Trying Firefox Variants: From Firefox ESR to Pale Moon to Quantum (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Thu, 31 May 2018

Trying Firefox Variants: From Firefox ESR to Pale Moon to Quantum

For the last year or so the Firefox development team has been making life ever harder for users. First they broke all the old extensions that were based on XUL and XBL, so a lot of customizations no longer worked. Then they made PulseAudio mandatory on Linux bug (1345661), so on systems like mine that don't run Pulse, there's no way to get sound in a web page. Forget YouTube or XenoCanto unless you keep another browser around for that purpose.

For those reasons I'd been avoiding the Firefox upgrade, sticking to Debian's firefox-esr ("Extended Support Release"). But when Debian updated firefox-esr to Firefox 56 ESR late last year, performance became unusable. Like half a minute between when you hit Page Down and when the page actually scrolls. It was time to switch browsers.

Pale Moon

I'd been hearing about the Firefox variant Pale Moon. It's a fork of an older Firefox, supposedly with an emphasis on openness and configurability.

I installed the Debian palemoon package. Performance was fine, similar to Firefox before the tragic firefox-56. It was missing a few things -- no built-in PDF viewer or Reader mode -- but I don't use Reader mode that often, and the built-in PDF viewer is an annoyance at least as often as it's a help. (In Firefox it's fairly random about when it kicks in anyway, so I'm never sure whether I'll get the PDF viewer or a Save-as prompt on any given PDF link).

For form and password autofill, for some reason Pale Moon doesn't fill out fields until you type the first letter. For instance, if I had an account with name "myname" and a stored password, when I loaded the page, both fields would be empty, as if there's nothing stored for that page. But typing an 'm' in the username field makes both username and password fields fill in. This isn't something Firefox ever did and I don't particularly like it, but it isn't a major problem.

Then there were some minor irritations, like the fact that profiles were stored in a folder named ~/.moonchild\ productions/ -- super long so it messed up directory listings, and with a space in the middle. PaleMoon was also very insistent about using new tabs for everything, including URLs launched from other programs -- there doesn't seem to be any way to get it to open URLs in the active tab.

I used it as my main browser for several months, and it basically worked. But the irritations started to get to me, and I started considering other options. The final kicker when I saw Pale Moon bug 86, in which, as far as I can tell, someone working on the PaleMoon in OpenBSD tries to use system libraries instead of PaleMoon's patched libraries, and is attacked for it in the bug. Reading the exchange made me want to avoid PaleMoon for two reasons. First, the rudeness: a toxic community that doesn't treat contributors well isn't likely to last long or to have the resources to keep on top of bug and security fixes. Second, the technical question: if Pale Moon's code is so quirky that it can't use standard system libraries and needs a bunch of custom-patched libraries, what does that say about how maintainable it will be in the long term?

Firefox Quantum

Much has been made in the technical press of the latest Firefox, called "Quantum", and its supposed speed. I was a bit dubious of that: it's easy to make your program seem fast after you force everybody into a few years of working with a program that's degraded its performance by an order of magnitude, like Firefox had. After firefox 56, anything would seem fast.

Still, maybe it would at least be fast enough to be usable. But I had trepidations too. What about all those extensions that don't work any more? What about sound not working? Could I live with that?

Debian has no current firefox package, so I downloaded the tarball from mozilla.org, unpacked it, made a new firefox profile and ran it.

Initial startup performance is terrible -- it takes forever to bring up the first window, and I often get a "Firefox seems slow to start up" message at the bottom of the screen, with a link to a page of a bunch of completely irrelevant hints. Still, I typically only start Firefox once a day. Once it's up, performance is a bit laggy but a lot better than firefox-esr 56 was, certainly usable.

I was able to find replacements for most of the really important extensions (the ones that control things like cookies and javascript). But sound, as predicted, didn't work. And there were several other, worse regressions from older Firefox versions.

As it turned out, the only way to make Firefox Quantum usable for me was to build a custom version where I could fix the regressions. To keep articles from being way too long, I'll write about all those issues separately: how to build Firefox, how to fix broken key bindings, and how to fix the PulseAudio problem.

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[ 16:07 May 31, 2018    More tech/web | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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