Firefox multi-process support delivers serious speed but lags on Facebook

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Image: Jack Wallen

Mozilla has been doing everything it can to return to form. Over the past few years, the Firefox browser has gone from King to Jester and struggled to gain much ground. However, the last few releases have offered some promise that the open source browser could be returning to its glory days. And with iteration 54, released June 13, that glory can been witnessed first hand. However, there is one major issue that could very well pull that browser back to the bottom of the heap, even before it gets a chance to spy the view from the top again.

Before we discuss the problem, let's talk about what the latest release brings to the table.

Multi-process support

Any discussion of Firefox 54 has to begin and end with multi-process support, otherwise known as the Electrolysis Project. The goal for Electrolysis was to end the era of Firefox running entirely under a single process and split each tab off onto its own, separate, process. Adding multi-process promised a number of improvements, most important were improvements in both performance and stability. These were two areas which Firefox had fallen desperately behind. The open source browser had grown doggedly slow and was prone to freezes and crashes.

More about Open Source

Back with Firefox 48, Mozilla enabled multi-process support for a scant 1% of users. I was lucky enough to see the direct improvement this new sub-system created for the browser and had high hopes it would give the Firefox browser a direct line of sight for serious increases in its user base. Unfortunately the official rollout took two full iterations for multi-process support to make its way into the full release. And we know what happens in the tech industry — out of sight, out of mind.

However, multi-process support is here and I can tell you that the speed increase in Firefox is seriously noticeable; almost shockingly so. In fact, for the first time in years, Firefox renders many pages faster than Chrome. That, my friends, is an accomplishment. This is achieved by Firefox using multiple processes to run webpage content across all open tabs. Out of the box, this option is set to one process; however, users can increase the number of processes to be used for tabs. To do this, follow these steps:

  1. Open Firefox 54 and type about:config in the address
  2. Hit Enter on your keyboard
  3. Confirm you will be careful (if the warning appears)
  4. Search for dom.ipc.processCount
  5. Double-click on dom.ipc.processCount and change its value to the desired amount
  6. Restart Firefox

Once you've made the change (and restarted Firefox), you should notice a serious increase in speed, especially when you have numerous tabs open.

That darned caveat

No matter what you do with multi-process support, no matter how stable and reliable your browser is, if it cannot handle Facebook, you're going to have some serious trouble gaining ground with consumers.

I understand this particular problem has little to no bearing on the world of business; but it's almost impossible to deny the power and sway of Facebook. There are two problems with the world's largest social network running on the Firefox browser. The first is that, regardless of platform, Facebook can be dreadfully slow on Firefox (so much so that it can become a challenge to use). The second issue only affects the Linux platform and can be best explained with an image (Figure A).

Figure A

Figure A

Figure A

A picture says it all.

Let me get this straight: According to Facebook, I must update Firefox to a release that has yet to be made available, in order to get the best experience? Future Firefox? Thing is, the Facebook experience I am getting in Firefox on Linux could hardly be considered an experience. Messenger doesn't work, the right sidebar randomly disappears, and sometimes only half the page will render. I will say, however, when the page does render on the Linux platform, it does so faster than Faster than on Windows.

This issue may seem like a non-starter for business, but for Firefox, it's huge. With Facebook closing in on 2 billion users, that's a massive amount of users to have turn away from Firefox. And no matter how many processes Firefox hands over to content, no matter how fast it renders the majority of pages, if it can't work with Facebook (at least for the moment), it will not succeed.

Of course, the onus on this issue could be on Facebook. At the moment it's hard to tell; but if you do a quick search for issues with Facebook and Firefox, the results are telling. This is a problem Firefox must focus a considerable amount of effort on, otherwise 2 billion users will inaccessible to the open source browser.

The conclusion

If you're not a regular visitor within the realm of Facebook, I highly recommend you give Firefox 54 a go; the speed and reliability increase will seriously impress even the staunchest naysayer. If, however, you are a regular user of Facebook, chances are Firefox will be more frustrating than anything, amazing speed notwithstanding. Had it not been for the Facebook problem, I would gladly say 54 is Mozilla's lucky number and the latest release was the absolute best Firefox I've ever used.

Unfortunately, there is always a "however".

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