Firefox OS first impressions: no Android killer, yet

Firefox at Mobile World Congress 2015 Barcelona

Although Firefox OS 2.1 is the latest stable version, our review unit featured Firefox OS 2.0.

It has been a while since we’ve seen a new mobile operating system out in the wild. Back in 2008, Android tepidly crept into view and back then, it wasn’t predicted to become one of the greatest mobile OSes ever crafted. Look at it’s mobile device market share today, and you’d wonder why technology analysts and journalists still have jobs.

So when Mozilla announced Firefox OS and launched the initial version of it then-called “Boot to Gecko” back in 2013, the world didn’t quite prick up its ears. We’re not taking it lightly though.

This month, Alcatel OneTouch brought the first Firefox OS-powered smartphone to South African shores in the form of the Fire E, and with it, we finally get a full, hands-on experience of the world’s newer operating systems. But is it any good?

Initial steps and setup

It should be noted that Firefox OS, from the get go, feels a lot like Ubuntu (if you’ve ever used the desktop version), but this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

You won’t feel unwelcome by Firefox OS’s start up procedure either, and if you’re used to using Mozilla’s Firefox web browser, you’ll recognised the flaming fox splash screen and the Firefox logo accompanying it. It’s surprisingly easy on the eye too, and is a nice departure from the half-eaten fruit and robots we’ve seen previously.

Firefox OS setup screens 1

Geolocation is one of the first settings toggles, which is a tad strange. Time Zone and Location share one screen while the initial screen is the Language option.

Jumping a few steps, Firefox OS does the usual set up routine, asking the user for a prefered language, WiFi settings to call home, Date and Time settings to please the SIM card, Geolocation details for more accurate Google Now-like search abilitie and contact importing from major social networks.

There’s an interesting range of language choices loaded on our Alcatel OneTouch review unit, including the likes of isiZulu, isiXhosa and Kiswahili, and unlike the normal “Country” drop down we see on Android, there’s a pair of “Continent” and “City” drop downs which actually makes it a lot easier to navigate. It’s a nice touch.

Firefox OS setup screens 2

All in all, there are around six steps between switching the phone on initially, and first usage. It’s not overwhelming nor is it too brief.

On the whole, the set up process is all fairly simple, and each screen is legible and concise. There’s nothing that will likely put off any feature phone upgraders or smartphone users.

If you have a Mozilla account, the phone will allow you to login as well, adapting similar cloud back-up methods to the likes of Android and Windows 10. If you jump between Firefox phones, your data can then be reloaded. Additionally, if you use Firefox as a primary web browser, you can access your bookmarks and the like on your device. It’s a feature I don’t necessarily like, but luckily its not as demanding or forward as Google is with Chrome on mobile.

User interface and UX

One thing’s apparent from the get go — it’s beautiful. It’s not quite Material Design, and it’s not quite iOS. It’s definitely a thick chapter taken from the Ubuntu Gnome stylists, and it looks spiffy on mobile. Fonts are crisp and dialogs are clear. Even the icons seem to exhibit an exorbitant degree of polish.

With that said, animations need a fair bit of work. And if Firefox OS is to become one of the star OSes of the future, it needs to be quick on flagship and bottom feeder devices. On the relatively beefy Alcatel OneTouch Fire E, scrolling through menus, and waiting for the OS to respond felt sluggish.

Firefox OS setup screen home messages contacts

The Homescreen is fairly attractive, the Firefox Keyboard is one of the nicest standard keyboards I’ve used (not quite as good as BlackBerry’s though). The Add a Contact dialog is visible to the right.

In more superficial matters, the homescreen will be slightly foreign to the likes of iOS and Android users. Instead of multiple virtual screens, Firefox OS features a vertically scrolling home panel, listing all the apps installed on the device with a Google Now-like search feature at the top. Typing “dogs” into this bracket spits out web pages and apps containing canines which I never really understood the use for, frankly (other than consuming RAM and ruining battery life).

Holding down an app’s icon allows the user to move or delete it, while swiping down from the top of the screen activates the settings and notifications tray. It looks a lot like BlackBerry OS 10.3, and boasts a horizontally scrollable settings ribbon at the bottom. It’s dressed in black, but we’re sure Mozilla will give Firefox OS full theme support in the future.

Firefox OS camera calendar alarm

The Camera app is about as imature as anything we’ve seen in the OS space, but the calendar looks Sunrise-ready. The Clock doesn’t exactly miss anything, and Android users should feel right at home.

What’s also reminiscent of BlackBerry is the side swiping gestures, that is fairly hard to remember actually. Swiping from the left edge of the screen returns the user to the most recently used app, which is normally activated by holding the “block” button on Android. It’s nifty, but I often forgot I could actually do this.

There’s nothing strange about the system tray either, which looks a lot like its Ubuntu third-cousin too.

Speed

As noted before, it really does lack in speed but we’re not sure if the hardware or software is explicitly to blame. With that said, it’s not designed with flagship phones in mind, but it really should whiz around on an Alcatel OneTouch Fire E. I often had to wait for the phone to render certain UI elements, and scrolling through something as simple as the homescreen left me frustrated.

At this point, it was a chore to use this device.

Typing on the keyboard is a wonderful experience though, as the default ‘board is a lot like Huawei’s EMUI implementation (without that idiotic swipe button). The keys are broad, and it, for one, is quick enough to keep up with manic typers.

Firefox OS settings

The settings dialog is fairly long, so four screens was just about enough to capture its length. We have a dedicated “Do Not Track” option as well as a dedicated “Downloads” section.

Apps in general took between a second to five to jolt into life. Firefox, surprisingly, is one of the apps that was quick off the mark — something Windows users never seem to enjoy. And speaking of Firefox, rendering web images is slow as hell, and fonts take even longer. This should be ironed out as the OS matures, but for now, it’s incredibly annoying especially for an HTML5-powered system.

Firefox Marketplace

Here’s an interesting little addition.

While you might be more used to Google Play or Apple’s App Store, Firefox Marketplace is where all the OS’s apps reside. It doesn’t boast the sheer number of apps available on these platforms at the moment, but the likes of SoundCloud, HERE Maps and third party Whatsapp client ConnectA2 are all present and correct.

Firefox OS setup gallery  background apps marketplace

The Gallery app feels a bit thin, the Marketplace (visible in the middle) doesn’t house as many apps as present (it wasn’t working when we snapped the screenshot), but the Opened Programs screen worked really well with it’s large Clear All button and the vertical swipe to close apps.

It’s navigable using the arrows, menus and swipes we’ve come to know in the rest of the OS, and is searchable. This is really an area that Firefox OS should excel (thanks to its HTML 5 nature), but more devices will need to adopt the OS to convince developers that its worth their time. At the moment, there’s not too much to do on Firefox OS.

Closing thoughts

While we barely skimmed the surface  there are positives apparent in Firefox OS’s new, refreshing look at the web-based operating system. While it isn’t polished, nor will it pull users away from the likes of Android or iOS at present, its fairly usable and is definitely a breath of fresh air in terms of UI and market focus.

Will it grow to become one of the world’s premier smartphone operating systems? We really can’t pass judgement just yet, but we also can’t rule it out completely.

What do you think? Have you had a go with Firefox OS before? Let us know what you think in the comments section below.

Feature image: Kārlis Dambrāns via Flickr

Andy Walker
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