Testing Waterfox, a Firefox alternative

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Article from Issue 237/2020
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Waterfox, a fork of the Mozilla Firefox browser, is designed for greater speed and privacy, as well as compatibility with older add-ons. We consider two versions of the Waterfox browser and what they have to offer.

Mozilla's Firefox web browser has been massively popular in the past. Although for a long time the browser was one of the most frequently used web navigators, Google's Chrome browser and its open source counterpart Chromium have now outpaced it – not least because of faster response times.

Firefox also lost some of its popularity because of changes to the browser. The integration of services such as Pocket, interface changes, and the fact that telemetry data are collected have left many users concerned about their privacy and feeling restricted in terms of usage options. Also consider that for many privacy-conscious users, Chrome or Chromium are not an alternative because of the integration of many Google services with these browsers.

All of this makes Waterfox an interesting alternative. Waterfox is a fork of the Mozilla browser that claims to have removed all unnecessary elements from the software, especially unnecessary data collection [1]. Waterfox also lets you continue using NPAPI plugins that Firefox has not supported for a long time.

Getting Started

Two versions of Waterfox are available for download from the project website, Waterfox Current and Waterfox Classic. While the Current version implements new technologies and is therefore more suitable for fans of bleeding edge software, the Classic version uses older browser technologies, including support for NPAPI plugins.

Another difference between the two versions is that the project actively develops the Current version, while the Classic browser is only given regular updates to fix bugs and plug vulnerabilities.

Both variants are available as tarballs for 64-bit architectures. They weigh in at around 58MB (Current) and 88MB (Classic). The hardware environment the developers say you need is 512MB RAM, 200MB free space on disk, and a processor with SSE3 capabilities. These SSE3 extensions are offered by almost all full-fledged Intel and AMD processors for desktop and mobile computers from Pentium 4 upward. In addition, the software requires at least version 2.28 of the GLib library.

First unpack the archive. You can move the ~/waterfox/ directory and its multiple subdirectories to a folder of your choice; /opt/ is recommended for most distributions. In the final step, create a new entry in the menu hierarchy to start the browser. You can launch the software by typing the ./waterfox command in the program directory.

Differences

At first sight, Waterfox looks like a complete clone of Firefox: Apart from using a different program icon, no other differences are immediately obvious. But Waterfox fires up far faster. The reason for this becomes clear when you take a look at the system load display. While Firefox consumed 250MB RAM in idle mode on our lab system, Waterfox made do with less than half that (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Waterfox requires far fewer resources than Firefox.

Although the two browsers look like identical twins at first glance, the Waterfox programmers, led by Alex Kontos, have completed a thorough cleanup under the hood. According to the developers, the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), all telemetry services, sponsored tiles on new tab pages, and dubious services like Pocket have all be removed.

Waterfox also does not follow the Mozilla Corporation's annoying habit of changing interfaces, something that is particularly annoying for add-on developers. The developers have kept the XUL and XPCOM interfaces and the newer WebExtensions API. You can still use older NPAPI plugins with Waterfox. In addition, most Firefox extensions will work, once you retrieve them from the Mozilla site.

The browser integrates unsigned extensions if desired. Since the large number of different add-ons makes it difficult to keep track of the extensions, the Waterfox developers provide various archived databases on their website, from which you can source older extensions if required [2]. In addition, a special add-on named the Classic Add-ons Archive is available, which provides a database for all older extensions compatible with the alternative browser (Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Classic Add-ons Archive gives users access to thousands of older add-ons.

This database currently contains nearly 20,000 extensions for the browser. You can find the 43MB extension on GitHub [3]. You can use this database by clicking on the small orange button in the top right corner of the toolbar after installing the extension. Waterfox opens the archive's internal website where you use an input field to search for add-ons in the top right corner.

Alternatively, first select a group in the vertically arranged category bar on the left; the add-ons available in it then appear in the right panel of the browser window. As soon as you mouse over one of them, a green button labeled Install Now pops up on the right.

Clicking on it will set up the respective add-on in the browser. Extensions developed for the current version of Firefox can be installed via the corresponding website. You can also retrieve and integrate themes from there. Waterfox also lets you use older and current add-ons simultaneously (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Waterfox supports the installation and use of older and newer add-ons in parallel.

Conclusions

Waterfox is an impressive example of what a better version of Firefox can look like: leaner, faster, and without the desire to collect your data. In addition, you can still use unsigned and NPAPI plugins that Mozilla no longer keeps in stock. Sensible settings in terms of data protection also make the painstaking reconfiguration steps that Firefox requires largely unnecessary.

Waterfox Classic version can therefore be recommended without any restrictions for power users who also rely on older technologies. The Current version is best suited for users looking for an alternative to Firefox with faster speeds and improved privacy.

Infos

  1. Waterfox: https://www.waterfox.net
  2. Information on add-ons: https://www.waterfox.net/addons/
  3. Classic Add-on Archive extension: https://github.com/JustOff/ca-archive

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