Review: Third-party browsers for the iPhone
While there are many questions I’m used to answering about my iPhone—from “What’s your favorite app?” to “How’s the battery life?”—there’s one type of question I never thought I’d have to answer: “What’s your favorite iPhone browser?” Until just recently, the only possible answer to that question was “Mobile Safari,” because that’s all there was.
But now, there are more than half-a-dozen browsers available from the App Store from companies other than Apple. This sudden plethora of new browsers results from Apple’s decision to allow third-party browsers in the App Store—as long as they’re based on WebKit, Apple’s open source browser engine.
So why might you want a browser other than Safari on your iPhone? Each of the eight browsers reviewed here has found a rationale for its existence, whether that be faster page loading by skipping images, implementing tabbed browsing, or some other such reason. But how well do they work, and can any of these alternatives supplant Safari’s role as the primary Web browser for iPhone users? To answer those questions, I loaded eight browsers on my iPhone, then started testing.
I didn’t get very far before I ran into the first limitation—none of the eight browser’s would open my family’s password-protected Web site. I don’t know why, but it seems that sites that use the standard Apache access controls can’t be accessed from a third-party browser.
One of the browser’s description pages in the iTunes Store noted that “pop up links are not working due to a limitation on iPhone SDK.” So perhaps, somehow, the pop-up window that appears when you reach a password-protected site qualifies as a pop-up link. If true, then it seems that Safari will remain the only way to access such sites, at least until Apple changes the iPhone software development kit.
With that relatively large caveat out of the way, here’s my look at each of the browsers, covering first those browsers that—for me at least—didn’t seem to be fully functional. After that, I cover three more promising prospects.Read more…
Hot Browser: Hot Browser’s claim to fame is that whenever you shake your iPhone, it will load a “random yet currently very popular web site.”
Unfortunately, during my testing, there were only about six Web sites total that appeared when I shook the iPhone, and at least two of those were directly related to the program’s author, Mark Schmatz IT.
The others included a couple related to the Ruby programming language, and a couple of German-language sites. No reddit, no Digg, no Slashdot, nothing that even struck my memory synapses as remotely popular.
If Hot Browser were a decent browser on its own merits, the relatively lame shake-to-see feature could be overlooked. But it’s not. It lacks all the basics of a browser—no forward/back buttons, no history, no bookmarks, no preferences.
In short, this feels more like one programmer’s experimentation with iPhone and WebKit than it does a serious alternative to Mobile Safari.
iBrowser: iBrowser from Super Art Software is a simplistic web browser, with only one major feature claim: it lets you lock in the screen setting—so you can force web pages to always be displayed in portrait mode, even if your iPhone twists towards landscape mode.
While I can potentially see the usefulness of this feature—Mobile Safari’s penchant for switching orientation at the slightest tilt is frustrating—it’s not worth giving up nearly every other browser feature to get it.
iBrowser doesn’t support tabs (or multiple pages), bookmarks, history, changing your home page, emailing a link to a page, zooming via pinch, or any preferences for cookies and scripts.
If you absolutely, positively, completely and totally detest the occasional page rotation in Mobile Safari, then perhaps iBrowser is useful—but even then, I’d recommend Incognito or QuickSurf, two browsers we’ll talk about later that offer the same locking feature but with other capabilities.
Shaking Web: Sponticelli.com’s Shaking Web aims to do for mobile browsing what image stabilization did for consumer cameras—stabilize the image on the screen. Shaking Web—which only works on the iPhone, not the iPod touch—tries to account for the slight motion in your iPhone while on a bus, train, or (as a passenger) in a car by moving the web page around slightly, in response to the motions detected by the iPhone.
In theory, this could be quite useful. In practice, while riding in our car, the end result is more distracting than helpful. The page does move around, but it doesn’t seem to be in sync with where the iPhone’s actually moving, and the end result gave me a bit of a headache after trying to follow the bouncing screen with my eyes.
The browser itself is also quite limited, with no support for tabs, multiple pages, bookmarks, history, autocompletion, or any of the other niceties one expects in a web browser.
Edge Browser: Calling this program from Mobile Productivity a browser is something of a misnomer. What it really is is a site-specific maximum-screen-real-estate Web site viewer.
Edge Browser lacks most of the standard browser features, such as a URL bar, backward and forward buttons, and support for bookmarks and history. Instead, it’s designed to view one site, and one site only, with no onscreen interface clutter.
You specify the Web site to load in the program’s preferences (in the iPhone’s Settings page), along with any required login information, then load Edge Browser.
Your site then appears in full-screen mode, unobstructed by any interface elements. Because of its lack of an interface, it works best for sites that exist only on one page, such as a webcam, or perhaps a bank’s account balance screen.
It would be nice if the program supported multiple sites (perhaps by letting you input three sites in its preferences), because as it stands now, it’s strictly a one-site pony.
Unfortunately, Edge Browser wouldn’t load the page for our home’s password-protected webcam, nor any other password-protected page I asked it to load. I thought about contacting support for help with my problems. However, that was impossible, as the link from the iTunes Store led to a site that was clearly not relevant to my questions.
Edge Browser is definitely not intended to replace Mobile Safari as your every day browser. But if you have a single-page site you visit often, Edge Browser may be a good alternative—assuming it’s capable of loading the page, of course.
Incognito: Incognito, as you might guess from its name, is a stealthy Web browser. Basically, using Incognito is like using the desktop version of Safari in Private Browsing mode at all times. It doesn’t track history (so you won’t get autocomplete), you can’t bookmark sites, and basically nothing you do is remembered. (Note that this doesn’t hide anything from the Web sites you visit—it’s just for hiding your tracks on your own iPhone.)
Settings are minimal, being limited to a definable home page, and to lock the screen in either portrait or landscape mode. You won’t find tabs or multiple pages, either—Incognito is a one-site-at-a-time browser. There’s also no Google search box, and the program forgets which page you were on each time you relaunch it. (This is probably a feature, given the no-trace objective of the browser, but it’s still annoying.) The browser worked fine on the sites I tested it with (password-protected sites excluded, of course).
Is Dan Park’s Incognito worth $1? If you visit sites that, for whatever reason, you’d rather not leave any trace of on your iPhone, then perhaps it is. It works well enough as a basic browser, as long as you don’t want to visit any password-protected web sites, create bookmarks, or work with more than one site at a time.
The promising prospects
QuickSurf: QuickSurf from Opher Lieber is a promising prospect whose key feature is faster browsing by eliminating image downloads. The program loads to a quick launch screen, where you can create shortcuts for fast access to favorite sites. (This is as close to bookmarks as you get with QuickSurf.) When you visit a site, Quick Surf attempts to block all images—and ads, using a built-in ad blocker—thereby leading to faster page loading.
That’s the theory, at least. In my testing, however, this wasn’t necessarily the case. While some sites loaded more quickly, others took about as long as they did in Safari. Some images also managed to trickle through on certain sites, for reasons that aren’t clear to me.
Once a page has loaded, a row of buttons along the bottom of the screen provides some useful options—back and forward; toggle between quick (no images) and normal (all images) views; enter full screen mode; and a pop-up menu to open the current page in Safari, add it to the quick launch screen, lock the page’s orientation to portrait or landscape, and visit the Settings screen.
On the Settings screen, you can toggle the ad blocker and history tracking on and off; disable history, and you’ll have a fairly stealthy browser that only leaves a trail on your iPhone if you add pages to the quick launch screen.
While QuickSurf generally worked OK, there are some rough edges. Toggling between quick and normal views is a slow proposition, even if you’re going the normal with-images view to the no-images view—the page is downloaded again in full from the server each time you toggle this setting. The full-screen mode is nice, but scrolling around is problematic; many of my swipes were ignored, or acted on a second or two after I made them. QuickSurf doesn’t include a search box, so searching the net will require visiting a search site. The program also crashed on me a couple of times during my testing.
Overall, QuickSurf shows promise. The full-screen mode is nice, and many image-heavy sites do load much faster than they do in Safari.
iBlueAngel: iBlueAngel from Hung Duong may be the most ambitious of the current Safari alternatives, as it offers a huge assortment of features, and a unique interface to access those features.
Amongst other things, iBlueAngel can select and copy blocks of text on a Web page, and then e-mail that copied text (along with the page URL) via the iPhone’s Mail program. You can’t select just any text you want, however—only blocks (paragraphs) of text. Still, this can be quite useful when you want to give someone a portion of a page, and not just send them a link.
You can also paste the text into the URL box (which doubles as a Google search box if you don’t enter a recognized URL) to search the Web for that text. Documents can also be saved for offline viewing, and the program handles a number of formats: PDF, Word and Excel, text, and images (PNG, JPG, GIF). Saving happens in the background, too, so you can return to surfing while your file saves. I tested this with both PDF and image files, and it worked very well. The saved files are available on a dedicated screen, and can be viewed at any time, regardless of network connectivity.
To get to all of these features, you use the magic dashboard, activated by a tap in the upper left corner of the screen. The magic dashboard is a screen overlay, populated with some somewhat cryptic icons, as seen in the screenshot at right. These icons control text selection mode, copying and pasting, mailing, bookmarks, history, and saving files locally. It may look a bit intimidating, but a quick read of the iBlueAngel user manual explained things well enough.
The other thing that iBlueAngel really does well is tabbed browsing. Using a simple controller at the bottom of the screen, you can add and delete tabs, and move between them. The program caches the contents of the visible page, so moving between tabs takes no time at all. Tabs are remembered between launches of the program, too, so everything you left open will be open when you return. I’d love to be able to horizontally swipe to switch tabs, but tapping a screen button isn’t too hard.
iBlueAngel isn’t quite ready to replace Safari, though. It doesn’t support landscape mode, and the program is also somewhat buggy, crashing on me a half-dozen times in the span of a day. Still, the feature set is compelling, and if the bugs get squashed, landscape mode support is added, and more sites work with it, it will make a serious run at replacing Mobile Safari on my iPhone.
WebMate:Tabbed Browser: R.P.A. Tech’s WebMate is designed to speed navigating through link-heavy sites, such as Digg, or even the Macworld.com home page. On a desktop Mac, the easiest way to use sites like this is to Command-click on each link you’d like to read, to open the link in a new background tab. Then after you’ve clicked a number of stories, switch through the tabs and read what’s loaded. Close each tab as you finish reading, then repeat the process. WebMate aims to bring that same technique to the iPhone.
The main interface in WebMate has a URL box, forward/back arrows, and a reload icon at the top of the screen, and a row of buttons at the bottom to control the tabbed browsing experience. The leftmost On/Off button is the key to WebMate; when set to On, any link you tap will open in a new background tab. When set to Off, links open as usual, in the current window. The next set of icons lets you switch tabs, and shows you your current tab and total number of opened tabs. Finally, a trash can icon lets you delete the currently-viewed tab.
WebMate doesn’t include any sort of bookmarking or history features; it’s really designed to speedily browse through link-heavy sites. (It does, however, work in both portrait and landscape modes.)
Using WebMate on a site like Digg is a joy, at least initially. Load the site, make sure the switch in the lower left is set to On, then start tapping links of interest. After you’ve built up a collection of tabs, tap the Next Tab button and start reading. Well, that’s what should happen, but it’s not what does happen.
When you create a new tab from of a link on the first page, WebMate doesn’t actually load the linked site—not until you switch to that tab does it start loading the page. So instead of working in the background while you were clicking links, WebMate was merely noting the URL in preparation for loading. As you switch forward through your tabs, you wait for each page to load—why couldn’t this have happened while you were viewing the first page?
What’s even worse is that there’s seemingly no caching at all—if you load a tab, switch to the next tab and wait for it to load, then hit the Previous Tab button, you’ll wait for that page to load again in its entirety. Between the lack of pre-loading and no caching, you spend a lot of time waiting on WebMate. On a wireless network, it’s not too bad…but on 3G or EDGE, the waiting is interminable.
Sure, it’s no more of a wait than it is to load a similar set of pages in Safari, but the interface shows so much promise—if this worked as expected, WebMate would be the slickest tabbed browser implementation available, because it’s the only one that lets you easily open links in background tabs. The program’s description page states that a major update is coming soon, so perhaps changes are in the works to add pre-loading and caching. I’m looking forward to the update, in the hopes that it delivers on the promise seen in the first version of this browser.
In summary, none of these browsers can possibly replace Safari in their current forms. Even overlooking the restriction on password-protected pages, none of them offers the right mix of features, stability, and performance to supplant Safari. A few of them, though, do show great promise as Safari supplements, if you will. iBlueAngel offers a compelling set of features that really let you do more with your browser, QuickSurf can speed page loading, especially for image-heavy sites on slower network connections, and WebMate holds the promise of being the best tabbed browser implementation available.
So which one should you use? Possibly one, possibly several, possibly none. It really depends on what sort of browser enhancements you’re looking for. Hopefully these capsule reviews have given you a good sense for the state of each browser, as well as their capabilities. Remember, too, that the history of third-party browsers on the iPhone is very short, and I expect all of these browsers will gain features and bug fixes in the weeks and months to come.
Edge Browser and Shaking Web work with any iPhone running the iPhone 2.1 and 2.2 software updates, respectively. Hot Browser runs on any iPhone and second-generation iPod touch running the iPhone 2.1 update. QuickSurf, WebMate, iBrowser, iBlueAngel, and Incognito run on all iPhone and iPod touch models; iBrowser and iBlueAngel run on the iPhone 2.x software update, Incognito runs on iPhone 2.1, and QuickSurf, and WebMate require iPhone 2.2.
[Rob Griffiths is a senior editor for Macworld.]