A Dozen Android Browsers: Which Should You Choose?

by Reads (10,029)

If you own an Android smartphone or tablet (or both), your Web browser choices are hardly limited to the Android default browser. Indeed, you’ll find well over a dozen alternatives in Google Play. Most are either free or inexpensive, so playing around with them won’t cost you much, if anything.

Ulimately, the browser you choose should be based on your own needs and preferences, whether those revolve around cool add-ons, Flash support, synchronization, customizability, gesture support, or operability on slow Internet connections, for instance. On the other hand, you might want to avoid browsers with certain traits, like ad support or unfriendliness to tablets or older devices. Here’s a roundup of 12 alternatives, ranging from big names like Chrome, Opera and Firefox to lesser known possibilities such as Angel, Maxthon and Ninesky. Each has its pluses and minuses.

Chrome, by GoogleGoogle Chrome

Free

The mobile version of Google’s popular desktop browser, Chrome features a slick interface and gesture support. Tight integration with copies of Chrome on other devices gives you the ability to synchronize between your laptop, smartphone, tablet, or any combination thereof. Run across an interesting article that you don’t have time right now to read? If have your desktop and mobile Chrome browsers set to sync, you’ll have exactly the same tabs open on your mobile device when you go to check it.

While other browsers like Opera do support syncing bookmarks (as does Chrome), only Chrome offers syncing of active sessions. If you don’t want to sync everything, there’s also “Chrome to Phone.” Take anything from your web browser — an address, a map, chunks of text — and hit a couple of buttons. It will be transferred to your phone or tablet for later. (Despite the name “Chrome to Phone,” this feature does work with tablets, as well.) Although apps like Pocket do this a little better (such as allowing you to make things from your phone or tablet available on your regular computer), Chrome to Phone is still a very convenient and snazzy feature if you use Chrome as your regular browser.

Unfortunately, Chrome is saddled with an absolute requirement for Android 4.0 or above, making it unusable on any older devices or non-updated phones. Nor does it support Flash, and according to Google it never will. This locks out quite a bit of content. Still, as older devices fall by the wayside and Flash becomes less relevant, that should be less of a down side.

Opera Mini, by Opera Software

Free

Probably the best known and longest running alternative browser out there, Opera Mini has been around longer than most people have known smartphones existed, debuting in 2006. It’s also the most popular alternative browser. Opera Software reports that 300 million devices were running Opera Mini as of February. This is for good reason, too, since Opera Mini provides a solid browsing experience. OM “filters” all the data through Opera Software’s special servers, designed to compress down and intelligently reflow the page for your device’s screen size, no matter how large or small. The result is an incredibly fast and lightweight browsing experience even on slow devices — no hitching, no slowness when scrolling through even a huge web page — as well as a view which can be tailored for anything from the smallest smartphone screen to a 10-inch tablet on both mobile and desktop websites.

Because it goes through Opera’s servers instead of directly, Opera Mini is ideally suited to connections with low bandwidth or limited data plans; browsing is still possible even on a 2G or slow 3G connection. The amount of data saved is substantial, averaging around 80%, so that 100 MB worth of browsing would turn into 20 MB of actual data use. No Flash is supported, nor are animated images, and other images will be a little lower quality than uncompressed. But that does also have the nice effect of blocking out some of the more obnoxious ads and auto-playing content on the web. Overall, Opera Mini is a fast, easy-to-use browser that meets the overwhelming majority of the average user’s needs, either on a smartphone or a tablet.

Opera Mobile, by Opera SoftwareOpera Mobile

Free

The bigger brother of Opera Mini, Opera Mobile offers a few added features compared to its little sibling. Opera Mobile does provide some of the same data compression features as Opera Mini has (called “Opera Turbo”). Yet on Mobile, they’re optional, so you can use Mobile just like a regular browser if you’re on a fast connection. This allows the browser to support more active content, like Flash, animated images, HTML 5, active page elements, and automatic website localization. The end product is something that feels more like a desktop web browser than Opera Mini does, where rich media content is visible and sliding page elements don’t require a page refresh.

Beyond the content though, the two have very similar feature sets. It used to be that Opera Mobile was a much more robust browser than Opera Mini, but as the Mini version has evolved to support more and more things —  bookmark sync, RSS, tabbed browsing, etc. — that’s become less and less true. While Opera Mobile does still give you a more desktop-like feel, it doesn’t offer too many other features that its lightweight equivalent doesn’t. As such, a user can end up being pretty happy with either one, although I would say tablet users might be more likely to want the added support of Opera Mobile.

Firefox, by Mozilla

Free

Made by the same Mozilla folks as the Firefox desktop browser, Firefox for Android is as close to a stock port of the popular desktop browser as you can get. In terms of basic features, Firefox for Android is pretty much like the other major mobile/PC options such as Opera and Chrome. Firefox allows you to sync settings and bookmarks between your mobile device (or devices) and your PC, and it features an interface similar enough that you won’t get lost.

Firefox’s big claim to fame, though, is its extension system. Like its desktop sibling, Firefox for Android allows you to download and install various third party extensions — essentially, mini apps which alter the behavior of the browser. Some of them are fairly stock, like a password manager function which is built into most other browsers. Yet some are more interesting, like ad blocking software, and apps which let you “impersonate” other desktop and mobile browsers to choose which version of a site you see. This might not be quite enough to overcome the advantage that the Opera browsers offer in pure speed and simplicity. Yet if you’re into customizing your browser just the way you like it, Firefox for Android is worth a look.

Boat Browser, by Boat BrowserBoat Browser

Free/$2.99

On the face of things, Boat Browser’s biggest selling point is expandability. This browser is fully skinnable, and it comes with a variety of optional free plugins that give it more features. Once you get under the hood, though, some of the shine starts to come off. Most of the free plugins are for things that other browsers already have built in, like bookmark sync and a password manager. The default interface is clearly designed only with smartphones in mind; while it works adequately there, on a tablet (especially a 10-inch one), the buttons end up far too small for comfort. This is unfortunate, since the way in which Boat Browser renders web pages — fitting them to the width of the screen — is much more appropriate to a large-screen tablet than to even a fairly good-sized smartphone. A 4.5-inch screen viewed in landscape is adequate, but I wouldn’t go with less. There’s also the fact that the app is ad-supported.

Boat Browser has one other great big honking flaw right “out of the box.” By default, it will happily give your exact GPS location to any website which asks for it, without even giving you a hint that it’s about to do so. You can turn location off in Settings, but if you don’t think to look there first, you could be handing out your personal location all over the web before you figure this out. That sort of thing makes me a little nervous when it also demands permission to read your phone number and system logs.

Boat Browser Mini, by Boat Browser

Free/$2.99

The other half of another “browser and mini” combination, BB Mini also has a rather hard time distinguishing itself from the regular Boat Browser. It is ad-supported, too, with a $3 price tag for the full version, and it has a similar interface and layout. Its size is a little smaller than the full Boat Browser, but not by much, only a couple of megs. The speed is the same. The main difference is that Boat Browser Mini doesn’t support the add-ons that the main Boat Browser does, like converting web pages to PDF or a password manager. Given that it has no better speed than the full version (which in turn isn’t any faster than the default Android browser), and fewer features, it’s hard for me to see why anyone would choose Boat Browser Mini over the original.

Ultimately, while the Boat Browser apps aren’t bad, they don’t really do much that the ad-free alternatives like Opera Mobile and Chrome don’t already do, mostly adding theme customization, a few minor plugins for the main Boat Browser, and a $3 pricetag if you want to get rid of the ads. If you absolutely need to convert a web page to PDF on the go, or if you love being able to skin your browser, those options might be compelling for you, but most users will be better off with a freeware option.

Dolphin Browser, by Dolphin BrowserDolphin Browser

Free

Overall, Dolphin Browser manages to be one of the better “small name” browsers I’ve tried out, although it definitely has a few kinks. First, it offers a lot of customizable options: more than Boat Browser, and you get some useful ones. There’s a translator add-on, another that allows you to “download” files directly to your Dropbox account, a third designed for “night mode” to automatically set your device’s brightness to a low level, and a lot more. Beyond that though, it’s highly functional, comparable in speed to other full-scale browsers. The user interface is comfortable if not overly special.

On the down side, the page rendering leaves something to be desired if you’re using a tablet. Dolphin doesn’t automatically reflow pages for larger screens — meaning, for instance, that if you simply pull up a Wikipedia entry, by default it will only fill a little over half the screen size of a tablet, obligating you to zoom in to fill the screen. You only get that one fixed size. If you want to zoom in further, you’ll have to scroll side to side; if you want more text on the screen, well, too bad. Combined with the fact that Dolphin starts up in portrait mode, it’s pretty clear that it was built mainly for smartphones, with any level of tablet support being an afterthought. Still, it’s a quality app for Smartphone users, especially if you’re into the ability to use plugins with your browser.

ICS Browser +, by Beansoft

Free/$1.28

For all intents and purposes, ICS Browser + is less a completely new browser than it is a “mod” for Android’s existing default web browser. Based on the original browser software for Android 4.0, a.k.a. “Ice Cream Sandwich,” ICSB + has been rewritten to add some new features: automatic text reflowing, gesture support, and most usefully, the ability to scroll the page using the volume buttons on the side of the phone. This is just the thing for quickly and easily browsing while you’re on the go, or for more comfortable reading.

ICS Browser + also offers a “donation” version to help support development. According to the Google Play description, this will eventually become a “pro” version with many more features than the free browser, but at the moment the two versions are identical. Unfortunately, because the last update was made to the app more than a year ago, it appears that future development may have been abandoned. This is particularly problematic for users of newer devices, since compatibility is sharply limited. ICS Browser + isn’t usable on any devices running less than Android 4.0, but it’s also not compatible with Android 4.2, leaving only out all older devices and a lot of newer ones, too. Without reason to think ICS Browser + will be updated, I wouldn’t recommend it as a daily browser.

Angel Browser, by Jun.IAngel Browser

Free

Although at first glance Angel Browser’s user interface is fairly odd and unconventional, at second glance, it’s downright confusing and unintuitive. While you’d get used to it eventually, until then you can rely on the fact that nothing is exactly where a conventional web browser would put it.

Angel is fully featured, but you’re going to experience an adventure digging those features out, especially since some things like the address bar don’t normally show up on screen. Also, like some of the others designed primarily for smartphones, the buttons are a bit small on Angel if you install it on a 10-inch tablet.

On the other hand, Angel seemed to have the best Flash performance of any browser I tested, even compared to the stock Android browser. Flash objects which were slow and jerky elsewhere were smooth on Angel Browser.

Maxthon, by Maxthon Ltd.

Free

On first glance, you’d think that Maxthon still comes in two versions, one for smartphones and one for tablets. That’s sort of true, but sort of not.

while one version does run well on smartphones, the “non-tablet” edition advertises itself as being “optimized for 7-inch tablets, especially Nexus 7.” The “tablet” version promotes itself as being for 10-inch devices, like the Asus Transformer and Galaxy Tab 10.1. The interface is fairly straightforward, though, and browsing performance is good.

Unfortunately, like Boat Browser, Maxthon cheerfully gives out your GPS coordinates to any page that asks. Moreover, unlike Boat Browser, Maxthon doesn’t allow you to turn this feature off. Even turning off GPS doesn’t help, since you can still be located via WiFi. On that fact alone, I would recommend that everyone stay away from Maxthon until the developers fix this gaping privacy problem.

Ninesky Browser, by ninesky.comNinesky Browser

Free

A fairly vanilla browser, Ninesky is remarkable only in how unremarkable it is. While it isn’t a bad browser by any means, it also doesn’t offer any particular features that aren’t already offered by the competition. It does provide some limited options for optimizing webpages, however.

Also, while Ninesky doesn’t compress pages in the way that Opera does, it does have two modes for slow connections or devices. Firstly, Ninesky includes a “mobile friendly” view which strips out most of the page layout for the benefit of small screens. Ninesky also features a mode called “Low Carbon,” which turns off all images and Flash on a website, leaving it text only. While not ideal, this could definitely save you some time if you’re on 2G or slow 3G.

Overall, however, Ninesky doesn’t really distinguish itself much from the pack. Ninesky is easy to use, but it doesn’t have much else going for it.

Skyfire 5.0, by Skyfire

Functionally, Skyfire is almost identical to the stock Android web browser. I say “almost” because there are a few little additions. Skyfire, like Opera Mini, operates though a proxy server to render web pages. Unike Opera, it doesn’t do this for speed. Skyfire is no faster than the regular Android browser, but it does have the redeeming quality of being more friendly towards active content, especially Flash videos.

Unfortunately, Skyfire also has the fairly huge drawback of not being compatible with tablets. So if you own both a smartphone and a tablet, you’ll be stuck having to use different browsers on each device. This isn’t exactly an ideal situation. That would be annoying enough on its own, but Skyfire’s interface makes it feel like it was really almost better suited to tablets than to smartphones. This makes it a confusing choice at best.

Conclusion

As I said earlier, you should choose a browser on the basis of your own preferences and needs. As a general rule, though, it’s very hard for any browser to beat the reigning champions — Opera Mini and Opera Mobile — because they’re fast, efficient, free to use, and free of advertising. Their two major mainstream competitors, Chrome and Firefox, both offer some extra benefits if you’re running their desktop equivalents. Yet neither of them supplies the kind of speed-boosting compression of Opera Mini or Opera Mobile.



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