Touch web browser mega shootout: Surf's up

GSMArena team, 10 February 2010.
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Android Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10

The Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 uses the default Android browser with no visible customizations.

Android Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 Android Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 Android Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 Android Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10
Android Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10

Instead of a minimap, there’s a page overview with a small window that you can drag around – the content inside is magnified so you can actually read the text. This is the best method to navigate large sites that we’ve seen so far.

The default browser scored highly in our test, Flash support is the only serious omission.

Dolphin Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10

Just out of curiosity we installed the free third-party Dolphin web browser on the Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10.

Feature wise, it adds tabs on top of the page for easy switching between multiple pages. Gestures are enabled as well.

The gestures can do a lot of things (Back, new bookmark, new tab, etc.) and you can draw your own gestures. But the browser is not that good in recognizing them, so similar gestures can give you trouble.

Dolphin Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 Dolphin Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 Dolphin Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10 Dolphin Browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10
Dolphin browser on Sony Ericsson XPERIA X10

If the page offers an RSS feed, there will be a new entry in the Android notification panel allowing you to subscribe. A Compact page option reflows the page in a forced mobile view, even if the website in question doesn’t offer such a feature.

WebOS Browser on Palm Pre

WebOS: the very name is a promise of a darn good browser. And well, the WebOS browser surely delivers. It lacks some minor features but, overall, the browser is very fast and can handle every page you throw at it. And that’s what really counts.

The Palm web browser renders pages nicely and the speed of the browser is commendable. Entering addresses is simple thanks to the excellent auto suggestion, which also doubles as a search toolbar.

WebOS Browser on Palm Pre WebOS Browser on Palm Pre WebOS Browser on Palm Pre
WebOS Browser on Palm Pre

Once you get to the page, kinetic scrolling and fast drawing, coupled with pinch zooming make getting around even complex pages a breeze. Screen auto rotation is very quick as well.

The lack of text reflow is annoying though – the browser formats paragraphs so they fit the screen, but only at a specific zoom level. If you zoom in closer you’ll have to scroll sideways. There’s no text size setting either.

WebOS Browser on Palm Pre WebOS Browser on Palm Pre WebOS Browser on Palm Pre WebOS Browser on Palm Pre
WebOS Browser on Palm Pre

The Palm WebOS smartphones have a dedicated app to view YouTube videos, so that’s covered. In addition, full Flash support is just around the corner, as Adobe promise.

The WebOS browser handles multiple pages by putting them each in a separate card, there are no tabs. But that just reinforces the notion that the web is an integral part of WebOS, each page treated as if it were an app.

But that integration means it assumes there’s a constant connection to the Internet, so don’t ask if you can save pages for offline viewing.

The lack of a Find-on-page option, form auto-filling, a password manager and a download manager are the other omissions in the WebOS Browser.

S60 Browser on Samsung i8910 Omnia HD

The browsing experience on the Samsung i8910 OmniaHD is a mixed bag. The display is simply beautiful, the browser renders pages very well and YouTube works fine. But the browser is sluggish and there are plenty of bugs – much more than you’d expect on a mature platform like Symbian (even if it is the 5th edition), and the OmniaHD has been out almost a year now.

The JavaScript performance is dismal, which is hardly surprising given the general slowness of the phone. What’s surprising is that the OmniaHD runs on a Cortex A8 CPU at 600MHz and has a dedicated graphics chip. This hardware should be able to offer blazing fast speed – much the same way it does on the iPhone 3GS or the Nokia N900.

S60 Browser on Samsung i8910 Omnia HD S60 Browser on Samsung i8910 Omnia HD S60 Browser on Samsung i8910 Omnia HD S60 Browser on Samsung i8910 Omnia HD
S60 Browser on Samsung i8910 Omnia HD

And now is time for the ergonomics. There’s kinetic scrolling but it’s hard to spot – the momentum is too little. When you zoom in, a minimap appears, which would have been helpful if you could hide it in some way – nope, it’s there and won’t go away.

A command as simple as Back is painfully complicated in fullscreen mode – you have to get out of fullscreen (there’s no hardware back key), press Back and then get back into fullscreen again. To get to fullscreen though you have to go all the way to Menu, Display options, Fullscreen – that’s way too many clicks.

Zooming is handled by either double taps or the one-finger option. Fine and dandy, but slow scrolls are usually mistaken for the one finger zoom gesture. And each time you zoom in or out, the browser will shift the section you’re viewing, perhaps trying to fit the text on the screen. Too bad it misses.

S60 Browser on Nokia 5800 XpressMusic

The Nokia 5800 XpressMusic is the chance for Symbian and its browser to redeem themselves. And the results are much better this time around.

The CPU is slower, the slowest of the bunch and it shows in the JavaScript benchmark. Still, the browser ticks faster and is more responsive. Panning is nice too, but don’t expect iPhone speeds. The browser cache works well and loading recently visited pages is very quick.

S60 Browser on Nokia 5800 XpressMusic S60 Browser on Nokia 5800 XpressMusic S60 Browser on Nokia 5800 XpressMusic
S60 Browser on Nokia 5800 XpressMusic

It’s good news for Flash support too (sort of) – YouTube works, most other (less popular) video sharing sites - don’t. Other restrictions still apply – you can open links in new window by will, no text copying, no text reflow (which means you don’t have much choice of zoom levels).

Kinetic scrolling has little momentum so don’t count on getting end to end with one sweep and instead of minimap you just get an Overview. At least it’s better than the buggy minimap on the Samsung OmniaHD.

There’s not much else to say about the S60 Browser on the Nokia 5800 – it doesn’t have any major flaws but it’s not exactly a champion in any specific category either. A mid-table position fits this midrange handset (unlike certain high-end phones that left us very disappointed).

Opera Mini 4.2 on HTC HD2

Opera Mini is the most popular feature phone browser. It’s also widely used on smartphones because the Opera servers compress the page before sending it to the phone. It crunches most pages down to 80KB from 500KB+. Plus it works on both touch enabled phones and non-touch handsets.

Because pages are reflowed so they look better on small screens (as little as 2”), the layout suffers. The reflow algorithm has problems handling complex pages. JavaScript support is also very limited – only a small subset is supported. The lack of proper zooming is also an issue and the text size setting only has options that are either too small or too big.

Opera Mini 4.2 on HTC HD2 Opera Mini 4.2 on HTC HD2 Opera Mini 4.2 on HTC HD2 Opera Mini 4.2 on HTC HD2
Opera Mini 4.2 on HTC HD2

There’s only one zoom level and overview for navigation and while it will search for text on a page, it won’t copy it. Download works only for pictures.

Still, the browser does fine in address suggestion and syncs with Opera Link.

One annoying bug we spotted is that on the HTC HD2, the backspace key on the onscreen keyboard didn’t work – you have to use the virtual “Delete” key, which can be quite confusing.

The upcoming version – Opera Mini 5 – is in its second beta (which is why it’s not included in this test) and promises quite a number of enhancements: higher speed, tabs, text copy, speed dial and a download manager to name a few. It’s stable enough to work with, but if you want to play it safe, wait till Opera releases the final version.

Opera Mini 5 on HTC HD2 Opera Mini 5 on HTC HD2 Opera Mini 5 on HTC HD2 Opera Mini 5 on HTC HD2
Opera Mini 5 on HTC HD2

Final words

So there you have it – the touch-driven browsers are all pretty good and even the worst of them will do a decent job of browsing on the go.

None of the contenders is perfect just yet so there is room for improvement. You should choose your favorite based on the compromises you are ready to make. Not everybody needs Flash or pinch-zooming or even a download manager for that matter.

And that’s exactly the reason why we won’t announce a winner here. It all depends on how you use your device or what type of web content you consume on a daily basis. We told you the story and there’s the table too to make sure you find the browser that ticks the right boxes.

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