What’s the best Android web browser?

Update (16 April 2010):
The best web browser is xScope.
Read more at xScope web browser for Android

Introduction
Browser
Coco
Dolphin
Opera Mini
Steel
Final Verdict

Introduction

I’ve heard from some Nexus users that they’re perfectly fine with the default Android web browser (called plainly Browser) because 1) their phones are so fast anyway they aren’t looking for another web browser and 2) the latest updates have brought multi-touch (or pinch-to-zoom) to the Browser on Android 2.1.

What about the rest of us Android users? Well, I use a T-Mobile MyTouch 3G (also known as HTC Magic 32b, which has 192 MB of RAM and a 528 MHz processor when it’s clocked to the max), and I can definitely tell you the default Browser on my phone (and probably also the T-Mobile G1) is slow both in terms of general interface responsiveness and in terms of loading pages.

So if you’re fine with Browser, stick with it. Glad it works for you. If, however, you’re looking for an alternative, here are some you may want to explore or avoid.

Browser


Before we begin with the alternatives, actually, let’s take a look at Browser and what you should appreciate in it.


Part of the appeal for me about Browser, at least in theory, is that it doesn’t have too many bells and whistles, and there’s absolutely nothing confusing about the interface. Long-pressing a link brings up a sensible context menu, which allows you to open the link in a new window. Pressing the menu button brings up… the menu, though it’s annoying that you have to click one more time (More) to get to the actual settings.


My favorite option in the settings for Browser is the option to have new windows open in the background, especially since I have experienced Browser to load pages slowly. Unfortunately, Google has recently changed its mobile News site so that long-pressing a link will do absolutely nothing (no context menu), so you have to press the link normally, and it’ll launch a foreground window even if you have specified for new links to open in the background normally.


I use Cyanogen’s rooted Android rom, so this may be something specific to the version of Browser I’m using now. I can’t say I’m a fan of this overview of the currently open windows, mainly because I like to use my left hand to do pretty much all my Android navigation (as opposed to using one hand to hold my phone and the other to push buttons). So it’s a bit of a stretch to get my thumb over to the right to press the close button if I want to close a window.

Coco Browser


I really like the basic interface for Coco, allowing you to see tabs instead of windows and easily select a tab by clicking on it or close a tab by clicking on the close button on a tab. That means fewer steps to manage different webpages (as opposed to clicking Menu, Windows, and then the window’s close button to close a window in Browser). Of course, if you want to manage (well, at least select) the tabs as windows that way, Coco does give you that option, too.


As you can see, most of the settings for Coco are very basic and similar to the stock Browser ones. The one really annoying thing about Coco is that you can’t ever access the address bar. So if you want to go directly to a new page (as opposed to clicking a link to go to a page linked off the old page), you have to open a new tab for that page and then close the old page’s tab. That, for me, was a dealbreaker on Coco. I like tabs as much as the next person, but sometimes I do want to just keep reusing the same tab.


The Android Market is flooded with a ton of task killers and application process managers because most applications don’t actually quit unless (and this I learned only recently) you keep hitting the Back button back to the home screen instead of hitting the Home button to get to home. Coco, when you hit the Back button, prompts you to exit the application. I thought that was nice… not nice enough to keep me on Coco, though.

Dolphin


I don’t really want to include screenshots to cover everything Dolphin does. While Browser and Coco focus on simplicity, Dolphin focuses on including every feature it possibly can into the web browsing experience. You can create little finger gesture shortcuts for closing windows or opening new windows. You have access to various social networking and bookmark management tools. You have tabs. No matter what version of Android you’re using, you have (what I consider the overhyped) pinch-to-zoom.


You can tell even from this screenshot of the menu that Dolphin is packed with a lot of what could be confusing or heaven-sent options, depending on what kind of user you are. Incidentally, pressing the actual Menu button doesn’t bring up the menu. You have to press Dolphin’s own virtual menu button to get that menu up.


If things aren’t confusing enough, the Settings part of Dolphin has two sections. You scroll all the way through the first set of settings, and then click the last link and you get another long second list of settings to scroll through. It’s in that second list that you can find how to change the home webpage.


Even though Dolphin has visible (but better-looking than Coco) tabs, it also has a nice way to manage windows. You can also easily switch between windows by swiping really hard to the left or right. That is very handy.

Some people complain about the ads, but the ads aren’t too intrusive. You see little tiny text-based ads when you bring up the start page, and the default home page (which you can change) also has ads on it. Clearly a lot of work went into this browser, so it makes sense they’d need some funding to keep this project going. There’s also a pay-for version in the Android Market that removes the ads.

Ultimately, though Dolphin is a good browser, I just found its interface too clunky for my tastes. I can understand how a power user (particularly one who uses mouse gestures on a desktop web browser, or one who’s really attached to pinch-to-zoom) would love this web browser, though.

Opera Mini

I tried Opera Mini 4.2 when that was around, and it was pretty much unusable on my phone, since mine is a touchscreen-driven phone (no hard QWERTY keyboard). Opera Mini 5 (in beta as of this writing but still available in the Android Market) is a huge improvement over 4.2. It does have its drawbacks, though.


Here’s one major one—it doesn’t really seem to be integrated with Android… at all.

  1. The app needs at least a few seconds to load, and it’s slow enough that I had time to take this screenshot while it was loading… and, yes, that progress bar appears every time you load Opera Mini.
  2. When you’re in Opera, if you press the Dialer button, nothing happens. It’s like you’re trapped in Opera unless you decide to leave. Want to make a phone call? You’ve got to press the Back or Home button first. There’s no temporary vacation away from Opera.
  3. Here’s the worst part: there isn’t a way to make Opera your default browser. Usually, after you install a new browser, when you click on a link or do a search from the search widget, Android will prompt you about which browser to choose and then allow you the option to make that the default. Opera doesn’t do that, even if you go to Settings > Applications > Manage Applications and clear defaults from the current default browser. So if you really like Opera Mini, tough luck. It can’t be your default browser. You’ll have to explicitly launch it every time you want to use it.


The Opera interface is really easy to use. You have an address bar you can type into, a Google search bar you can type into, back/forward buttons, tab management, and settings. Long-pressing on a link gives you two simple options—to open in a new tab or select the text.


The settings are very visually oriented and not confusing at all. Opera Link, if you choose to use it, allows you to sync your bookmarks to a desktop Opera installation.


Instead of bringing you to a separate screen to manage tabs, Opera just pops up a tiny thumbnail gallery at the bottom. Apart from the simple and easy-to-use interface, Opera’s main advantage is speed. It is way faster than any of the other browsers, because Opera actually loads the pages on its own servers and then compresses the images and text before sending it to your phone. So even if I’m on the Edge network instead of 3G, and I have only one or two bars on my phone’s signal, I can browse webpages speedily in Opera Mini 5. Loading windows in the background (as I do with Browser) is wholly unnecessary.

Opera starts off with a larger view of the webpage. The tap-to-zoom is inelegant (no animation whatsoever) but is extremely practical. It gets you to exactly what you need to see. As I’ve mentioned before, I think pinch-to-zoom is overrated.

Opera has some weird problems that I hope get worked out in future versions:

  • The font rendering is terrible.
  • The Google search icon is pixelated.
  • You have to double-tap the close button on tabs to get them to close.
  • So-called Fullscreen mode just drops the address bar at the top and menu bar at the bottom. The notification bar at the top is still there. And Opera without the menu bar at the bottom is crippled (you have to press Menu to get it to appear again).

Steel

Steel would be my absolutely favorite web browser on Android, if it just worked the way it was supposed to. First, let me describe how it works in theory.


What I’m showing here is what an actual webpage looks like when it’s loaded. However, when you first launch Steel, all you’ll see is a blank page. You can press Menu to get to the settings, though.


The settings in Steel are quite nice. You can have Steel load a blank page, your home page, or the last page you were looking at. You can easily change the user agent from Android to desktop or iPhone. Fullscreen mode is actually fullscreen (unlike Opera’s fake fullscreen). You can also have the controls (the dark gray bars on the top and bottom) disappear into a little bubble in the bottom-right corner after five seconds. (Tap the bubble to get the controls to reappear.)


Steel is a browser that is fully designed for touchscreens. As with Dolphin, you can swipe hard left or hard right to switch to the window to the left or to the window to the right. If you want to open a link in a new window, you long-press and right after the context menu comes up, instead of selecting one of the options, you just let go of the screen immediately.

Okay. That’s at least how it’s supposed to work. In actual practice, though, I had to give up on Steel because it kept crashing (force closing) every time I closed the left-most window, it was too sensitive to touch (if I was holding down a blank space for even two moments, the zoom controls would come up), it would forget my cookies for various sites or not prompt me to remember passwords for them (so I’d have to log in with username and password all over again), and it would slow down considerably if I had four or five windows open at once.

Final Verdict

Well, I can’t make a final verdict for you, but what I ended up doing was keeping Browser as the default for the search widget, and then using Opera Mini if I want to browse for anything else.

I hope you’ve found this helpful!

Screenshots for this were taken using Ubuntu and the Android SDK as per the instructions in this tutorial

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10 Comments

  1. Great read. It seems there are no such thing as a perfect browser for Android (yet). I have tried almost all of those you mention, but none of them work quite like what I want them to.

    For example my school has a website showing our school timetables. When I try to visit it via my HTC Hero, the site tells me that I am using a wrong resolution. This makes it impossible for me to navigate to the right hand corner where the log in button is. And I can’t zoom out to see the whole website.

    When I first installed Steel some months ago, the website worked, because I made the browser act like a normal PC browser. Now, however, that option doesn’t quite work with my school’s website.

    A friend of mine got an iPhone and the website runs perfectly well on it.

    Now I am just waiting for Mozilla to release Firefox for Android. It looks very nice and I like their tab layout.

  2. Well, I know some of the browsers I mentioned allow you to change the user agent (Steel is one of them). Try changing the user agent to iPhone and then see if the website still gives you problems.

  3. I liked steel browser except for the fact that it caused my android browser to stop working when I installed it. Android browser kept force closing for as long as steel was installed. Only way to fix it was to uninstall steel.

    However, my favourite browser at the moment is dolphin. I like it mainly because of the large number of features. Plus it has tabbed browsing.

  4. Right now I’m playing around with xScope.

    Earlier I had tried to use it and gave up because it looked too difficult to learn.

    After carefully reading the documentation, I’m warming up to it and will probably post a full review of it in a later blog post. It is not intuitive at all (yes, you do need to read the FAQ), but once you get to the xScope way of doing things, a lot of it makes sense.

  5. I settled on Steel after many weeks of road testing most of the free browser apps on the market (I have a G1 and after the Cupcake instal the default browser became unbarably slow). The only issue I have with Steel is the blank screen on open – I have never had it crash at all.

  6. You can actually change Steel so that it doesn’t open a blank page. I’ve switched over to xScope, so I don’t remember all the details, but I think there’s an option in settings to load either the home page (which you have to set in your bookmarks by adding the home tag to one bookmark) or the pages you had open from last session.

  7. I used steel for probably a year, but with this last update I installed, it startes crashing all the time, and with each crash, it would then say that my battery was dead and not work until I plugged the phone in. Since I deleted Steel, things have been fine. It is sad, though, because it has a nice interface and I think the ‘stock’ browser is pretty terrible. Hence the reason I am reading these reviews (thanks!)

  8. Thanks for the reviews! This is a great starting point for those of us who haven’t had a chance to play with any of the available browsers out there in the Market. Keep up the good work!

  9. I have SAMSUNG GALAXY s i9000 Android 2.1 ,upgradable to 2.2… Still I am using 2.i original version. Internet explorer given bu Samsung working well.. .
    I want to try some other web explorer. But these are not giving PINH Zoom. Opera 10 beta does not get downloaded in it, as it will work in 2.2 galaxy.
    Still not tried DOLPHIN .. I will try that. Let us see if it will give pinch zoom in 2.1 or not?

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