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Mozilla stuffs a RAM usage optimiser into Firefox Aurora beta

Updated Gives testers the chance to see a leaner Firefox
Fri Jul 08 2011, 16:40

WEB BROWSER DEVELOPER Mozilla has updated its Aurora channel with a beta version of Firefox that among many other things looks to optimise memory usage.

Mozilla Firefox AuroraEarlier this week, the folks at Mozilla uncovered what was starting to look like a solution for Firefox's Achilles heel, resource usage. By increasing the frequency of the browser's garbage collection on its Javascript engine, some testers were reporting a significant drop in memory usage. At the time it wasn't expected to see the light of day until Firefox 7, however it seems that Mozilla has fast-tracked the feature into its beta Aurora channel.

Mozilla is seemingly taking the issue of resource usage more seriously than ever before and allows users to opt-in to a data collection system where the browser sends back detailed resource utiliisation statistics, so presumably Mozilla can glean a better understanding of what's going on. Given that the Aurora release is meant for testers and will be used by Mozilla to fine-tune the browser prior to public release, this opt-in resource monitoring could be just what the outfit needs to finally put the issue of Firefox memory bloat to bed.

Aside from resource usage reduction and monitoring, Mozilla points to improved start up times for Firefox on Linux, Mac and Windows, all suggesting that Mozilla wants a lighter, more nimble product to offer users. Mozilla is introducing its Azure 3D graphics API in Aurora, which the outfit claims is "significantly closer to Direct2D". The benchmarks revealed by the outfit show that the Azure graphics engine is significantly faster than the existing one codenamed Cairo.

Mozilla's addition of extra features such as the Azure API is certainly welcome, and both Firefox 4 and Firefox 5 are for the most part comparable to rival browsers from Apple, Google, Microsoft and Opera. However the same question that arose back in 2005 remains today, Firefox's apparent overuse of system resources.

The discovery that increasing garbage collection on its Firefox Javascript engine resulted in an 80 per cent drop in memory usage raises questions about the quality of Mozilla's code testing.

It's harsh to single out Mozilla, as all web browsers use significant amounts of RAM when running, however Firefox is infamous for memory leaks, where RAM usage grows steadily over time through no fault of the user. Google in particular has played the resource usage card very well to promote its Chrome browser, claiming that it affects the speed of the browser. In Firefox 4, Mozilla greatly improved the performance of its Javascript engine, so all that is left is for it to attack the resource usage issue aggressively.

Mozilla's latest Firefox Aurora build not only highlights the outfit's focus on shedding the fat from Firefox but also suggests that the rapid release schedule that it outlined earlier this year might well start to pay dividends if further technical improvements end up in production Firefox releases sooner.

Update - 11 July 2011
Johnathan Nightingale, director of Firefox engineering at Mozilla told The INQUIRER in reference to memory usage, "Today's Web is much richer than it was even a few years ago, and those richer interactions can be very resource intensive. We love to see people pushing the Web to do more, and we invest heavily in optimising performance throughout Firefox to deliver the best experience no matter what. The improvements we've made in our latest Firefox Aurora release are a massive step forward in managing memory use, especially for these large, complex modern sites; many of our users are really going to feel the difference."

Nightingale's point about websites becoming increasing heavyweight is a valid one. More website functionality is being driven to the client-side with AJAX being the obvious culprit. Nevertheless, it is good to see Mozilla investing heavily to make sure its Firefox browser doesn't lag behind others in providing the functionality that web users are increasingly expecting to see. µ


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