the page to the view to the window. This can do strange things to the page layout, but in general does help to make it more easily readable on a smaller device.
What it does lack is any kind of intelligent zooming such as in Opera Mobile where double tapping on the screen zooms to the width of the frame tapped in. This is not a big problem on something with the screen size of the N810, but could be an issue on smaller devices. The address and menu bars can be made to disappear from sight when not in use to help maximise the screen space.
Standalone images are automatically resized to fit the screen, but a simple click on the image will show its full resolution.