Sunday, June 19, 2011

To Firefox, get well soon

For some reason I've had a couple of responses when I've mentioned issues with Firefox 4 on my Twitter feed, but it's not as if it's easy to answer in 140 characters. "Crashes a lot" doesn't really explain why I'm so frustrated with the browser that I'm willing to jump ship to Chromium for a bit.

So, let's address the issues.

First, I'm running Firefox 4 on Ubuntu 11.04, and on Ubuntu 10.10. And also on Windows, although it's not crashing there.

Firefox 4 is exhibiting the following problems:
  1. Regardless of my settings (and I've even gone as far as to start hacking on about:config - but my settings there are ignored), Firefox swallows between 50 and 66% of my memory, regardless of how many tabs are open or what's loaded into them. This is causing my computer to crawl. What do I mean by crawl? Well, even if I don't have anything else running other than Firefox, I frequently get to the point that moving the mouse to get a password dialog when the screen saver is up results in about 30 seconds to one minute of disk activity (presumably swapping) before the password dialog appears.
  2. Firefox frequently crashes. In the worst case, on my 11.04 machine with 2G of RAM (not a huge amount of memory, but twice as much as a Netbook, so there should be nothing wrong with this), it crashes several times a day - and usually does so when I'm not using it - ie I'll go get coffee, go back to my computer, and - wham - the "Firefox has crashed" dialog is up.
  3. Firefox has problems loading Twitter. Frequently I get a blank screen or a bizarre, CSS/JSless screen with everything all over the place and barely any functionality. In order to load it, I have to click on the "Use old Twitter" button (or if I was in "old Twitter", the "Use new Twitter" button.) This happens most often (as in virtually every time) when I try to restore tabs from a crashed session.
  4. When in use, Firefox frequently slows down to a crawl. Trying to switch tab can be an utter pain, as the window goes gray and it doesn't do anything for a while. Worse, when I drop down to a shell and type "top", Firefox doesn't even appear to be doing anything! The CPU is usually almost completely idle at this point, with neither Firefox nor anything else apparently doing anything at all.
I've done everything you'd expect, including deleting my profile under ~/,mozilla/firefox and trying again, without any results. I've disabled plug-ins, I've disabled extensions, I've tried running it in "safe mode", and there's nothing particularly amazing about what's in my tabs either - Twitter, Slashdot, a Wikipedia page or two, some Google search results, that kind of thing. There's nothing particularly memory intensive about the stuff I regularly read - I don't care for watching videos or listening to audio via the browser in general.

Now, to fend of the usual arguments:
  • No, I don't think it's too much to ask for a web browser to use less than, say, half a gig of RAM. I have Chromium loaded right now, with a typical spread of tabs reflecting my usual habits, and it's using... hard to tell, given the shared memory, but it isn't hundreds of megabytes.
  • Nor do I buy the argument that every app can be made faster just by allocating more memory. You actually have to use that memory in a meaningful way. What's actually faster about FF4 anyway? It doesn't feel faster to me, and it certainly isn't faster when it's constantly swapping to disk. Is it faster than Chromium? Clearly not, so what gives?
  • And anyway, it doesn't matter what's ideologically correct: Firefox 4 doesn't work. It's not usable under Ubuntu. It doesn't matter why, the bottom line is it sucks up unheard of amounts of memory, crashes, and when it hasn't crashed yet it just needs to run for a few hours and it starts playing up.
So, for now, I'm temporarily switching to Chromium. I like Firefox, when it works. I really do. I really hope those responsible for making the design decisions that have lead to this browser being what it is today take a good hard look, and ask themselves if this really is the right direction for what would otherwise continue to be the best web browser there is.

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