Attack of the Mobile Browsers

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Mobile browser No. 3: Boat Browser Mini Boat Browser is a relatively simple and rather elegant browser for Android phones that seems to remind many people of using Safari on an iPhone. This is partly because of the color and partly because it doesn't have too many extra features. The performance is fairly snappy, and Boat Browser can play many Flash videos -- a notable departure from mobile Safari.

The settings section offers a wider collection of buttons and options, including the ability to set the "mobile view engine." You can clear the cache, toggle the full-screen mode, and even turn on the ability to "open pages in overview." On the site, Boat Browser scored 182 out of 400, just under what is common in this space.

When I was testing the browser, it suddenly disappeared from the Android Market, then reappeared in a new version two weeks later. No one made any official statement about why it was gone; in fact, it's difficult to know where an official statement about Boat Browser might come from. The lack of a serious Web page owned by the company should be reason enough to be curious about the provenance of the code. It's hard to imagine that someone would put this much effort into something with a malicious intent, but weirder things have happened.

Mobile browser No. 4: Dolphin Browser HD There are two versions of the Dolphin browser for Android: the Mini version for Android 1.6 and later, and the HD version built for Android 2.0 and later devices. Both are nice, but most people with the chance to run the HD version should choose it because it has a number of extra features.

The most intriguing feature to me is the customizable command that reacts to a gesture. You can draw your own patterns on the screen, then link them to Web pages or actions. The browser offers a wide collection of standard actions; for instance, drawing a V on the screen will jump immediately to the bottom of the page.

There are even deeper options for customization. Dolphin, like the desktop version of Firefox, offers the opportunity to create plug-ins or add-ons. Some just change the look or theme, but others add functionality. One from, for instance, will let you listen to your stream while browsing. There are a fair number of interesting add-ons, but the options (about 50) are still far short of the desktop ecologies.

Other neat features are buried in the settings menu. I enjoyed changing the volume buttons into controls that move the Web page up and down. The User Agent is easy to change. These and dozens of other options make Dolphin one of the most intriguing alternatives for those who aren't content to use Android's standard browser.

Mobile browser No. 5: Skyfire When the Flash war broke out between Apple and Adobe, the developers of Skyfire saw their chance. They compiled a Flash interpreter into their mobile browser for Android and iOS, and now Skyfire users can see Flash presentations even if they're using an iPhone. As I've mentioned, this isn't always a perfect combination because many Flash presentations are so large that they choke the connection or overwhelm the screen, but the possibility is there.

After the Flash integration, the most notable feature is the way the Skyfire browser pushes integration with social networking hubs such as Facebook and Twitter. To save you the agony of waiting several seconds or even longer for the news to arrive from Facebook about your BFF's latest OMG-inspiring tale, Skyfire caches a current version and calls it QuickView. One push and you can toggle between the Web and Facebook friends.

The integration with Facebook goes deeper. The Like button is always floating around on every single page you visit. If you want to share the words and images you're viewing, just one push will send them out to all friends. There's no need to waste seconds by flipping over to the Facebook QuickView.

That's not all. Some versions of Skyfire extract a separate RSS feed of links suggested by your friends. Skyfire will also compile a list of the most popular links throughout Facebook. No wonder Facebook says it's not building a browser -- Skyfire is doing a pretty good job already.

But it's not all Facebook all of the time. Skyfire has similar features that integrate with Twitter and Google Reader. If you want to save bookmarks, Delicious is a click away. If you want to save the text itself, Instapaper and Pinboard are there too.

Mobile browser No. 6: Miren If there are any Web users who still believe that English is the lingua franca of the Web, they might want to try out the Miren browser for Android. While the English-language version is easy to understand and use, there's no doubt that the browser comes from China. I had to use the Google translator to read through and discover that the company's name can be roughly translated as "charming browser," a description that's a pretty good match.

On one hand, this browser doesn't offer any features that make it stand out from the other candidates. There are tabs and a nice set of bookmarks that appear on the splash screen, as with so many other browsers. But by the same token, Miren isn't missing any essential features. Most of the features that now seem sort of standard -- Flash, multitouch, pinching, and so on -- are supported. It's a very usable tool.

Miren may not be as slick or as graceful as other mobile browsers such as Opera, depending on your preferences. It felt a bit sluggish as I paged around, but I never encountered any glaring crashes. It's a perfectly nice Android browser.

Mobile browser No. 7: UC Browser English-speaking users will feel even more behind if they download the English version of the UC Browser. The Chinese version gets all of the latest code, while the new features take their time working their way down to the English iteration.

This is a competitive browser with many of the features we're used to seeing. I enjoyed using the "open in background" option that calls up a Web page in a hidden window. When you switch to the page after a bit, it's more likely to be loaded. It's like holding down the control key while browsing on a desktop.

Another nice feature is "reading mode," a process that intercepts the mouse clicks and uses them to control the scrolling. A tap on the top moves up, and a tap on the bottom moves down. This is a nice feature for reading longer pages.

In other cases, I felt lost. When I tried to swipe my finger up to find an address bar for a new URL, it wasn't there. I found myself hunting for features that are probably closer to the standard way of accomplishing things in English-language browsers. English-language users may become more aware of the UC way of doing things because the browser is growing in popularity. It recently won the 2011 Readers' Choice award for best mobile browser.

Mobile browser No. 8: QQ For the ultimate in Chinese browsing, I turned to QQ, a browser for Android that has no English-language version that I could find. Although it's possible to enjoy the Web by guessing at many of the characters, it's just not feasible for non-Chinese speakers to use this very often. The mechanism seemed to work well, but I felt like the rendering of English characters wasn't as readable as in other browsers, something that shouldn't be a surprise.

Next page: a few more browsers and some alternatives.

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