Touch web browser mega shootout: Surf's up

GSMArena team, 10 February 2010.
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Text size setting and text reflow

Limited screen size also means that you have to fit more information into less space, and keep the text readable too. User control over text size is important for comfortable reading. Most of the competitors offer the standard web setting with the 5 choices we know from the desktop browsers.

The problem is that in some cases (including our own gsmarena.com) these text file size settings do nothing. Yes, they only work if the web page designer chose to give users this luxury. And by the way, it’s hard to come up with a good design which looks as expected in all text sizes.

The Maemo browser on the Nokia N900 and Opera Mobile use a far better approach – they give the users just 3 size options, but they work uncompromisingly, regardless of how the web page is coded.

Mobile Safari and webOS don’t offer any text size settings.

Text reflow (dynamic refitting of text to match the width of the display port) makes sure the text doesn’t run too wide, so that each line of text fits horizontally on the screen (hence no need for horizontal scrolling). Fortunately, you can find the text reflow feature in all touch web browsers except for Safari, webOS and S60.

Internet Explorer Mobile 6 on HTC HD2 Opera Mobile 9.7 on HTC HD2
A page with and without text reflow

Address suggestion, history and cache

To get to a page you need to type its address or URL. Address suggestion works a bit like T9 – as soon as you type a part of the address it will be prompted to you if you’ve visited the site before. This makes navigating to your favorite sites much easier. Some browsers even suggest doing a Google search instead of navigating to a URL.

Address suggestion might seem like a small part of the browser but it can be a huge annoyance if it doesn’t work well. The Maemo Browser and the WebOS Browser are our favorites here – they suggest URLs based on any part of their address and even the page title too.

WebOS Browser on Palm Pre Internet Explorer Mobile 6 on HTC HD2
Two different approaches to address suggestion

Say, you’ve logged on to a website about laptops but completely forgot its name. The page probably had “laptop” in the title and both browsers will retrieve the address from your history for you. Other browsers don’t stand a chance here unless the URL explicitly started with the word “laptop”.

What that means is other browsers suggest URLs based on your browsing history as well, but only with the beginning of the address – e.g. “gsm” works for www.gsmarena.com, but “arena” doesn’t do a thing.

Internet Explorer Mobile 6 suggests adding a .com or .org domain suffix (so you can just type gsmarena and save four clicks) but that cuts off the suggestions from history, so you have to scroll to get to them. The four saved clicks are not worth it at all.

The S60 browser however had it even worse – there is address suggestion, but if you use a fullscreen QWERTY to type in the address, you don’t see the suggestions until you close the keyboard. You could use the mini-QWERTY keyboard to avoid that, but we wouldn’t recommend it – unless you have unlimited patience to hit those tiny buttons.

History stores all the sites you’ve visited recently and helps find sites you’d like to go back to but forgot to bookmark. How the back button works is important too – some just go back to the previous page, others show a visual history: thumbnails of pages you browsed.

WebOS Browser on Palm Pre S60 Browser on Samsung i8910 Omnia HD
List-based vs. visual history

Most of the participants in this article store your browsing history, with the sad exception being the Dolphin browser. At least it saves some grace with the list of most visited pages, but it’s hardly good enough.

The S60 browser, IE6 and the webOS browser come up next as they offer history but there is no way of sorting it. All you get is an endless list of URLs. OmniaHD still fares better than the rest of its pack as it also offers visual aid in the form of thumbnails next to each page.

All the others offer sorting by day or week, which is really helpful when you are looking for a page you visited, say yesterday.

As far as the back button is concerned, every mobile browser will allow you to go at least one step back. It’s pretty much standard equipment across the whole selection though there are of course differences in how it’s implemented in the different platforms.

The Maemo web browser and the S60 browsers take the crown with support for multiple back steps and visual aid – seeing thumbnails makes it much easier to decide just how many steps you would like to go back.

Despite the growing speeds of wireless Internet, the cache is a very important part of browsers. The cache stores items from pages you’ve opened (possibly even the whole page) in the internal memory, so next time you try to view the page, instead of reloading everything, some of the page elements are pulled out of the cache.

This saves time and bandwidth as the browser just checks if it has the most recent version of the item, which uses very little data compared to actual loading of, say, an image. How much (and what kind of content) a browser stores in the cache is vital for the quick loading of pages.

WebOS is a cut above the rest here, going the Firefox way and caching entire pages so going back is very fast. The same holds true for the Opera Mobile but there were some issues with it when going back so we are giving it a 9.5 instead of full 10 here.

The S60 browser behaved in a completely different manner on the 5800 XpressMusic (where it cached whole pages) and on OmniaHD where it cached nothing whatsoever.

The other browsers do not cache the HTML scripts but the images make up for most of the traffic anyway. If the page is long however, like a blog with many posts, and the HTML takes long to load, it will be a while before the content is showed on the screen, so this solution is less than perfect.

Opera Mini works differently than the rest but nonetheless caches whole pages (it’s all about speed and bandwidth-saving with this one).

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