Touch web browser mega shootout: Surf's up
How we tested:
The Nokia N900 slightly disappointed with about half the score of the 3GS and an equal score to Palm Pre and the Motorola MILESTONE. The slowest of the bunch are the two Symbian contenders and the older version of Opera Mobile – 9.5.
Flash is the de facto video streaming standard of the Web; it is also the most popular game platform on the Internet. The platform has rich features and high requirements, so naturally not all phones have full Flash support. There are four possible levels of Flash contents compatibility on your mobile – none, limited (displaying only banners and such), limited with YouTube support and full-featured Flash, which matches the desktop browsing experience.
The Nokia N900 is virtually unchallenged in this department. The Symbian browser handled the full YouTube, but chocked on other video sharing sites. The rest either had no Flash support at all or all redirect to an app for YouTube viewing, which is just as well – YouTube-only Flash isn’t much of a feature.
Fullscreen, landscape, auto-rotate
It’s quite important whether the browser makes full use of the phone display. The fullscreen option is essential for mobile devices given the limited screen real estate. So is landscape viewing, as most phones have their displays in portrait orientation. Automatically switching between modes by tilting the phone – autorotate – has grown from an irritating and slow gimmick to an important feature, which users rightfully require.
Ideally, the browser should offer some controls when loading the page, automatically hiding them when the page is fully loaded, so it can use all the screen estate for viewing. Most of our contenders behave in exactly this way. Plus, you have an option to disable the auto-hide from the setting menu. The exceptions are the mobile Internet Explorer 6, which has no option to leave the controls on the screen and S60 browser, which switches to fullscreen only manually.
The only browsers with no fullscreen option are Safari on iPhone and Opera Mini. No matter what you do, you always see the status bar on the top and the controls on the bottom. Palm Pre is an interesting animal, because it leaves the status bar in portrait mode, but has fullscreen in landscape.
Zooming, panning, kinetic scrolling
Zooming is an important feature for both fitting as much as possible on a small screen as well as navigation. Zoom methods are key – everyone knows about the iPhone’s pinch-zoom and double tapping. They are that popular because they are really easy to work with.
Double tap is currently the most popular zooming method and probably the one used most often. It’s very convenient and fast and in the most cases is all you need. The only problem is the lack of control. All our contenders support this method except the Android browser on the Sony Ericsson X10.
The two-finger pinch zoom is the trendiest zooming method. It’s very natural, the only problem is the virtually impossible one hand operation. As far as current technology goes, you need a capacitive screen for this one, but also software support in the browser (and the OS in general). Mobile Safari, the webOS browser and Opera Mobile 9.7 on HTC HD2 have this kind of zoom control. The Android browser on HTC Hero (ver 1.5) and Motorola MILESTONE (ver 2.0) do too, but Sony Ericsson X10 (ver 1.6) doesn’t.
Samsung’s one finger zoom (available on both the OmniaHD and OmniaPRO) comes in at a close second – it’s very comfortable for one hand use. The shaky implementation on the OmniaPRO doesn’t look good though.
The Maemo Browser uses a unique spiral gesture for zooming, which is interesting stuff to show to your friends, but feels more like a chore in everyday use.
Opera Mini is a special case, as it’s not a full web browser, so its capabilities are limited. It has just one zoom level and you have to rely on the mini-map mode to get around.
The Dolphin and all Android browsers prior to 2.0 has a magnifying glass feature – like overview but the small “window” of content is magnified. This was the quickest way to navigate complex pages because it was so accurate – you can read the content you’re about to zoom into, no need to squint.
Since we are only testing touchscreen devices here, panning on the pages can only be done in one way – by dragging your finger across the screen. There isn’t really a different way to do this. The only difference is the smoothness of the movement.
Since there is no easy way to measure this you have to believe our subjective feeling here – the best are Safari on iPhone 3GS and Opera Mobile 9.7 on HTC HD2 with Palm Pre and Android browsers following closely. The worst experience came with Opera Mini, but this is excusable – this is a Java app after all. The S60 browser is not that much better really.
Kinetic scrolling means that the page movement has momentum. Think of it like pushing an actual piece of paper – it doesn’t stop moving the moment you lift your finger off it and the faster you flick it, the further it will go. It makes scrolling more natural and faster.
Most of the browsers we tested support kinetic scrolling. The properties are quite different and which is best is really a matter of preference – some have more inertia and scroll further, some stop too soon on big pages. Opera Mini 4.2 doesn’t have kinetic scrolling, but the upcoming 5.0 version will fix this. The tested Samsung i8910 Omnia HD lacked it too, but the new firmware should have taken care of this omission.