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xScope web browser for Android

As a follow-up to What’s the best Android web browser? I posted last month, I think I have discovered the hands-down best web browser for Android, at least for the way I browse the web on my MyTouch 3G phone. I am not going to post screenshots for it, because I am too lazy to and because, frankly, it’s kind of an ugly browser (yes, even with the different themes you can use on it).

I should start off by saying that even though this is the best browser to use once you’ve learned how to use it, it is not the easier browser to learn to use. This browser is not intuitive in any way. You will have to read the manual to get the most of your browsing experience. So if you’re the type who usually sees “Find out more about how to use X application” and think “I can skip that. I’ll figure it out on my own,” I would ask that you actually give the tutorial a shot this time.

xScope Advantages

  • The first thing that’s great about xScope is that it’s fast. Pages load quickly. They seem to load at a speed a little faster than Steel and a little slower than Opera Mini.
  • In other browsers you have to either choose to have it in fullscreen or choose to show the notification bar. I like to have the browser generally fullscreen but also have the option to quickly check the time (the clock is on the notification bar). xScope is great this way, because it starts off fullscreen, but you can press the Menu button and select to have it temporarily windowed. It’ll stay windowed until you choose to make it fullscreen again or until you restart the browser.
  • My passwords and cookies are actually remembered. With some other browsers, despite what I indicated in my settings, I had trouble getting the passwords remembered or the website cookies to stay. With xScope, that’s not an issue.
  • The browser really is designed with a touchscreen in mind. You can swipe up the address bar if it’s getting in the way, or swipe it down. You can swipe across the toolbar to display the off-screen icons. You can tap once and then quickly tap again and hold and rock your finger back and forth to zoom in and out. After trying double-taps, pinch-to-zoom, and zoom buttons in other browsers, I’m convinced this is actually the best way to do zooming, and, more importantly, it allows me to avoid ever accidentally zooming in or out of a webpage.
  • When you click the Back button to go back a page, that page you were previously on loads instantaneously. There is no waiting for the page to reload (hey, default Browser, that’s what a cache is supposed to be for!).

Tab Management
xScope deals with tabs in an elegant and easy-to-use way. First of all, in terms of design, the tabs themselves are big enough to be usable and touchable, but they also don’t take up too much screen real estate.

To open a link in a new background tab (very important, even if you are on a 3G or wireless connection), just press and hold down the link for a second. If you have only one or two tabs already open, you’ll see the link open as a third tab in the background. If you already have three or more tabs open, you’ll see a very quick notification message saying that the tab successfully opened. I like this way of doing things instead of having the tabs crowd each other and get continually smaller… or to get no acknowledgement at all that the tab opened.

To close a tab you’re already focused on, you can just tap the tab itself (don’t need to aim for an X close button). You can also, if the tab you’re looking at has no previous history, just press the Back button to close that focused tab.

To switch between open tabs, you can swipe left or right very quickly and forcefully. This kind of switching wraps around as well (so if you’re on the right-most tab and swipe hard right, you’ll get to the left-most tab). This is very important for reading Google News, because the Google mobile site doesn’t allow you to open links in background tabs, so you’ll get a foreground-loaded tab, and while it’s loading, you can quickly swipe right to get back to the Google News website and browse for other stories to read.

xScope Disadvantages
Well, apart from the fact that its interface is ugly, there are a few other minor issues:

  • xScope Lite (the cost-free version) is fully functional as far as I’m concerned. It lacks a few features the paid version has that I consider bloat, but instead of hiding those features, the features are included in the menus… you just get a message to get the paid version if you try to select those menu items. I’d prefer they were hidden, but of course I’m not actually paying any money yet for this great app, so I can’t complain about a tiny bit of nagware.
  • Even though xScope is speedy to load up and speedy to use, it’s sometimes very slow to exit. If I exit out of it, I’ll sometimes get half a second of a black screen before my home screen loads up. Not a dealbreaker by any means but just a little lack of polish.
  • As I mentioned before, it’s not intuitive. I have found it easier to use now that I’ve learned it, but the learning curve is definitely there.
  • There’s no way to turn off images. It is pretty fast already even with images, but the ability to disable image loading would be nice to have, especially if I’m in an area that has poor coverage.
  • There seems to be a limit on the number of bookmarks you can have accessible in the start-up page. Odd. I don’t have that many bookmarks myself, but still…

That’s it. Some people may say other browsers have more features, but there is a certain point at which too many features just leaves the browser feeling crowded (try out Dolphin if you don’t believe me). Speed and proper tab management are what matter most to me on a smartphone browser, especially since I am often on a slower connection than I would normally be if I had a wireless broadband connection. Hurray for xScope!

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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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Web Browsers

Bookmark Organization in Browsers

The other day I was talking with a Windows-using friend. She’s using an old laptop of ours, as her newer laptop is having various hardware and software issues. I noticed she was using Chrome, and I asked her how she liked it. She liked it for the most part, except she didn’t like how Google wouldn’t let her organize her own bookmarks. She said she can’t imagine it would be that difficult. I told her it was probably quite the opposite. Google’s “smart” bookmarking in Chrome (with the most frequently visited and most recently visited sites showing up in the Opera-like speed dial page) is probably more difficult to implement (from a programming perspective) than the more traditional bookmark style (organize it yourself).

She then described to me how she organizes her bookmarks, and I was fascinated by her way of thinking about sites. She organizes them based on action (see, shop, read, share, etc.). I organize mine in kind of a strange way too. My bookmarks I organize by how often I view them. So I have a folder full of “weekly” bookmarks and a folder full of “daily” bookmarks. Inside the daily ones, I have my Bloglines reader, which contains all the sites I would ordinarily bookmark except that they have RSS feeds, so I’d prefer Bloglines to keep me informed of when they update instead. So every day, I open all the sites in my daily folder in tabs, and every week I open my weekly bookmarks in tabs. And any non-bookmarked site I visit I just use Google or Firefox’s own “smart” address bar to find.

How do you all (my small set of loyal readers—thanks for visiting!) organize your bookmarks? Or do you bother organizing them at all? Or do you even have bookmarks?

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Web Browsers

Already switching back to Firefox from Google Chrome

When Google Chrome hit the scene a little while ago, I was excited. Scott McCloud’s online comic book (although confusing at times) was a good sell on Chrome’s features, and I particularly liked the way it handles each tab as a separate process.

Immediately, on my computer at work, I installed Chrome and started using it as my default browser. The speed was amazing. In terms of rendering pages, it seemed to be as fast as Opera, and the interface responsiveness made it seem even faster. I also dug how Chrome’s version of the “speed dial” was dynamic based on the pages you’ve visited (in Opera’s you have to set the speed dial pages manually).

But, alas, Chrome (like Opera) has annoying tab behavior. It opens new tabs next to the current tab. That doesn’t work well with how I browse. I like to open links in new tabs at the end of the row so that I can get to them eventually. I don’t like to switch to them right away after closing the current tab. I tried to put up with it for a while, but Firefox is the browser that works with my style. Maybe someone will come up with a preference hack for Chrome that will change the tab behavior. Until then, I’ll remain a Firefox user.