Is older better when it comes to Firefox?

At OldVersion.com, one of our most downloaded software titles is Firefox.

With rumors flying around that Firefox could possibly embed video chat in its future versions, it begs the question: are newer versions necessarily better when it comes to this web browser? Do we need Firefox 18.5 with video features and Facebook integration? Isn’t simpler better when it comes to web browsing?

Thus, I decided to embark on an experiential journey to test the progression of version iterations and how it affects system performance. In other words, I wanted to see if Firefox 11.0 runs as well on older computers as older versions do.

I did this on Dell Latitude D830, a fairly old system that has often benefited from running older versions.


Some firefox versions I tested

Metrics:
Deciding whether there’s real improvement from version to version, whether browsing is becoming faster and easier is difficult. Using older software is a subjective experience that is dependent upon many factors: your individual machine, your preferences for browsing, your nostalgia of older software, your blood type, your wife’s or husbands opinion on the matter, etc.

Husband and wife quarreling over Firefox

This is what all my relationships are like

And then there’s the matter of whether a particular version can even be tested. Version 1.5.0.12 is the last Firefox version one could install and run on a Windows 95 system. On the flip side, version 1.0 (including its subsequent patches) is practically unusable on a Windows 7 machine. On my machine, it crashed quite often, was unable to restore tabs after crashing, and fields didn’t save, such as the 5,000 word essay I typed for an NSF Grant of $1 million. :(

So, heed the caveat that most of this article doesn’t exactly follow a strict scientific method. It is, instead, a gentle bubble bath in nostalgia, with a little myth-busting scrub-down.

Some of the metrics used for testing include the Acid3 test for web standards compliance, the JavaScript test from www.speed-battle.com, and Scragz’s page rendering test. I also tested how much memory each browser used with one tab open loading OldVersion.com.

A Brief History:
Wikipedia has a great article on The History of Firefox, which can give you some context on its initial road to release. For the purposes of this article, you can read up on a few Firefox ancestors included in our tests: MozillaSuite 0.9.6, Firefox’s direct ancestor, and Mozilla Phoenix 0.1 (or Firebird), released right before Firefox became the official name for the web browser.

Here’s how all versions of Firefox fared on the same system—-a Dell D830 Latitude laptop running Windows 7 Ultimate, with a 2.2 gHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, and 2 GB of memory.

Graphical Conclusion of Tests:
Here’s the straight, numerical answer to how each version of Firefox fared in our single-computer tests. On memory usage, you’ll notice both the initial improvement and drop-off, a relative spike around version 4.0.1, and some fairly consistent performance ever since version 5, with the exception of version 7.01 which is an interesting anomaly in the usage of RAM.

RAM Usage by Version

On the JavaScript side, it’s a bit more subjective. JavaScript testing is always something of a horsepower challenge—not necessarily a true test of how fast code will execute on a real, live webapp, like Gmail or Facebook. Still, it’s hard not to notice the rocket launch from 3.0 to 3.6, or the seeming drop-off in version 7.01.

JavaScript test for Firefox versions

In pure page-rendering time (which, as a reminder, you would want to get slower, and smaller on the graph), Firefox has a hang up on this machine on version 8.01, seeing most optimal rendering time on version 10.0.2.

Page rendering on Firefox versions

And Firefox has never been a slouch when it comes to supporting web standards, so its fast ascent up the Acid3 ratings scale makes sense.

Acid3 Tests

MozzilaSuite 0.96 20/100
Phoenix 0.1 40/100
Firefox 1.0 37/100
Firefox 2.0 59/100
Firefox 3.0 79/100
Firefox 3.6 99/100
Firefox 4.01 and higher 100/100

Now you’ve seen how these browser perform on the whole, let’s take a look back at what made each of these versions unique (or, in some cases, uniquely irksome).

MozillaSuite 0.9.6 (Nov 21, 2001)
Mozilla Suite Installer

MozillaSuite installed flawlessly on my Windows 7 machine. Although this 2001 web browser doesn’t properly render most modern pages, it does offer some fun crashes from time-to-time.

MozillaSuite Crash

MozillaSuite attempting to load techcrunch.com

It’s no surprise that there’s really no room for MozillaSuite 0.9.6 in the modern web world of HTML5 and WebGL.

Nonetheless, MozillaSuite stands as a pivotal accomplishment of the open-source community. Despite the original intention to improve upon Netscape Navigator’s code, the developers ended up rewriting the code from scratch. Interestingly enough, my first impression of playing with this browser in the modern day was that I was transported back to 1998 and I was using Netscape Navigator before it had CSS support for hover links (and you had to use JavaScript code for onMouseOver(); to get the same effect, which hardly worked as well).

It would be interesting to see how much of the same code was actually used and what parts of it were written from scratch. Feel free to speculate in the comments :) .

Phoenix 0.1: (September 23, 2002)
For a browser released in 2002, it functions “quite well.”

Phoenix 0.1

TechCrunch on Phoenix 0.1

My favorite feature is the big red stop button next to the yellow refresh next to the address bar.
This browser could be considered the first publicly-released version of the Firefox browser series. Sure, it has a different name, its interface is completely different, but at the same time – it’s exactly the same. Yup.

Firefox didn’t know what to call its new browser at the time. They toyed with the name Firebird (or Phoenix) for a bit and released a few versions under the Firebird name, but complaints from the BIOS based browser Firebird started rolling in and they eventually decided to patent the name “Firefox,” which is actually a Red bear.

Looking at the testing, I still don’t quite understand how Phoenix 0.1 manages to perform better on nearly all fronts then Firefox 1.0. Maybe Phoenix is just a more powerful creature.

Firefox 1.0: (Nov 9, 2004)

Firefox 1.0

TechCrunch on Firefox 1.0

After trying to browse the Internet on Firefox 1.0, I ran into a lot of problems browsing popular pages such as Facebook and Gmail. While the basic HTML View on Gmail loaded without a problem, the more modern “Standard View” JavaScript version failed to load. The newest iteration of Facebook failed to play nice with Firefox 1.0; specifically, the notifications globe did not bring down the appropriate tabs. I was impressed with TechCrunch.com, which functioned practically flawlessly on Firefox 1.0.
Another quirk: Firefox 1.0 scored 37/100 on the Acid3 test. Yes, a full 3 points below the Firebird/Phoenix version!

Although this version works on Windows 95, you’d probably be better off downloading 1.5.0.12 since it will render pages at least a little better then this version.

Firefox 2.0: (Oct 2006)

Firefox 2

TechCrunch on Firefox 2

Firefox 2.0 improved loading on newer-technology intensive sites like facebook.com.

I also managed to load Gmail standard view without too many problems (which 1.0 failed to do).

The scope of this blog article won’t get too much into the nitty-gritty specifics of Firefox 2. If you’re a Firefox 2 enthusiast, write for us or check out Wikipedia’s Firefox 2 page.

Firefox 3.0: (June 2008)

Firefox 3

You get it by now..

Firefox 3.0 seemed to work fine for modern web browsing, despite its 79/100 score on the Acid3 test.
After playing with this version of the browser for a little while, I have to say that it’s probably the earliest usable browser for today’s complex web sites. It seemed to handle the ardous tasks of day-to-day browsing fairly well. It was also the first version I tested that loaded kiva.org as it was meant to be displayed. So if you’re joining me for this nostalgia party, go to kiva.org using Firefox 3.00 and lend out a micro-loan to your favorite Russian entrepreneur (I admit I’m a little biased on the country of choice..)

Firefox 3.6.21 (Jan 2010):

This is one of our most downloaded versions of Firefox, and, correspondingly, a lot of our visitors report problems with Firefox 4.01. One of the posts on our blog comments relates:

“I’ve been happy with Firefox until now. I’m using version 4.0.1 and came to this site to get 3.6 back. FF4 has issues with slow, freezing performance. A search of similar complaints confirms others are experiencing the same problems. I didn’t like the new UI anyway.”

One thing to consider is that version 3.6.21 is significantly faster than its 3.00 counterpart. If you’re looking to downgrade to an older version, this is by far one of our most popular ones.
Firefox 3.6.12 received 99/100 on the acid3 test. Just 1 point away from perfect!

Firefox 4.01: (March 2011)
Firefox 4

Firefox 4.* decided to radically redo its interface in Version 4.01. Although it looks fairly minimalist, the statistics for its memory usage proclaim otherwise. Version 4.01 takes 40.5MB of memory to load vs 34.4MB for Version 3.00.

Is the extra memory usage worth it?
Having this new version of Firefox use more memory isn’t necessarily a bad thing. After all, if you have memory to spare – if it’s being utilized efficiently by the program then that’s great. The true metric for how this web browser works is how fast it is for modern web browsing. Firefox 4.01 indeed is a champion in its page renderings when compared to Firefox 3.00. It loads pages sleeker and faster then its counterpart versions on this 5-year old Dell laptop running Windows 7 (32-bit).

More memory, but faster browsing:

Version 4.01 does load pages faster then 3.00 and as a tradeoff it utilizes a bit more of your system resources. If you have an older computer with not so much available RAM, this tradeoff might not make sense because the extra resources may slow down your computer performance overall and then you might not experience this faster page loading.

Additional privacy clearing features:

Firefox 4.01 allows you to segment how you clear your history. If you only want to delete your browsing history for the past hour or two days, you can do that. While previous versions of Firefox had only one “clear cookies/history” feature, this version allows you to pick apart exactly what history you want clear in an easy-to-use interface.

Firefox 4.01 passes the acid3 test with a score of 100/100.

Firefox 5.01: (June 2011)
Firefox 5

Firefox 5 is the first release of the rapid-development cycle that Mozilla now uses, releasing successive, smaller-scope versions a lot quicker than before. A rarity, Firefox 5.01 seems to be more efficient at handling your memory usage than its predecessor. Although the JavaScript test we ran seemed to perform worse on 5.01 then on 4.01, this could have been because of our own machine specifications.

We simply don’t have enough data to proclaim 4.01 the superior version, but this doesn’t stop our visitors from doing so. Indeed, we’ve had over 1,800 visitors downgrade their Firefox browser to 4.01 in the last month alone.

Firefox 6.01: (August 2011)
Firefox 6

Being released only two months after Firefox 5, Firefox 6 is the second release in the rapid-development cycle. Once again, our tests showed that 6.01 seemed to use less RAM to perform the same tasks as 5.01. Furthermore, our performance tests showed it surpassing 5.01 and getting close to the performance of 4.01.

Firefox 7.01: (September 2011)
Firefox 7

One of the changes that Mozilla boasted for Firefox 7 is that it “drastically improves memory handling.” Our tests confirm that it indeed does handle your computer’s available RAM better than the previous versions. Yet its score for the browser speed battle test fell drastically to the previous versions. This is very dependent on your machine – keep in mind, this test was run on a 5-year-old laptop. If you’re running good hardware, version 7.01 of Firefox may perform very well for you.

Firefox 8.01: (November 2011)
Firefox 8 added enhanced support for HTML5 for context menus. Versions 8.01 – 11 were released less than 6 weeks apart each as part of Firefox’s new rapid development cycle. As such, they seem very similar, but tests do show continuous improvements over rendering times with each progressive version. It’s interesting to note that although there were hang-ups with Firefox starting around version 7.01 for this machine, when we start playing around with the most recent versions, performance does seem to increase.

Version 9.01 (December 2011)
Version 9.01 reportedly increased several stability issues. Looked at our page-rendering tests, this page indeed offers the best performance for our testing-machine.

Version 10.0 beta 6 (March 2012)
Interestingly, this rapid-cycle version iteration seems to be working well for Mozilla Firefox. Despite some new versions breaking some add-ons, overall performance of the browser seems to be increasing. One of our Facebook fans, recently posted this on our page:

“Just when I was getting fed up with super slow Firefox 10.something, I find version 11 beta 2 on your website – Thanks it flies.”

As such, it is only fair to come to the conclusion that perhaps older isn’t always better when it comes to Firefox. Despite this, a lot of users with older computers find 3.6.* to work best on their machine.

So we don’t have tests for Firefox 11/12/13 here, but in the comments below, why don’t you tell us what you think of Mozilla’s newest Firefox version?

Alexander Levine is the founder of OldVersion.com. He started the site in 2001 after noticing that the new version of Napster used up all his system resources. You can follow his personal Twitter at @avlevine

7 Comments on "Is older better when it comes to Firefox?"

  1. Andrew Ford says:

    I really enjoyed FF 2. I didn’t mind 1.5 at all, but word was at the time it wasn’t compatible with the OSes that was soon to come out.

    I didn’t get into the FF game until 7… it was ok. Yet, when I did resume use of Firefox, my only purpose was to test websites I created so they can render cross-browser properly.

  2. adumpaul says:

    Nice article.I really love this article.Firefox’s old version was better than new version.

  3. Mike FD says:

    Hi,

    Thanks a heap for this article. For a non-tech end user it provides an excellent perspective of what is “Firefox”. I say this because the help/support side is a bit of a challenge for me.

    I use version 9. I find that with the later versions I can’t get two screens with Firefox operating, which is not a biggy but can be frustrating. I am told this is because a Firefox file does not remove itself from some where so when clicking on the Firefox icon Firefox says “oi! i am already here mate!”
    Thanks again,
    Cheers,
    Mike FD

  4. docster says:

    am still using firefox 3.6.3 cos any newer version does not work with the php buttons on our web site, it seems that after version 3.6.3 the newer versions cant handle tables as well as the older versions, I know that cos av changed a few web pages with less tables and ff 10 works ok, but on the pages with more tables it does not work, something to do with the new php or html, I dunno, but am sticking to firefox 3.6.3 till the tables work with newer versions (if ever)

  5. Kim says:

    Am using FF11 on w2k as flash games on Facebook now require flash 10. I miss FF3.6. Maybe someone could make an emulator for w2k to run xp+ apps.

  6. 2 Bunny says:

    I’ve used Firefox since version 2. I remember being hesitant to upgrade to version 3, but it was fine anyway. After that time, I found myself a new computer and skipped straight to their 64Bit test versions which had high version numbers (it was named “nightly”, and later “minefield”). I was never really happy with it though; being a “brand new test version”, there was minimal compatibility with addons and the horrible new UI (which they ended up keeping).

    I finally broke down this year and downloaded version 3 (the 32Bit one). I thought it was great and it was compatible with all the current addons of the time. When they started finally pushing everyone off of version 3 and onto one of the higher versions (I don’t keep track of version numbers anymore after version 4 because they all seem like a blur, like the same). I hated Firefox 4 right out of the starting gate because of the absolutely Fugly interface. Over time, they even lost the “stop” button. Luckily, somebody published a lifesaver addon called something along the lines of “Firefox 3 theme for Firefox 4+”, and that works amazingly well. I even found a tweak to get the “stop” button back, and I’ve of course moved the tabs back to their correct position underneath the “awesome bar” and the search bar.

    At this point, that’s one of the best ways to run on XP/7. Over the years, they’ve gradually phazed out support for Windows 98, 2000, and early versions of XP (I.E. copies not patched with service pack 3). I’d imagine XP will be supported for years to come, even if MS doesn’t want to. But then again, maybe they will since they’re going all “Win95″ on us with their “all new Windows 8″ crap…

    You never know…

    Best of luck,

    - 2 Bunny

  7. docster says:

    so nearly version 16 and firefox still does not work on the php buttons on my local site, yet version 3.6 works fine, I can click on thew buttons in a table on firefox 3.6 and they work fine but not in any firefox after 4, when will they fix this problem if ever, I know it something to do with the tables, maybe too many nests

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