[Info] Android Browser Comparison: 5 Options Explored

Android Browser ComparisonAs more of the services we use migrate to being web apps, the choice of browsers on our mobile devices becomes more important. The standard Android Browser is already quite robust, being based on Webkit and powered by Google’s V8 Javascript engine, offering solid performance and good overall webpage rendering, but there are a range of alternative browsers available as well. In this article, we examine some what the others offer beyond the standard browser and run them through their paces.

Opera 5.1 Mini

Having recently left beta stage, Opera offers a smooth and solid browsing experience. It supports unlimited tabs, via a window preview navigator, as well as the usual range of accessibility options such as popup blockers and text sizes. Built in RSS Feed management and Bookmark Sync (via Opera Link) also make Opera stand out above the rest.

In addition, Opera offers server-side compression of images, allowing you to choose between differing image qualities to aid in loading times / bandwidth usage. Images are further compressed via Opera’s servers then loaded to your phone. We found this did improve loading times by around 20%, but only for websites that were heavy with images, such as the one we tested with. For sites which were geographically closer and light with images, the extra round-trip to Opera’s servers added to the loading time.

Flash support is notably absent, as is the ability to save the entire page to the SD card. In addition the tab navigator becomes virtually unusable once you have more than about 10 or so tabs, as they bunch up together become tricky to toggle between. It also failed to complete the Sunspider Javascript benchmark for some unknown reason.

Cost: Free
Website: http://www.opera.com/mobile/

Skyfire 2.1 Beta

Another familiar face amongst Android users is Skyfire, although in Beta stage, also offers a robust and unique browsing experience. Although not as feature laden as Opera, Skyfire does support Flash and in-built password management.

Where Skyfire excels is in offering the ability to view flash videos on a wide range of automatically-detected sites, in a dedicated player, removing the need to manually expand the video. Quick access to “Explore” tools, such as viewing current Twitter trends, top videos, news and information was also readily available. There was also a toolbar button to toggle between mobile-formatted and desktop-formatted webpages, which is usually hidden in the menus in other browsers. There’s not much else which differentiates this browser from the standard browser.

The window management needs work, as Skyfire employs an animated shrinking preview of the webpage. Even on Froyo, this runs slowly, let alone scrolling through the windows, making tab switching an unwieldy experience at best. There appears to be no way to use a simpler tab switching mechanism.

Cost: Free
Websitehttp://www.skyfire.com/product/skyfire-2-0-for-android/

Dolphin HD 2.0

One of the most highly regarded browsers on the Android market, Dolphin recently released their HD 2.0 version, widely agreed to be one of the most feature-rich browsers available.

Dolphin supports features such as customizable screen gestures, allowing you to quickly input commonly used commands, as well as add-ons (similar to extensions in Firefox/Chrome). The add-on store is limited in choice at the moment, but does cover important additions such as translation, speed dial, ad blockers, screen capture amongst others. Other useful built-in features include bookmark re-ordering, private browsing mode and the ability to save webpage cache to SD card, which is a space saver for those who are currently running low on internal memory.

However, not all is rosy in the Dolphin camp, there were some rare but annoying rendering glitches as menus flickered above and below webpages, as well generally not being very screen real-estate efficient: the buttons and toolbars take more space than they should, though this is more of a personal preference than anything.

Cost: Free (Ad-supported) / $4.99
Websitehttp://bit.ly/dolphinbrowser

Xscope 5.33

The dark horse of the group is Xscope, lacking the visual polish of the other browsers but with a large feature list, including downloadable skin support.

Where Xscope excels is efficient tab management, allowing users to flick left/right between tabs and press-hold to open link in background tab, useful for those who are used to the middle-click on desktop browsers. Xscope also uses screen space efficiently, with the tab list only taking a small sliver of space along the top. In addition, it features a built in Task Manager, File Manager, the ability to save bookmarks to SD card, and auto-cache clearing on exit, to save valuable internal space. One definite innovation is one-finger zooming, where a quick tap and hold, allows you to slide horizontally to adjust zoom without having to resort to pinch and zoom.

However, Xscope only supports a maximum of 6 tabs (versus the 8 tabs of most of the others) and strangely did the worst in page loading tests (despite scoring the best in the Javascript benchmark).

Cost: Free (some features locked) /$2.99
Website: http://sites.google.com/site/xscopefaqs/

Conclusion

The choices are plentiful for Android browsers, but with the standard browser already offering such a robust browsing experience, the differentiation will mostly come down to browser features. For those who are after a feature-laden plugin system, look no further than Dolphin HD; for those who want the fastest web browsing experience, Opera Mini is the way to go; and for those who want to juggle multiple tabs easily or browse on Javascript heavy sites, have a look at Xscope.

The tests above were run on a Nexus One, running Android 2.2. All tests are freely available, Acid3 rendering test and Sunspider Javascript test. All tests were run 3 times via Wifi and averaged.

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