The menagerie of Android browsers go head-to-head in this review featuring Chrome, Firefox, Opera, and more.
One of the pillars of Android is its Intent message-passing feature, a mechanism that allows applications to make use of each other.
From a user's perspective, it means that it is possible to set a default application for an activity, such as opening a web page, and have the ability to change to an alternative application whenever they so wish.
This is why there are so many browser alternatives available for the platform.
For some time, I've been using an Android device for daily use on both Android 2.3 Gingerbread and 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich versions — and have been on the hunt for the perfect browser, or at least a good enough browser. Below is the list of browsers that have crossed my path in that search.
This article is also available as a gallery.
If the stock Android browser was the best browser going around, then much of this article would be moot.
This browser was sorely lacking for Android's Gingerbread release, but, thankfully, it was updated and given more features in later releases.
When I was using an ICS-based Transformer Prime tablet for the Programming Android on Android piece, the stock browser quickly became my preferred browser — the primary reason being the support for the Prime's keyboard attachment that allowed regular desktop shortcuts to be used.
Much of this comes down to the tuning that each vendor does to its Android implementation. Compare the ICS browser screenshots below from Samsung, HTC and Google:
You may notice that in the HTC browser, the feature to save a page for offline reading is missing, but a history feature is added; whereas Samsung has added some unique options, such as brightness/colour and page info; and Google's implementation is rather spartan by comparison.
Giving a recommendation on this app has to be taken on a case-by-case basis. For ICS devices, if the device is a HTC, I wouldn't use it; but if it was the Transformer Prime with the dock attachment, then I would.
If you are still using a Gingerbread device, then I can definitely recommend that you look beyond the stock browser.
In the Gingerbread world, Dolphin was the first alternate browser that I really liked — and then it came out that the browser was transmitting all URLs visited to its creators.
No matter how good a browser it is, when privacy is violated to that extent, I'll stop using it.
If you are unconcerned about such things, or trust that the problem is fixed, then Dolphin is a good browser that brings many good features to Android. It has its own add-on system and gesture support, and performs quite well.
Boat only appeared in my sights recently, and, if I were using a Gingerbread phone, it would be in contention for my browser of choice.
It has plenty of features that other browser makers really should take a look at: easily setting the User-Agent field, ability to take screenshots, and a night mode that lowers the screen's brightness.
Beyond those features, Boat is highly customisable, with an add-on framework and a plethora of available settings.
Opera offers two varieties of browsers for Android: Opera Mini and Opera Mobile. For this review, we choose Opera Mobile, as it is the more featured of the two.
Users of Opera's desktop variant will feel at home with its mobile version. It comes equipped with synchronisation of bookmarks, Speed Dial, and search engines, thanks to Opera Link; it has the ability to save pages; and it has the option to use Opera's Turbo compression service that powers Opera Mini.
Opera did struggle with Wi-Fi T&C redirect pages, meaning that the stock browser was needed to get connectivity.
Existing Opera acolytes, or people needing to reduce their data usage, will find Opera a good choice.
Mozilla puts out three different branches of Firefox for Android: stable, beta, and aurora (nightly-ish), or, as it currently stands: an old verison, a new version, and a new bleeding-edge version.
Unfortunately for Mozilla, the stable version is a pig.
It's performance decays with its usage until a point is reached where the interface would refuse to recognise scrolling gestures, leaving zooming as the only way to move through pages before killing off the browser with the Task Manager.
If you are thinking of using the stable version of Firefox, then don't. Continue reading onto the good version below.
For the past six months or so, Firefox aurora has been my browser of choice. Aurora was where the Mozilla crew was working on the native Android interface that removed almost all the horrible qualities of the "stable" Firefox. A couple of weeks ago, the native UI graduated into the Firefox Beta channel, which makes it available for all Android users (aurora has to be side loaded).
The beta is quick, looks good, and comes armed with Firefox's Sync, Awesome Bar, and extension ecosystem. The browser also has do-not-track support, and is the first Mozilla Android browser to come with Flash support.
For users of Gingerbread, install Firefox beta and love the speed and features that this browser offers. For extension freaks, you need look no further, either.
So there I was in Gingerbread land, using Firefox aurora as my default browser, and all was well. Then I upgraded to ICS, and could therefore have the chance to use Chrome, an ICS-only browser.
It's been just shy of a month, but Chrome has displaced Firefox as my default browser.
Chrome is not streets ahead of Firefox, but it does have that extra coat of vanish that separates it from the competition.
One of the features that stole my heart is how Chrome zooms in when there is a collection of links bunched together, giving users the ability to make precise taps on links that they mean to tap on, instead of cursing their fat-fingered navigation. Opera does much the same thing by zooming into the links, but Chrome's inset method is a far better implementation.
The browser has the ability to sync bookmarks, omnibox data, and open tabs from other instances of Chrome that you may be using on your desktop or tablet. For developers, it also offers remote debugging.
If your phone is using Android Ice Cream Sandwich, then Chrome is the way to go.
Postscript: the things that don't matter
In articles such as this, it is common to present a table of BrowserMark results to demonstrate speed differences between browsers. But in a mobile world, the speed of the browser is often not the bottleneck; the mobile data connection is. To the nearest thousand, the average scores for each browser on an HTC Velocity were: Android Browser 75k, Opera 26K, Boat 73K, Firefox 48K, Firefox beta 43K, Chrome 92K, Dolphin 80K — but in real-world use, the performance difference is not in the rendering engines, but often in the browser chrome, feature sets, and extension usage. Looking at those numbers, it looks like Opera and Firefox are struggling to keep up; well, if they were, I struggled to see it.
One feature that was nice to see was the "View desktop site" feature that some browsers offered. Unfortunately, though, for the feature to work properly, the site that the user is viewing needs to adjust its layout based on CSS media queries. Many sites, including this one, redirect mobile users to a version of their site from which that browser feature has no effect. Hopefully, as time goes on, adaptive CSS implementation will increase, and this feature will become more useful.