Three months from now, it will be a full year since we last took it upon ourselves to explore and compare mobile browsers in depth
. This time around, we'll be kicking things into a higher gear. Heck, it's probably fair to say that this is a whole new ballgame, as the scope of examined categories is far larger. Said otherwise, while you and us will revisit the same type of synthetic and real world performance benchmarks, along with functionality, and features, general UI responsiveness and design will, this time around, also factor in.
We had to take shortcuts, though. Simply put, there are just way too many browser apps available right now, and that makes it practically impossible to examine them all well enough. So we had to pick. But instead of simply relying on popularity, or speed, or features, we thought it's best to cover the entire spectrum, and also include newcomers, that may not have yet won themselves massive audiences, but chances are, they will.
But enough with the disclaimers. Let's talk facts.
Note: The test device of choice is the OnePlus One.
Interface and design
Last time we explored mobile Android browsers, the focus was on speed. That made a lot of sense back then, especially considering that less than a year ago, poor performance was still an overarching issue with most low-to-mid range smartphones. Today, things are different, and even the cheapest devices out there are speedy enough to mostly swing the discussion in the other direction -- the design of the interface, and how easy it is to use.
In general, it's absolutely correct to say that this is an area that has seen pretty much zero change in a long time -- what we have on our mobile devices is, for the most part, a miniaturized version of our desktop browsers. We have an address bar on top, tabs usually sit there too, and a giant box of white space waiting to be filled with content. We found it absolutely strange that of all the browsers we've tested, including the ones that didn't make the shortlist, only Habit Browser had the address bar located on the bottom, thus making it easy to reach. We're not saying its implementation is perfect, but with the average Android phone now dangerously close to the 5-inch mark, this is becoming an issue. But let's talk about the contestants in turn -- go right ahead into the slideshow below.
Best Android browsers: Interface and design
Best Android browsers: Interface and design
Most of you will have come to know Google's Chrome browser by now, especially since most manufacturers ship their phones with the app included by default. But to say that the design of Chrome is anything close to a defining point would be completely wrong -- it's fairly pleasant to use and speedy, but nothing really sets it apart in terms of its UI.
Thankfully, this typical of Google approach also means that the browser is, honestly, completely problem-free. It does not lag when navigating pages or the interface. Panning, zooming, all of that is also done without a hitch, regardless if you're browsing an image-heavy page, or not (to the extent that your hardware can keep up, of course). None of that, however, gives Chrome a character -- you get the feeling that you're operating a tool, and that's not necessarily the case with the rest of apps on this list.
Some of the browsers we'll talk about today are exclusive to Android, but that's not the case with Firefox (nor Chrome or Opera). The wealth of experience of the team behind Firefox at Mozilla Corp. means that Firefox for Android is, for most, an easy sell.
Like its desktop counterpart, Firefox for Android has a fairly simplistic look, too, but it's perhaps a tad more welcoming than Chrome with its looks and interface. It's not necessarily user-friendlier, though, and some options and settings will require newbies to test them out before figuring out what they do, but that's okay. As for navigation, this is also done without a hitch, and pages render very well on the whole.
Opera is the third and last Android browser on this list that can brag with an ancestry going back to the desktop browser era. Even today, Opera for desktop remains active, and the team is evidently continuing work on the mobile edition, too.
Opera has always been an acquired taste, and it's fair to say that we never quite warmed up to it, though we're perfectly aware that a lot of people feel differently. Like its two competitors above, Opera also offers a simplistic design, though one could argue that it's starting to age a little bit. Thankfully, this does not at all mean navigation performance is compromised -- it's actually excellent, even when talking about very heavy sites.
Dolphin is something different. It's one of the oldest mobile browsers available for Android, and year after year, it's managed to hang onto its spot as the logical alternative to the popular trio from before. If we learnt anything from our previous piece on this topic, it's that Dolphin's community is fiercely loyal. And that never comes free.
Design-wise, Dolphin is playful. It remains one of few browsers that embraces color, and its green interface is a pleasure to look at. It's more feature-rich than most of its rivals, and that means there's a learning curve to go through. Thankfully, navigating the interface and web pages proves to be silky smooth.
5. UC Browser
Like Dolphin, UC Browser also has a more welcoming interface, with blue being its trademark color. The browser's UI is well-designed, ergonomically spaced-out, and, thus, easy to make use of.
As for navigation, operations like zooming and panning are carried out without a second thought.
6. CM Browser
CM Browser is a newcomer to the Android browsing apps scene, but, boy, does it feel polished! The app offers by far the cleanest, most minimal interface of all on our list, and it's tastefully done, and does not feel barren.
The slick interface of CM Browser is only made more appealing by the fact that the app needs no help answering user input instantaneously. With some very, very rare hiccups serving as an exception, navigating the UI and web pages with this browser is a piece of cake.
CM Browser may offer the most simplistic interface of all, but it's Javelin that can be said to offer the most visually-appealing one. You don't call this one slick -- you call it beautiful. Javelin's developer has used solid colors to achieve this effect, and more power to him.
We once again have frills-free interface and web page navigation here, so nothing out of the ordinary (this far).
Ah, Puffin. Some will wonder why Puffin is on this list at all, especially considering its less-than-attractive interface. Folks who've used it will know, but we'll leave that a surprise for now (keep on reading).
Indeed, Puffin is arguably the worst-looking browser on our list today, and it's got some serious shortcomings. For example, navigating the UI is frustrating, as there's perceptible lag, and hiccups are common. The same goes for web page navigation. Scrolling, zooming, panning, all of this leaves something to be desired, though it doesn't feel like CloudMosa, the company behind Puffin, is much interested in this aspect of the browsing experience. With them, it's all about speed (again, keep on reading).
9. Next Browser
A product by the extremely talented and popular team behind GO Launcher, Next Browser is a natural draw for those who appreciate the devs' previous efforts. The interface is colorful and welcoming, but also minimal to an extent.
Hiccups while browsing image-heavy pages can be spotted, but, on the whole, scrolling, zooming, and panning leave little to desire.
10. Lightning Browser
Another newcomer to the scene, it's hard to argue that Lightning Browser's is very reminiscent of Google's Chrome. This means we again have a stoic, no-nonsense interface that is all about the content you're viewing, and less about the software through which you do that.
As for navigation, the UI is simple enough to appreciate, though we do wish scrolling and zooming were a tad smoother. Even then, we'd say the folks behind Lightning Browser did a decent job.
Now that you've gotten yourself acquainted with the browsers above and their design language, most of you will naturally wonder what kind of features they bring to the table (heh). It's hard to cover everything everyone is looking for, but there are definitely a few essential features that all of us can and do make good use of. If they're available, of course.
Now, some of these browsers (Firefox, UC Browser, Dolphin, for example) support extensions, but making these a part of the equation would equal a logistical and practical nightmare. Besides, the average user will mostly never make use of them, unless the browser app presents these options in an-easy-to-grasp (and install) way (like UC Browser).
So what features are important for a browser, then? Again, this varies, but we'd say that most would agree that synchronization with your desktop browser is a pretty wicked feature, and one that makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, not all of the browsers on our list offer this feature, which is a bit sad. Moving on, most of us like to have a way to browse the web anonymously, so incognito tabs have become something of a standard feature, but also one that not all browsers offer. Lastly, data compression is also becoming more and more of a worthwhile feature, now that the world is consuming increasingly gigantic amounts of data, all the while on a limited subscription.
* Dolphin's Ad blocker requires JetPack (standard on Android 4.3-4.4 devices). Flash support only through an addon.
* Puffin's Flash support lasts just 7 days. After that, you need to subscribe.
Again, this isn't an exhaustive list, but it covers the main bases. As you can count for yourself, UC Browser happens to be the most feature-rich solution currently on the market, and that has been the case for a while now. Dolphin, on the other hand, has a number of other, fairly unique features, like gesture support, so don't underestimate it at all.
UPDATE: Dolphin has since pushed an update that has made Private Mode and Full-screen mode available once again. The table above has been edited to reflect these changes.
Performance: What do synthetic benchmarks say?
With design and features out of the way, it's time for the moment of truth. After all, even the most visually-attractive browser won't last long if it doesn't offer its users great performance.
The tests we've ran (more times than you'd care to know) are both synthetic and real world, but we'll start with the former. Before we go right ahead, a word, though. Sure, most of you have learned to doubt synthetic benchmarks, as they don't always paint a representative picture of real world performance (which we'll talk about in a bit). When it comes to browsers, however, synthetic benchmarks happen to be decent predictors of performance, especially since some of them are not just about measuring code-crunching speed, but also attempt to replicate real world usage scenarios, and watch how apps handle that (e.g. Browsermark). Let's see.
Already, some of you will remember what we said about Puffin, and users of the browser will smile. Indeed, the only reason Puffin is on the list of best browsers happens to be its unparalleled speed. Puffin achieves that by leveraging cloud computing. In other words, a very powerful computer, far away from you, does all the heavy work, while Puffin simply serves you the resulting page.
As for the rest, we're happy to see newcomers to the field managing such great results, and even pushing Google's Chrome down the ladder. Impressive stuff.
* lower is better
2. Mozilla Kraken
Unsurprisingly, Puffin is again at the helm, and Firefox is nowhere to be seen, even though the company behind it is the one that created Kraken. Dolphin, on the other hand, proves it's a step behind the competition, with a significantly worse score.
The rest, as you can see, are pretty clustered.
* lower is better
As we already mentioned, Browsermark is a lot more about gauging how well a given browser will perform in the real world, and this will be made obvious to you if you just take a look at the types of scenarios the software performs during the test.
Once again, Puffin proves to be ahead of the competition, all the while Chrome regains some lost ground. Dolphin continues to disappoint.
* higher is better
Like Browsermark, Peacekeeper (developed by Futuremark -- the folks behind 3D Mark) also attempts to measure real-world performance by putting the browser through a number of different usage scenarios.
Yeah, that's right, Puffin just rules when it comes to speed, and that's quite obvious in the eyes of Peacekeeper. The majority of the rest are fairly clustered, though Firefox and Dolphin are lagging behind.
* higher is better
Another component of Peacekeeper is that it tests browsers for their compatibility with the increasingly-popular HTML5 standard. Given how the industry as a whole considers HTML5 to be the logical next step, ensuring your browser is capable of understanding the new code is important.
Despite Firefox's disappointing scores so far, it does happen to be one of the most capable HTML5 browsers (along with UC Browser). The rest are pretty clustered, and have distance to cover before calling themselves fully HTML5-compatible.
* more is better
Performance: Page load times
Tired of synthetic benchmarks? Probably yes, meaning it's time to see how well these load and render pages in the real world. We'll be looking at load speeds under two different states -- with cache and all assets of the browser app purged (cold loading), and with those saved (hot loading). This will essentially give us the speed at which a browser loads a page it hasn't seen before (and knows nothing about), and one that it's acquainted with.
One ground rule: browsers need to load the entire contents of the page, and that's very important, as some stop their progress bar before that happens, which we think is kind of shady. In any case, to arrive at the below results, all tests were ran multiple times (three) and the score you see is the averaged time it took them to load the page.
Page load times
Page load times
1. Hot loading
Most of the pages you visit, you visit often. That gives your browser the chance to remember as much about them as it cares to in order to speed up load times for future visits. We tested out a specific PhoneArena page so that content doesn't change and it's fair for all, along with the mobile version of the New York Time's page.
That's right, synthetic benchmarks didn't lie -- Puffin really is the king when it comes to (hot) page load times. Chrome, which proved very capable of rendering the above-mentioned PhoneArena page quickly, lagged behind when it came to small mobile pages, where CM Browser and Lightning Browser excel.
Unfortunately for Firefox and Dolphin (Opera, too), their performance continues to lag behind most.
2. Hot loading
3. Cold loading
So what about pages that you visit for the first time, how well does each browser handle those? Let's see.
Yep, that's the first time we see Puffin lose the rank one spot, though, to be completely fair, this was an isolated case, and other pages we tested out (cold loads) returned predictable results, headed by Puffin. Something about getting to know PhoneArena for the first time, however, caused Puffin to stutter, ultimately costing it the first place. We decided that, on the whole, it's fair not to hold it against Puffin (which still performed well!).
As for the rest, we once again have fairly similar results, though Firefox and Javelin performed the worst. Dolphin finally managed to swim away from the bottom, and offered middling performance instead. CM Browser again proved a very worthy new contender in the mobile browsing space, and Chrome proved inadequate with mobile pages once more.
4. Cold loading
The last test we performed concerns memory consumption. Indeed, while most of us now have at least 1GB of RAM on our devices, a lot of people are still stuck with claustrophobic amounts, such as 512MB. For those devices, performance is already an issue, so a heavy browser is the last thing that's needed. We tested memory consumption on all browsers with just the homepage tab open, and then with 4 tabs loaded (Google.com, m.BBC.com, m.NYTimes.com, and a specific page of PhoneArena.com
* in Megabytes (MB); less is better
As you can see, with the exception of Firefox, Puffin, Chrome, and Opera, the rest are fairly clustered together, with Lightning Browser proving to be the most lightweight of all. In other words, if your device finds itself memory-starved, causing it to shut down apps, then Lightning Browser is a decent choice -- it's simple, feature-rich, and speedy.
* Note: Keep in mind that memory consumption varies by device. The numbers above are for the OnePlus One. A device with 512MB RAM won't require over 400MB just to keep Opera running with 4 tabs.
So what are you to conclude from all these tests? It certainly seems like there's a lesson to be learned here, and some are better than the rest. That's true, but we can't stress how small these differences usually are, especially if you exclude outliers like Puffin. Yes, it's certainly safe to say that Dolphin, Opera, and Firefox, are generally slower than the rest, and Chrome and CM Browser are usually one of the fastest, but you still have to get a feel for them before sticking with one.
As for us, through this entire process, we can say that we discovered CM Browser. This new app happens to suite our needs very well, and is plenty fast and easy on the eyes. On the other hand, Dolphin, despite its problematic speed, offers a very specific user experience, and if you're ready to learn, then you certainly need to give it a try. The same applies to UC Browser, which is actually decently fast.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment nearly a year later is Puffin. We can't help but feel the devs are missing out by not investing into a slicker, speedier interface. The browser certainly has that "I-am-the-fastest" appeal, and our tests prove it's true.
Overall, we feel confident in claiming that most popular doesn't necessarily equal better, and you never know when something great will come along. And if you're unwilling to spend your time looking for a great Android browser, it's certainly safe to say that none of those on the list will disappoint you (even Puffin, if speed is what you're looking for).
So there you have them, the very best browsers Android has to offer.