Attack of the mobile browsers

Firefox, Opera, and a horde of mobile upstarts give iPhone, iPad, and Android users plenty of alternatives

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Mobile browser No. 7: UC Browser
English-speaking users will feel even more behind if they download the English version of the UC Browser. The Chinese version gets all of the latest code, while the new features take their time working their way down to the English iteration.

This is a competitive browser with many of the features we're used to seeing. I enjoyed using the "open in background" option that calls up a Web page in a hidden window. When you switch to the page after a bit, it's more likely to be loaded. It's like holding down the control key while browsing on a desktop.

Another nice feature is "reading mode," a process that intercepts the mouse clicks and uses them to control the scrolling. A tap on the top moves up, and a tap on the bottom moves down. This is a nice feature for reading longer pages.

In other cases, I felt lost. When I tried to swipe my finger up to find an address bar for a new URL, it wasn't there. I found myself hunting for features that are probably closer to the standard way of accomplishing things in English-language browsers. English-language users may become more aware of the UC way of doing things because the browser is growing in popularity. It recently won the 2011 About.com Readers' Choice award for best mobile browser.

Mobile browser No. 8: QQ
For the ultimate in Chinese browsing, I turned to QQ, a browser for Android that has no English-language version that I could find. Although it's possible to enjoy the Web by guessing at many of the characters, it's just not feasible for non-Chinese speakers to use this very often. The mechanism seemed to work well, but I felt like the rendering of English characters wasn't as readable as in other browsers, something that shouldn't be a surprise.

Mobile browser No. 9: Atomic Web Browser
Atomic Web Browser for the iPhone and iPad is a pretty little browser with an emphasis on privacy. My favorite feature may be the way that a three-finger tap toggles the full-screen mode that hides the controls. The other big feature that may attract iPhone users is a competent tab implementation that's easier to negotiate than using the hidden pages. The three-finger maneuver is simple enough that you don't mind giving up the extra real estate to the tabs.

The browser scores relatively well on HTML5Test.com, pulling in 206 out of 400 points. Basic support for local data and canvas drawing is available, but there are gaps where some of the more exotic features like Web Workers should be.

The other notable feature is the collection of privacy functions that help limit the amount of information that the browser records. Both the cache and the cookie database can be cleaned or turned off entirely.

The paid version (99 cents) includes a collection of other features, like the ability to read the page source, change the user agent, and store your favorite font size on a site-by-site basis.

Mobile browser No. 10: Mercury Browser
Mercury Browser is another option for the iPhone or iPad user who is a bit tired of mobile Safari. The principle enhancements are a collection of multifingered gestures and a slick menu that pops up in response. The feature that caught my eye the most was a small, gray icon that flashed on the screen whenever the browser detected a gesture. This lessened the confusion somewhat.

Mercury Browser also scored 206 on HTML5Test.com, like many of the other iPhone browsers. It is presumably using the UIWebView to handle the hard work of parsing the HTML and laying out the content. The changes are just in the interface.

There aren't many differences between the free Lite version and the 99-cent Pro version. The only one I can identify by running the documentation through a diff filter is the ability to save your files to Dropbox.com.

There's not much to the documentation that I could see. This made it a bit tricky to understand exactly what the icons and the neat circular menu would do. A mobile browser doesn't support mouse-over events like the desktop, so there's no way to give hints. Nonetheless, I was able to figure out most of the gestures.

More mobile browsers: Evernote, Flipboard, and Instapaper
If the browsers were perfect, these options wouldn't exist. Flipboard is a very pretty way to browse through the news, and there's no reason why the major papers shouldn't be able to imitate it -- but they don't. I'm not sure why. The transitions are all available, and the browsers support them.

The same might be said for Instapaper. All of the desktop browsers have allowed us to save the HTML and JavaScript in files known as Web archives for years. Yet this is still too confusing for people, so Instapaper has found a foothold. Click a button in Safari, and Instapaper saves Web pages to your iPhone for reading later.

Along the same lines, Evernote is a tool that tries to "capture everything," including Web pages and screenshots of Web pages, as well as notes, photos, and audio recordings. It's a simple tool that serves as a thoroughly modern file folder.

All three of these are far from complete browsers. If anything, their lack of ability to act like a complete browser is part of the charm that supposedly draws people to them. They aren't loaded down with tabs to make it easier to juggle all of the windows, and they don't seem wedded to the idea that they should reproduce the content exactly the way that the original designer wanted it to appear.

We're already seeing the ideas from these applications make their way into the browsers. The front page of tiles showing the most popular bookmarks is already common, and it looks a lot like Flipboard even though the tiles don't flip. The features for sharing links aren't much different from those that save full copies of websites. In a sense, Facebook is just another place to store links and sites.

"Meta" browsers like Evernote, Flipboard, and Instapaper will be where the innovation really begins. They act like the farm team for the major browsers by giving a good indication of what the browsing public needs and wants. They're a pleasure to use, but I'm guessing we'll soon see all of their innovations rolled into the mainstream browsers.

This story, "Attack of the mobile browsers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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