Firefox Focus - Lightweight, privacy-oriented, and ... redundant?

Updated: October 18, 2023

I came across Firefox Focus purely by accident. I was trying to figure out if there was a simple way to block ads in Safari. Why Safari? Well, that's a story for another time (stay tuned). Now, in the App Store, under Safari extensions, I saw an entry called Firefox Focus. Me frowned. From what I know, on iOS devices, Firefox and friends are just skins for the WebKit engine, so I couldn't really immediately fathom how this browser cum extension fits into the picture. Eventually, fathom that I did, but more interestingly, this little finding spurred a wee exploration, and then, an entire review. And here we are.

In a nutshell, Firefox Focus is a minimalistic browser for mobile devices, focused [sic] on privacy. On Android, it's a browser in its own right, a lightweight version of Firefox, which I use as my primary browser on any Android phone. On iPhones, it's tracking-blocker for Safari. Here, I decided to experiment primarily with the former, and see how the Focus behaves as a day-to-day Internet portal, and if and how it could potentially work alongside proper Firefox. Or perchance even replace it. Let's explore.

Teaser 1 Teaser 2

A tad more on the iOS side of things ...

I can't share too much here, as I'm not an iPhone user, only a casual peasant iPhone tester. But I did grab some screenshots, and did some ultra-basic checks and fiddling. Seems interesting, but it won't give us the full experience we're looking for, I'm afraid. But I'm gonna leave it out there, and perhaps one day do some more, more thorough iOS testing.

Tag line, incorrect

Same same but different

Essentially, Firefox Focus feels quite similar to Firefox. Most of the differences are under the hood. If you go into the browser's settings, you have more options to fine-tune your privacy and security compared to the stock browser. In particular, it runs with the Enhanced Tracking Protection active, with ad trackers, analytic trackers, and social media trackers blocked by default. You can also toggle on the blocker for other content trackers, as well. There's no mention of ads, though. But we will have to see how that works later.

Install Firefox Focus, open

Furthermore, the Focus lets you block remote fonts (which is how it should be), and you can also disable Javascript. Although, if that's your goal, you're much better off using Firefox with the amazing Noscript extension. You can also block screenshots, and even use your fingerprint to open or unlock the app. These two features sound a bit extreme, but I guess they can be useful. On the "negative" side, it can still run Studies like ordinary Firefox, and you can send your usage data to Mozilla.

Privacy settings 1 Privacy settings 2

Lastly, you can quickly purge your browsing data. I am not 100% sure how this would be useful, because most people do not share their phone, so the browsing history is individual already. It does not really address privacy in any way, because the outbound network traffic goes through your ISP and whatnot, so the local deletion of the browsing activity is more of a "feel good" measure than anything else. Still, some people may appreciate it.

Browsing Browsing history cleared

Hit the Trash can icon, poof, browsing history c'est le gone!

How well does it work?

Privacy features aside, what really matters is whether the browser actually delivers. For me, that means stability, reasonable performance, good support for Web standards, and functionality that lets me block stupidity, which means ads, tracking and associated nonsense. This is the reason why I use Firefox with UBlock Origin (UBO) as my primary (and only) browser on the mobile phone. It's the only way to enjoy the Internet. I don't use Chrome on Android. Perhaps there are other apps that can do the job well, but I've not yet found one that matches the combo of capabilities you get with stock Firefox (and its extensions). Anyway.

I launched Firefox Focus and went a-browsing. I visited Youtube, and the first thing that happened was ... ads. I wanted to watch a video clip, and I was forced to endure a bunch of seconds of pointless content that serves no purpose other than to waste my bandwidth and battery. Twice. Two ads in a row. My oh my. Another clip, another ad, and another, and another. On and on and on. The ad model is simply alien to my mind, my upbringing, my way of doing things.

Ad playing Youtube

Online, streaming, ads, how quaint. Not my cup of tea, I'm afraid.

And with that, I decided that Firefox Focus is not good enough for me. No adblocker, no use. If it comes down to using the Internet without an adblocker or not using it at all, then I will rather not use it, at all. The browser works, it's fast, but it simply does not address a critical need. And with that sad realization, I must cut this review short.

However, before we conclude, I need to go back to the Firefox Focus tag line. Two completely different things in these two ecosystems. With iOS, it says Always-on ad blocking. But with Android, it's a No Fuss Browser. I'm still a bit confused, but never mind. That's all part of the testing experience.

Conclusion

Firefox Focus sounds like an interesting concept, but I'm not sure it has any real advantage over Firefox. Maybe on Safari in iOS, which is how it started its life. But on Android, where you can use Firefox, and you can install proper adblockers, it's not very useful. It cover the tracking part of UBO, but not the ad part. Actually, if I think about it some more, if you don't mind ads, then great, this browser is the ideal solution for you. But you can accomplish much of the same with Firefox anyway, especially if you use extensions.

I'd argue that it's probably more valuable for iPhone users, because of the dearth of similar functionality with Firefox proper there. Furthermore, if you don't trust some of the other providers for ad and content blocking, Mozilla's Firefox Focus can be an excellent alternative. On its own, the browser does well. It's simple, elegant and fast. But if you don't like ads, and find them a greater (or equal) concern to tracking, then you need a different solution. I like the Focus, but I think the standard Firefox browser is superior in many regards. Back to my original quest, I had a chance to play with iOS and Safari a bit, so perhaps I will try it there, and see what it does. Even so though, even in Safari, one needs a real adblocker, because the modern Internet is unbearable. Firefox Focus, neat, original, needs proper blocking, you go and try it. And we're done.

Cheers.