Browsing the Web with Waterfox

21 May, 2024

When I write about something, invariably fans of Something Else come out of the woodwork. And, invariably, those fans chant a chorus that starts with What about …?

That happened in early 2024 after I published a post looking at the Librewolf web browser. I received a handful of messages asking why I haven’t written about various other browsers — including one or two proprietary ones. Browsers that those folks use and think everyone else should, too.

To be honest, I can’t look at everything — I just don’t have time. Often, I’m just not interested in what some people suggest. And while I’ve tried many of browsers mentioned in the missives I received, I wasn’t motivated enough to write about most of them.

One that I did have in my queue to write about was Waterfox, a browser (like Librewolf) that’s derived from Firefox but which offers a bit more security and privacy out of the box.

Let’s take a quick look at Waterfox, shall we?

Where Waterfox and Firefox Diverge

As I mentioned a couple of paragraphs back, Waterfox is based on the same digital building blocks as Mozilla Firefox. While similar, they do diverge a bit. Here, for me, are the key differences:

If you want to learn more, check out Waterfox’s documentation.

Getting Waterfox

You can download installers for Waterfox — there are ones for Linux and those other two operating systems, too. Waterfox might be available in your Linux distribution’s software centre (it is for Zorin OS). You can also install it as a flatpak.

Installation shouldn’t take too long; you’ll be ready to go in no time.

Getting Started with Waterfox

Using Waterfox is just like using Firefox. You get a similar interface, similar controls, and all of the key features. Here’s what Waterfox looks like when you first start it:

Waterfox at first start

You can either click Skip this step to start browsing or click Set up in seconds to tweak Waterfox’s configuration.

Let’s click Set up in seconds. This screen displays:

Waterfox set up screen

You can click Import from previous browser to pull in the history, bookmarks, and passwords from (I’m going to assume) Firefox. I’ve never been able to get that to work with Waterfox — it displays the message below, even though I had Firefox, Librewolf, and Web installed on my laptop while working on this post:

Waterfox import wizard

Moving from Firefox

If the function to import settings doesn’t work for you either, then you can use Firefox Sync to easily migrate from Mozilla’s browser to Waterfox. Firefox Sync backs your up bookmarks, information about which add-ons you use, website passwords (if you let Firefox save them), your settings, and the like. To use it, you’ll need a Mozilla account and have synced your data from Firefox.

Let’s assume you have a Mozilla account and have synced your data. To use Firefox Sync, click the stacker menu in the top-right of the Waterfox window and then click Sign in. You’re taken to a page where you can log into your Mozilla account. Once you’ve done that, it can take anywhere from 30 seconds to a minute to sync your data with Waterfox.

If you use add-ons that require a user name and password, you’ll need to enter those credentials to use the add-ons with Waterfox.

Browsing the Web

Here’s a look at Waterfox’s home screen:

Waterfox’s home screen

The squares link to the last few websites you visited, while the Recent activity section of the screen lists the sites you’ve bookmarked over the last little while. If you want to, you can get rid of most of that, which I’ll explain how to do in a moment.

Here’s Waterfox browsing one of my favourite motor racing news sites:

Browsing in Waterfox

And here’s what Waterfox looks like browsing this site:

Browsing Open Source Musings with Waterfox

It’s not much different from Firefox or Librewolf, is it?

Making Waterfox Your Own

Waterfox is easy to customize. Let’s start with decluttering the home screen. Click the gear icon in the upper-right corner. This panel displays:

Decluttering Waterfox’s home screen

Click the toggles beside the Shortcuts and Recent activity options and then click Close. After that, you only see the search box on the home screen, as shown below:

Waterfox’s home screen after being decluttered

You can also change or tweak quite a few settings. To do that, click the stacker menu in the top-right corner of Waterfox’s window and then select Preferences. Let’s look at a few of the options that you can fiddle with.

You can install the same themes and extensions that you can with Firefox. You can also set your preferred search engine, configure colours and fonts, change the position of tabs and the bookmarks toolbar, tell Waterfox where to download files, and more.

Here, for example, is the screen where you can change the look and feel of the browser:

Changing Waterfox’s look and feel

Waterfox’s Security Settings

As I mentioned earlier in this post, one of Waterfox’s differences from Firefox is its emphasis on protecting your privacy and security. Like Librewolf, it doesn’t include many features — like telemetry, data collection, integration with Pocket — that you need to disable in Firefox.

To access Waterfox’s security settings, click the stacker menu and then, on the page that displays, select Privacy & Security. You’ll see this screen:

Waterfox’s security settings

Out of the box, Waterfox uses the lowest level of tracking protection and has automatic deletion of cookies and website data disabled. That said, many other of Waterfox’s security settings are dialed up, like:

You’ll need to enable or disable the various security options, depending on your needs. And you might have noticed ads displaying on a web page in screen capture earlier in this post. Unlike Librewolf, Waterfox doesn’t have an ad blocker built in — you’ll need to install an add-on for that.

Final Thoughts

Waterfox is a fine web browser — a solid alternative to Firefox. But I never felt fully comfortable with it. Unlike Librewolf, Waterfox didn’t slot into my online life quickly. Or at all. I’m not sure why that was. Waterfox is close enough to Firefox and Librewolf that I shouldn’t have had any problems adapting to it.

And, no, I didn’t try really, really hard to like Waterfox. Mainly because if you’re trying hard to like something, you’re just trying too hard. You can’t force yourself to like anything.

Regardless, Waterfox isn’t the right Firefox alternative for me. And that’s OK. But it could be for you. I suggest you take Waterfox for a spin. You might wind up not only liking Waterfox but using it as your main web browser.

Scott Nesbitt