Mobile surfing moves beyond your phone's default browser
You probably don’t think a lot about browsers when it’s time to hit the Web on your smartphone or tablet. For most users, mobile browsing starts and ends with whatever app comes preloaded on your phone. Just tap the icon, tap in a URL—hopefully, not while driving—and viola! A webpage appears.
The recent release of Yahoo Axis (pictured above) may cause some people to rethink that approach. Axis is a new searching and browsing tool that syncs up your desktop browser of choice with your iOS-based surfing that quite a few pundits have described as an unexpectedly good product from the beleaguered Web company. More significant, Axis’s launch has brought the concept of third-party browsers back into the discussion.
It’s a fair conversation: Third-party browsers can deliver features more geared toward your browsing habits and interests, you first just have to free yourself from the shackles of whatever default smartphone browser you’re using.
Chrome is a great, multi-tab browser that syncs up with your desktop Chrome browser via your Google account. This allows you to pull up the tabs you have open on your desktop from your smartphone or tablet and toss pages between the two environments just by tapping on your phone.
Firefox also builds this desktop-to-mobile synchronization into its own Android browser for phones and tablets, but it holds one particular ace over Google—customizability. Like its desktop counterpart, mobile Firefox allows you to expand your browser with new features by installing third-party add-ons.
If you’re not too keen on the “Big Two” browsers, there are even more, lesser-known mobile browsers that might deliver a better mobile experience. Like, for example, Opera’s Mobile browser (for higher-end phones) or Opera Mini browser (for slower devices). Both can use Opera’s servers as a proxy for your Web browsing. In Opera Mini’s case, the feature is ever-present, saving up to 85 percent of your normal bandwidth use as a result of Opera’s remote rendering and compressed transfer of requested pages. Opera Mobile can function as a normal Web browser if you prefer, but you can also use its integrated “Turbo” functionality in a similar (but slightly less compressed and, thus, less-bandwidth-saving) fashion.
Other Android browsers include Dolphin Browser HD, an extremely popular browser that supports both voice- and gesture-based Web navigation, and the social-themed Skyfire browser. If you’re into Twitter or Facebook, Skyfire lets you pull up each via buttons sitting right on the bottom of the browser window, in addition to a “popular” button that lists out websites your Facebook contacts find interesting.
Apple’s rigorously reviewed App Store and nominal opposition to anything that duplicates the functionality of built-in iOS apps keeps the larger names in Web browsing away from the platform—there’s no Chrome and only limited support for Firefox via the Firefox Home app). You can find the slimmed-down Opera Mini—but not the more full-featured Opera Mobile—on Apple’s App Store, as well as the aforementioned Dolphin Browser and Skyfire browsers.
So, what’s so special about iOS? Right now, it’s the only platform that supports Yahoo Axis, which specializes in delivering thumbnailed search results instead of forcing you to click through links on an otherwise drab “search results page.” Additionally, your navigation within the iPhone, iPad, and desktop versions of Axis remains synchronized across all devices. Axis also makes it super-easy to share whatever you’re looking at via Twitter, Pinterest, and email—but not Facebook, which seems like an odd omission.
The Atomic Web Browser, also iOS-only, is a $1 app that’s every bit as awesome as its name suggests. The browser lets you save webpages locally for easy viewing on the go, and comes with a download manager that can toss files directly into your phone’s Dropbox folder for synchronization across other devices and computers. Atomic Web Browser throws in gesture support for Web surfing and a full screen mode that allows users to take maximum advantage of their device’s screen.
Perfect Web browser is another iOS-only app that’s similar to Atomic Web Browser, but more suited for Apple’s iPad than iPhone. Some notable features include the ability to change your browser agent on the fly if you’re tired of seeing a site’s mobile version instead of its standard “desktop version.” Beefed-up privacy controls allow you to clear your browsing history whenever you receive a phone call, message, or notification—on the appropriately named “Insane” privacy mode, that is.
Those missing the experience of synchronizing a desktop Firefox browser to the iPhone or iPad should check out 360 Browser. In addition to supporting Firefox Sync, which lets you keep your bookmarks, passwords, and browser tabs consistent among all your Firefox-friendly devices, the app also lets users change up the browser’s look using themes and comes with a crazy wheel-based interface for streamlined navigation.
Before you go to select your brand-new mobile browser, however, dig a little deeper: Check out some benchmarks (or run some of your own), read about the features, and decide if the app is truly worth the download or purchase. While there are plenty of browsers that are likely better than your smartphone’s stock app, the last thing you want to do is pick one that’s worse.
[David Murphy was thrilled to bits once Chrome Beta premiered on the Android platform, but that doesn’t mean he won’t switch out to a better browser at a moment’s notice. When not writing for TechHive, he’s a PCWorld contributing editor.]