Tor Browser gets a redesign, switches to new Firefox Quantum engine

Tor Browser finally updated to use new-and-improved Firefox Quantum codebase. This includes new Photon UI.
Written by Catalin Cimpanu, Contributor
Tor Project

Two major browsers have received redesigns of their frontend user interface (UI) this week --Google Chrome on Tuesday, and the Tor Browser yesterday.

After Chrome updated its UI for the first time in ten years, the Tor Browser has also rolled out a new interface with the release of v8, on Wednesday.

The Tor Browser has always been based on the Firefox codebase, but it lagged behind a few releases. Mozilla rolled out a major overhaul of the Firefox codebase in November 2017, with the release of Firefox 57, the first release in the Firefox Quantum series.

Firefox Quantum came with a new page rendering engine, a new add-ons API, and a new user interface called the Photon UI.

Because these were major, code-breaking changes, it took the smaller Tor team some time to integrate all of them into the Tor Browser codebase and make sure everything worked as intended.

The new Tor Browser 8, released yesterday, is now in sync with the most recent version of Firefox, the Quantum release, and also supports all of its features.

This means the Tor Browser now uses the same modern Photon UI that current Firefox versions use, it supports the same speed-optimized page rendering engine and has also dropped support for the old XUL-based add-ons system for the new WebExtensions API system used by Chrome, Opera, Vivaldi, Brave, and the rest of the Chromium browsers.

See also: Google investigating issue with blurry fonts on new Chrome 69

But there are Tor Browser-specific changes as well. The biggest of these is that the Tor team has revamped the onboarding screen that appears the first time users install and run the browser.

This screen, the Tor Browser team says, has been simplified to help new users set up a proper (and safe) connection to the Tor network from the get-go. Since most users of the Tor Browser use it because of the privacy and anonymity it provides, and since the first browser setup contained lots of technical terms, this was a crucial and most-welcomed redesign.

But from all the changes to the onboarding system, the one that stands out is the modification to the "request bridge" mechanism.

"For users where Tor is blocked, we have previously offered a handful of bridges in the browser to bypass censorship. But to receive additional bridges, you had to send an email or visit a website, which posed a set of problems," the Tor Project explained yesterday.

"To simplify how you request bridges, we now have a new bridge configuration flow when you when you launch Tor. Now all you have to do is solve a captcha in Tor Launcher, and you'll get a bridge IP.

"We hope this simplification will allow more people to bypass censorship and browse the internet freely and privately."


New mechanism for requesting a Tor bridge (censorship bypass system)

Tor Project

The second biggest change was in the Tor Circuit button. This allows users to randomly change the server path through which they connect, and their data travels through the Tor network.

Previously, this required pressing the "Onion button" and selecting a vaguely worded option. In Tor Browser 8, users only have to click the URL info icon and click on the giant blue button that says "New Circuit for this Site."


New button for choosing a new random path through the Tor network

Users who didn't like the new Firefox UI and took refuge in the Tor Browser offshoot will surely not like the new redesign, but a privacy-focused browser like the Tor Browser needs to keep its codebase updated against the latest exploits and bugs. Therefore, this v8 release is a welcomed addition for all the good reasons, and an update users shouldn't ignore just because of a UI they don't like.

Tor Browser 8 is based on the Firefox ESR 60 version. The current Firefox version is v62, which was also released yesterday.

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