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Pale Moon – Your browser, Your way

By Matt A. Tobin on Monday, May 26th, 2014

When one looks for a web browser to use, there are precious few options and many target use-cases. Of course, we have the big three: Microsoft Internet Explorer, Google Chrome, and Mozilla Firefox. While those browsers are the flagship products for the three major rendering engines (Trident, WebKit, and Gecko respectively), they are not the only choices out there.

There are many more choices for products based on those rendering engines and/or browsers. From Trident shells to seemingly a million WebKit-based browsers, it can be confusing when you venture away from the big three. However, there is one browser product and project out there that seems to stand out for its dedication to its community and standing against just accepting this trend of simplifying everything for simplification sake. Enter Pale Moon!

So what is Pale Moon, you may ask? Simply put, Pale Moon is a fork (a divergent project) based on the code of the popular Mozilla Firefox web browser. It is developed by M. C. Straver (who commonly goes by Moonchild). It aims for stablity, speed, and preserving customization and choice. If you are aware of Pale Moon then you may know some of the basics of its differentiation from Firefox. These are removal of a few trivial and rarely used features (which could be re-enabled based on build options when compiling from source), optimization for Windows, dropping support for ancient processor architectures such as the Pentium III and the early generations of the AMD Athlon, and reintroducing some previously removed Firefox features. However, Pale Moon is so much more than one may think on the surface.

Background and History

The browser has very humble roots. It started with Moonchild fiddling with the Windows build process around the Firefox 1.5 timeframe for himself and a few of his friends. By Firefox 3.5.2, he reached a good balance between speed, features and usability. On October 4th, 2009, the Pale Moon project was launched and the browser was released publicly. The fork quickly became fairly popular with no less than 15,000 visits to the project home page in the first month. Firefox 3.6.x also got the Pale Moon treatment and became the longest used version of the browser. It even survived after Mozilla stopped developing the Gecko/1.9.2 branch that Firefox 3.6 is based on and was retroactively called Pale Moon Legacy as it was the last version compiled to run on processors lacking SSE2.

Firefox 4/Gecko 2 and subsequent rapid release development cycle brought about many unique challenges for the project as it removed some important features such as a functional status bar. The advent of the addon “Status 4 Evar” allowed Pale Moon to restore this functionality out of the box. Eventually rabid release showed its ineffectiveness as a method of implementing the newest features. All it wound up doing was artificially inflating the major version number (which I had previously posted about). After version 12, it was decided that Pale Moon would no longer follow every half-baked release Mozilla would put out. It would only base itself on relevant and substantial versions. Consequently, Firefox versions 13 and 14 were skipped and Firefox 15 became the next version that the next Pale Moon release would be based on. This proved to be a wise decision as Firefox versions 16 and 17 were getting a major JavaScript core rewrite and the Mozilla releases of Firefox were very much broken in that area. As indicated, Pale Moon continued diverging from Firefox. As time went on, the differences between Pale Moon and Firefox continued to increase. It was no longer just tinkering with build settings.

The next major step for Pale Moon came about with the Mozilla release of Firefox 24 and the Extended Support Release codebase for that version. Pale Moon needed time to figure out what it was going to do about the continued deprecation and removal of core back end features from Firefox and Gecko broadly also to wait out the now implemented Australis UX. So it was decided to for Pale Moon would be based on the ESR 24 branch, which not only provided a very stable foundation for future development but had the advantage of getting every security update for the life of the branch. This allowed Moonchild to focus more on Pale Moon’s other features and general development. The Pale Moon 24.x releases saw even more Pale Moon specific enhancements ranging from reimplementing the page title in the capture bar, to more integration of the status bar code into the browser codebase, to options for click to play plugins, and more. With the release of Australis on Firefox, yet another decision was made to commit to preserve the familiar and customizable UI favored by many of the core power users who originally helped make Firefox the popular browser it is today.

The Review, proper

If you are still reading, you may be saying to yourself, “that was an interesting history lesson but how does Pale Moon stack up to Firefox and other browsers?” Well in the strictest sense, Pale Moon can no longer be directly compared to Firefox. While synthetic benchmarks are a popular way systematically compare software and hardware, they are fundamentally flawed when it comes to web browsers. This is because many factors can affect the results such as Internet connection conditions and the computer the browser is installed on. This is a stance the Pale Moon project also holds. The real difference is more subjective. The general feel of the browser is quite fast compared to even today’s versions of Firefox with Australis. This is no doubt due to the way the browser is compiled and the changes in the codebase.

When comparing the UI with the last purely applicable version of Firefox (being 28) Pale Moon offers a more traditional and logical grouping of elements by default (such as the navigation buttons being grouped together and not spread out all over the place). Also what is not seen much anymore in browsers is the tabs are restored to their position below the address bar by default and the option to have them on top or on bottom is retained. Since Pale Moon retains the fullest extent and power of Firefox customizablity, you can move/remove/add every element available in any way you see fit.

Pale Moon / Firefox 28 / Australis Layouts

Unlike Firefox 29 and later, Pale Moon also retains the fullest compatibility and support with theming options that allow you to transform the look and feel of the browser much more than just a trivial toolbar background image. A far cry from what was previously called Personas aka Lightweight Themes, now Themes. (Confused yet? It gets worse as now a Firefox account is called a Persona). This also extends to other types of addons compatible with Firefox 24 (depending on the addon, it may be higher).

Pale Moon, unlike Mozilla, does not limit itself to 32-bit on Windows. While Mozilla only builds a 64-bit version for Firefox from the Nightly channel and does not support it, Pale Moon has a fully supported 64-bit version built from the same release quality source code as the 32-bit version. There is a Linux version of Pale Moon as well. Unfortunately, there is no Mac version yet. This is largely due to lack of Apple hardware or someone to maintain a contributed build for Mac.

There are and have been many Pale Moon variants also built for specific purposes. A couple of examples are: an optimized Atom build for computers using the low-power Intel processors and a nifty portable version so you can take your browser on the go. The Migration Tool also helps those transitioning from Mozilla Firefox to Pale Moon to do so quickly and easily. When evaluating Pale Moon for yourself, know that it stores its profile data independently of Firefox so both can run side-by-side without any ill effects.

One of the best things about this project versus other browser projects (and some open source projects in general) is the fantastic community forums and their members (of which I am a member of). Aside from Moonchild himself devoting considerable time to reading and responding to issues, suggestions, and discussions on the forum, I have found the population to be very welcoming and helpful to even the most inexperienced user. It is quite a difference from Mozilla’s community hangouts, specifically MozillaZine (of which I am also a member of).

Without writing ten more chapters in this review-turned-book, I suggest giving Pale Moon a try. No review can truly do it justice. If you are using Firefox 29 or later and are feeling the drag of Australis or jumped ship to Chrome from Firefox, check out Pale Moon. You might be surprised.

Pale Moon Project
Pale Moon Forums
Firefox/Pale Moon Feature Comparison Table (Google Drive)

  • Wonderful article, Matt! Just wonderful! I’m agreed with you at 101%! Hope you post tips & tricks about Pale Moon.


    • Matt A. Tobin

      That IS a good idea. I have been going back and forth about a tips/guide sub-section for a while. There could be a good call for that. I would of course cross post on the Pale Moon forums for PM related ones.

  • John Cate

    This is the browser to use if you want to use something that looks and feels like the classic Firefox, rather than a Chrome wannabe. I just hope that it doesn’t get to a point where fixing all of Mozilla’s silly changes and reimplementing Firefox into the codebase is no longer possible. If I wanted to use a browser that looks and functions like Chrome, I’d use Chrome.

  • Webb

    All I see is FF Australis in the rear-view mirror.

    • Matt A. Tobin

      Believe me it wasn’t exactly pleasant running it even for the short time it took to take the screenshot. 😛