Firefox: Why I Refuse to Upgrade

Everybody knows, newer is better, right? Well, sometimes. Sometimes not so much. Sometimes newer is worse. Sometimes newer is a lot worse.

Recent versions of Mozilla Firefox, for example, have been getting a great deal worse in a wide variety of ways. In this post I will catalog just a few of the most annoying reasons why they are worse, and why I am steadfastly not upgrading.

However, lest anyone think I am entirely negative all the time, I want to start out by spending a couple of paragraphs pointing out a couple of good things.

In the first place, I want to note that I am only talking about this at all because Firefox is my primary browser, the one I use most. Being a web developer and a geek, I experiment with a wide variety of browsers. Firefox is the best of them. When I first started discovering the problems that the rest of this diatribe will talk about, I considered switching to another browser, but the plain and simple fact is that I was unable to find another one that's as good. There isn't another one that's as good. Firefox is the best.

On top of that, the Firefox dev team have been working, trying to make improvements, and a handful of the improvements they've made have been good ones. They've added support for CSS properties that weren't handled before. One of the ones I personally find useful, not just for aesthetic purposes but in some cases for practical reasons, e.g., improving legibility when there's an image in the background, is text-shadow. That's a very worthwhile thing. Even better is the new support for display: inline-block, which makes whole categories of layouts easy to do that were previously, in a word, not. There have also been some performance improvements, which are quite noticeable on older single-core hardware. So I don't want to imply that the Firefox developers haven't been doing anything good. They have.

But they've also been making mistakes lately, some of which are quite serious.



Here's something that's easy to see: recent versions of Firefox can't seem to display certain images (a LOT of the images on the web) without darkening them considerably. Here are a couple of screenshots (one cropped, the other scaled down, but they're not doctored in any other way) showing the same image in Firefox 3.6 and in Gimp. I want to be clear that this is exactly the same image, bit-for-bit. Notice how much darker it looks in Firefox? It's not supposed to be like that.


The same problem shows up in every build starting around version 3.5. Here's a screenshot of Firefox 4.0.1. Again, this is cropped but otherwise undoctored.


How did Firefox 2.0 handle it? Well, let's see here... Oh, look, Firefox 2.0 displays exactly the same thing as Gimp. The latest versions of other browsers, such as Opera and Chrome and even MSIE, do the same thing as Firefox 2. So does every other image display program I have tested. Recent versions of Firefox are the only software I have found to have the odd darkening effect.

Update: Here it is in an alpha build of Firefox 8:

(Yeah, the desktop there looks different. When testing new versions, I use a separate user account, so as not to mess up the profile -- add-ons and configuration and such -- in my regular account. It's easier than dorking around restoring from backups.)

Okay, so that's purely an aesthetic issue. I mean, it's annoying, but it doesn't cause any real material harm. It's not like the images are totally black and impossible to see, or anything. It's just like you're looking at them through really dark glasses. So, no big deal, really. Sure, it's a bug, and they should fix it, but on the balance if that were the only problem I'd upgrade in a heartbeat.

Here's something more serious: all versions of Firefox starting from the 3.0 dev cycle have a serious dataloss bug that shows up if you use bookmarked tabsets. What happens is this: the first time you choose Open all in tabs after upgrading, every single website you already had open in a tab vanishes. You panic and just about keel over from a heart attack on the spot, but once you take a few deep breaths you discover, much to your relief, that the back button does work. You have to go through and hit the back button on every tab, but you're able to recover (at least most of) your tabs. Okay. So, now, how to stop that from EVER happening again? You hunt through the prefs and find the option that controls this disastrous never-should-have-been-implemented new behavior, and you turn it the everliving %#$@! off, and you think you've solved the problem.

But you have not solved the problem by changing the preference. You've just made the problem more subtle, so that each time it happens it can go unnoticed until it's too late to retrieve what was lost. What happens now, each time you click Open all in tabs, is that one of your existing tabs is replaced. If you don't notice this, you make the mistake of hitting close-tab like you normally would when you're done with a page that you've opened, and now you're now short one of the pages that you had open, probably one you weren't done with, possibly something important that you needed to remember to deal with. This happens every single time you click Open all in tabs, until over the course of a few hours or days of regular browser use you eventually figure out what's happening. It took me about three days. I knew I was losing tabs, some of which were kind of important, and I was very much in a lather about it, but I didn't understand out how or why it was happening. Undo Close Tab only showed me pages I didn't need any more, and I couldn't find the ones I'd lost. It was like returning to the bad old days before sessionstore, when a plugin crash or power outage meant things you'd had open were just gone. (Update: this one will be fixed in version 8, but the fact that such a serious bug persisted across no fewer than six releases before finally being eliminated is very telling. Somebody was a little too concerned about dorking with the toolbar layout and just completely forgot about checking to see if there were any dataloss bugs that should be fixed before release -- several times in a row.)

Firefox 3 also crashes significantly more often than Firefox 2. (I don't rightly know how crashy Firefox 4 is or isn't. I haven't used it very much, on account of the fact that it hasn't addressed the above problems.) Firefox 2 never crashes, unless you try to open completely insane numbers of tabs at once. Firefox 3 crashes more than any previously released version of Firefox since clear back when it was called Phoenix.

I haven't even talked about insane new behaviors and UI (*cough* tabs on top *cough*) that can be configured away by changing some settings, because hey, if changing some settings is all I have to do to get things working right, I can handle that. End users might feel differently, but I'm a network administrator. If I can handle tracking down dependencies and compiling things from source, I think I can manage changing a couple of settings. I could write another whole post explaining why e.g. Tabs on Top is stupid and why the arguments in its favor are nonsense (maybe I will write that post later, if I have time), but ultimately it's not important, because I can just turn it off anyway with a pref, so who cares?

But I do want to say one general thing about the UI changes in recent versions: starting with Firefox 3.0, every single UI change, without exception, is something so undesirable that I have difficulty imagining anyone would ever actually want it. Not a single one of them is useful, even potentially. As long as I can turn them all off with preferences I don't really care, but when there are big outstanding bugs, including dataloss bugs, persisting over *multiple* versions (and I'm not talking about a couple of point releases), maybe it's time to stop needlessly fiddling around so much with the UI for a while and concentrate on basic stuff like stability and correctness. IMO, if the Firefox team spent the next entire release cycle just fixing bugs and not introducing any other changes at all, that would be a good thing.

So that's why I'm not upgrading to recent versions of Firefox. I've got 2.0.0.20 both at home and at work now, and I'm sticking with that as my primary browser for the forseeable future.

What would have to happen for me to change my mind? Someone would have to release a browser that's better than Firefox 2.0.0.20. That is all.

6 comments:

*/* said...

Hi have you tried updating your video-card drivers?
now i am using FF8.0a and images are not darker at all (i've used over time ff3.5-8.0 on different machines with winXP/win7/ubuntu and never noticed this bug)

tab group bug is really a stupid one.
but you can either add

eval('PlacesUIUtils._openTabset='+PlacesUIUtils._openTabset.toString().replace(/replaceCurrentTab\);\s*\}/,'false)}'))

to work onLoad, or open all tabs in a new tabgroup (thanks to panorama which is immensly useful)

and new firefox almost never crashes

so if you have new computer (produced in last 5 years) you really must upgrade
new version is much more stable
plus anything you don't like about firefox is easy to change, unlike other browsers

booniffle said...

Heh, I remember when people wouldn't upgrade to Firefox 2 because they felt that Firefox 1.5 was better (in terms of memory utilisation and such).

Jonadab said...

I will look at your Javascript this afternoon; I'm not entirely sure where you propose I should put it, but I will think about that.

The video card driver to the best of my knowledge is one that comes with the X server, and I'd be rather hesitant to install a different version of that than what comes with the distribution I'm using (Debian stable), because, you know, every single application I use was compiled against the version I'm using. As I mentioned, every other browser (Opera, Chromium, Midori, Kazehakase, Epiphany, and of course Firefox 2) works correctly with regard to the issue in question, so unless you know of a *specific* video driver bug that is known to be responsible for these specific symptoms in Firefox 3.6 and not in Firefox 2, I'm pretty sure that the issue is in fact a Firefox bug.

Also, considering the latest Firefox last I checked is 5.0, I'm a little skeptical that you're using an 8.0 alpha. I know they're using ridiculously short-lived major version numbers now (hence, 5.0 being out already), but I somehow doubt there are three major versions in alpha at the same time. If that were so, I would have to revise significantly downward my estimation of the Mozilla organization's remaining level of sanity. Also, if that were so, I would have grave doubts about your stability claims.

Also, regarding stability claims, I am unwilling to accept "almost never crashes". That's not stable, as far as I'm concerned. I demand a higher level of stability than that from my software. If I wanted to use software that "almost never" crashes, I could use Windows. No thanks.

As for my hardware, it's less than six months old and is a quad-core system with 8GB of RAM, so if Firefox can't run on that it's going to have a pretty hard time on a lot of people's computers.

And yes, I'm aware that I "really must" upgrade. The Mozilla people have been telling me that for a long time. Go jump in a lake.

Jonadab said...

booniffle:

On the one hand, 1.5 was a pretty solid release, and the improvements in 2.0 were fairly minimal, so I can see why someone would choose 1.5 over 2.0. I myself would certainly rather use 1.5 than, say, version 4.

The increased memory usage in 2.0 was a result of increased cacheing, IIRC, and the merits of that improvement would depend on your ratio of system memory to bandwidth. At the time, I had 2GB of RAM and only consumer-grade bandwidth, so I didn't mind that change. (Also, I seem to recall that there was, at the time, a hidden preference that could be set to tone down the enhanced cacheing and restore memory usage to something more like the 1.5 levels.)

More to the point, however, is the fact that, as far as I could see, there were no really enormously disruptive bugs in 2.0 that would send me screaming back to an earlier release. I can see why someone might not have been in a hurry to upgrade to 2.0, but I did not find any compelling reason to downgrade from it back to 1.5. There was no glaring dataloss bug that made me want to throw my monitor through a wall and effectively rendered tabbed browsing unusable, for example. There were also no new rendering bugs of any consequence, no enormously pointless disruptive UI changes to violate the spirit and letter of the user's expectations for how a browser should behave and look, no egregious crashes...

In short, I didn't find 2.0 to be objectionable. It met my standards for quality. It didn't contain every single *improvement* I might have hoped for, but it continued to do everything I had relied on in the previous version. It was okay. It is okay. Firefox 2.0 is good enough to use -- good enough, even, to use as my primary everyday browser. It meets with my approval.

I cannot say the same for any of the more recent releases.

For what it's worth, I also cannot say the same thing for any other browser I have seen -- not for any version of IE, Chrome, or Opera. I use them all for minor things, like testing to see how my website looks in them, but they're not good enough to be my regular everyday browser. Firefox 2 *is* good enough. It meets my (admittedly somewhat high) standards of quality. That's why I'll stick with Firefox 2 for now -- until something else comes along that's at least very nearly as good.

Jonadab said...

I have recently become aware that the most egregious issue (bug 440093) has had a patch checked in and will indeed be fixed in version 8 (which, with the rapid dev cycle, is significantly closer than it was back in July; 6 is out already, which puts 7 in beta, and apparently 8 is in alpha already because they now run alpha and beta cycles concurrently).

For the record, the darkened image problem is very manifestly NOT fixed in the 8.0 alpha build that I am using. I shall attach a screenshot demonstrating this fact.

More importantly, however, will be the question of whether the very distressing "let's play around like boys in a sandbox, tearing down what we just built and in its place building whatever springs into our heads, making as many bizarre and completely unnecessary UI changes as possible, as rapidly as possible, so people won't even recognize the browser UI much less know how to use it" mindset calms down a bit. I imagine it surely must, after a few releases.

Here's hoping. Maybe by 2013 or so the Mozilla organization will again produce a browser that I actually want to upgrade to.

Fixit said...

Heck it's only a year later and they're pushing most people to use FFx 15! It seems to work, but the *&^% you have to go through to get it to work correctly, like the pre-4.0 versions is hell. It is actually better on Linux, where Google isn't pushing you to use Chrome so much (75% of Mozilla's funding now comes from Google.) They're trying to "keep up with" the non-competion, Chrome by making stupid UI choices no one wants, and messing up everyones extensions repeatedly every 6 weeks. Software that needs updated every 6 weeks is no good. Show me your "new" version that will last 6 years and I'll be happy, not some crap that you need to upgrade every six weeks because it isn't stable.