After years of workarounds, and even sometimes denying there was a problem, Mozilla has identified a fix for Firefox’s sometimes out-of-control memory usage.
Firefox routinely uses a lot of computer memory. For example, the instance of Firefox I’m running right now is consuming 198 MB of memory with four tabs open after just two hours of uptime. Under some conditions, I’ve seen the memory usage (according to Task Manager) go over 1 GB, which drags the rest of the system down with it. Even on a system with 4 GB of RAM, when Firefox starts chewing up that much, the system becomes barely usable. With 2 GB of RAM, it’s crippling. What Firefox’s about:memory page and Task Manager say about memory doesn’t always match, and since about:memory is higher than what shows up in Task Manager under normal circumstances, presumably it’s higher in out-of-control circumstances too. I can’t say for certain, because when out-of-control circumstances happen, I go into corrective mode and not investigative mode.
I live with it. I think even 198 MB of memory is too much, even considering the ever-increasing complexity of web pages. But when 2 GB of RAM costs less than $40, I can live with a web browser chewing up that much memory. And it goes out of control infrequently enough that it’s a minor inconvenience. It’s easier to live with it than to change browsers, because I know Firefox’s keyboard shortcuts and menu structure well enough that it’s all practically muscle memory, so I find using other browsers annoying when I have to do it.
But I wonder how much of Chrome’s rising popularity is due to other people being less willing to live with it? I suppose if I hadn’t been using Mozilla-based browsers since 1994, I’d be a lot more willing to jump to Chrome too.
Firefox 6 will have a revamped about:memory page that will give users ways to trigger garbage collection and cycle collection to reduce memory at will. That at least gives us two more things to try before closing the browser and reopening it. Firefox 7 will do this kind of maintenance automatically, which is better still.
In the meantime, the usual workarounds work sometimes: Close tabs that have tons and tons of history associated with them, reduce the number of plugins you’re running when possible (and check the ones you’re running against the Problematic extensions list. And Mozilla has a page on reducing memory usage too.
Firefox 6 should ship in late September, followed by Firefox 7 in late December.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.