Review: The best browsers for Android smartphones

InfoWorld compares Chrome, CM Browser, Dolphin, Firefox, InBrowser, and UC Browser on speed, features, and HTML5 support

android browser
CSO Staff

It has now been 12 weeks since “mobilegeddon,” the day that Google’s search algorithm started judging the browsability of a website on a small mobile screen and rewarding the sites that make life easier for smartphone users. This as much as anything marks the day when the smartphone became an official Web citizen, and mobile browsers attained all of the rights and privileges as their desktop counterparts.

All hail the mobile Web! And which is the top mobile browser? Now that they have earned their place in the Web, it makes sense to push them through the wringer and see what they can do.

The first thing that many people will notice is how many choices we have. While this review tackles six browsers for Android smartphones, there may be at least another half dozen or more serious contenders. Then there appear to be several dozen battling for a tinier slice of market share.

The second thing that is apparent: The game is different. While the desktop browsers tend to be feature rich and all things to all people, the developers of smartphone browsers aim to simplify them. The screen real estate is small enough and the fingers are fat that enough that the mobile browsers can’t offer many features at all. If anything, features get in the way and become anti-features.

The goal for the smartphone browser is to render the page, pop it onto the screen, and get out of the way. Even tabs are controversial, as not everyone wants to trade those precious pixels for their advantage. Every feature has to justify its value in screen space, and many features seem to lose out.

Third, you realize the competition is stiff. All of the browsers here do a good job of rendering Web pages for the small screen. It’s not likely that you’ll fail to read a Web page merely because you were using a different browser. Every one of them gets the job done.

Still, the subtle differences can add up. Some browsers are faster than others on the two different JavaScript benchmarks, SunSpider and Octane. The variations might not matter with some basic sites, but these delays, however slight, can pile up when you’re using complex pages and the more elaborate Web applications that are becoming more common.

To further complicate matters, some browsers excelled in one test but not the other. Both tests include some code like encryption that is quite similar, but in general, SunSpider’s collection seems a bit simpler and focused on pure computation. Browsers that do well with simple, repeated calculations usually do well with SunSpider.

The Octane test includes several big Web applications with tens of thousands of lines of code. It also includes a few tests to stress the object allocation routines and measure the effects of garbage collection, compilation, and other hiccups that can drive users nuts. If you’re concerned about your browser’s performance with complex Web apps, you’ll want to pay close attention to the Octane number. It's probably better at capturing the prowess of juggling big blocks of code.

One problem is that studying each browser’s performance in isolation is difficult. I ran the tests by loading the Web pages in the browsers on a Samsung Galaxy S3 running Android 4.4. Before beginning, I killed all other running programs with Advanced Task Killer before firing up the browser. While this stopped all processes for a time, it was clear that some had the ability to start themselves up. Apps like Facebook or Chrome are like zombies -- they won’t stay dead.

There are deeper differences with the HTML5Test scores. All of the browsers performed quite well on this test -- in many cases better than desktop browsers -- but some offered more new features than others. Do these matter? Not with small, simple websites that simply serve up pages, but the missing features could mangle a complex, modern site built with the latest forms and interactive features in HTML5.

Another part that people often overlook is the integration with the desktop. After all, it’s nice to be able to share bookmarks and other details across your devices. Of course this means that some company will track all of your moves, but that’s the price you pay for convenience. (For some reason, the smartphones rarely let you touch files or do anything under the hood, so it’s not easy to do this transfer without using the cloud.)

All of this makes evaluating the differences among the mobile browsers a bit of an art. If you use simpler websites or browse only occasionally, choosing a particular browser probably won’t make much difference. But if you use computationally complex sites that rely heavily on new HTML5 features, you should look carefully at the test results.

In other words, you can wing it most of the time -- until you get frustrated. A few years ago, people were happy to be able to pull up a website on a smartphone at all. The ability to pinch and zoom was a miracle. Now we’re spending so much time with the small screens that we need to spend time evaluating browsers and replacing the stock browser with a better option.

Chrome for Android

There’s something different about the Android version of Chrome. While the desktop version is a full-featured, dominant browser that supports a huge ecosystem full of plug-ins and extensions, the Android version feels spare. Aside from the support for tabs and private browsing, there’s not much to note about Chrome for Android.

The one part that stands out is the score of 518 on the HTML5Test, which is pretty close to the maximum of 555. Like Chrome on the desktop, the mobile browser offers the best compatibility scores for anyone who wants to use sites with the latest additions to HTML5.

Chrome Android

As you might expect, Chrome takes you right to a Google search field.

Almost all of the new elements and form input widgets are there. The only features that are missing and might cause pain for developers is support for some video codecs. Chrome supports H.264 and WebM, but not Ogg Theora or MPEG-4 ASP. There’s also no way to select audio or video tracks.

The rest of the omissions are mainly newer features for doing the background work that makes Web pages more interactive. There’s no support yet for custom content handlers, shared workers, or writeable streams. Are these essential? Probably not for most sites, but that could change.

The speed test results, though, aren’t as stellar. The numbers are in the middle of the pack, so there’s little to brag about.

One feature that can be useful with some sites is Chrome’s “data saver.” Google will preload sites with its own proxy engine and compress them before sending the files on to your smartphone. This can speed up the connection and save money on mobile data plans. The browser keeps a running tally of how much it saves and shares this in one tab. Some major sites didn’t provide any savings, perhaps because they’re already gzipped together, but others produced savings of 50 to 55 percent. Of course your mileage will vary.

CM Browser for Android

The first thing you notice when you start up the CM Browser is the home page with icons for a few of the major websites, a bit of news, and a list of the trending searches. Then you’ll see the ads nestled in between. If they bother you, you can turn them off. The home page, though, is fixed. You can’t replace CM Browser’s built-in page with another.

There aren’t many extras beyond this home page. The best feature is the translate option on the page menu that will translate a page into a language of your choice. It’s a good feature for anyone who wants to read sites from around the world.

CM Browser on Android

You'll find a large collection of bookmarks and enhanced pages for CM Browser.

The HTML5Test score, 384, isn’t great. While support for the newer tags and form elements is largely in place, there are large gaps in many other areas. Many users will miss support for the clipboard API, for instance, or the ability to drag and drop.

Custom handlers, streams, and peer-to-peer APIs aren’t supported at all. The Web Cryptography API and the Content Security Policy 1.1 also go by the wayside. In the world of codecs, support is limited to H.264 and WebM with VP8 compression.

In all, nothing absolutely crucial is missing, but there are many holes that will stop a Web app from doing much more than displaying some data and responding to some clicks.

The good news is that CM Browser’s Octane and SunSpider results are close to the top. CM Browser is also fairly small and compact. But while the website for the browser pegs the footprint at only 1.6MB, when I looked at the total storage soon after starting, it had grown to 15.9MB. This was still the second smallest in the test, but it shows how cached data can have an effect. When I checked in later after working on this review, total storage had grown to 23MB. You can adjust how much data is cached with the settings menu.

In all, CM Browser is a relatively small browser that doesn’t offer all of the HTML5 features, but delivers some of the best speed.

Dolphin Browser for Android

Dolphin is one of the best-known browsers for Android that doesn’t have a cousin in the desktop space. The company focuses on the mobile platform, and this has its advantages. The Dolphin Connect service, for instance, will sync bookmarks and details with a wide range of desktop browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, and Safari.

Another feature that’s still desirable for some people is support for Adobe’s Flash. This is essential for playing some games, especially many casual Web-based games, and it can be a key part of many websites.

Dolphin on Android

Dolphin gives you 12 major buttons and ample controls.

Dolphin also includes several features that make it easier to use a little screen with a tiny keyboard. You can, for instance, customize your gestures so that Dolphin will take you to a particular site if you move your finger in a particular pattern.

A better option might be Dolphin Sonar, which uses voice recognition to connect you to a few major websites. Saying “Yelp pizza” goes directly to a Yelp search for nearby pizza spots, while saying “New York Times” goes to a Yahoo search for the words “New York Times.” It’s a nice alternative to Siri because it works with the entire Web instead of Apple’s closed search engine. The only problem I had is that it seemed to require a vigorous shake, no doubt to avoid the problem of light movement triggering the option.

The HTML5Test score, 415, isn’t at the bottom, but it’s close. The newer tags are covered, and Dolphin gets a perfect score of 75 for supporting every variation of the different form elements. However, HTML Templates and the Shadow DOM aren’t supported.

Many of the gaps are the ones we’ve seen repeatedly in these tests. There’s little support for the fancier interactive techniques like drag and drop, pointer events, or game controller. Dolphin supports all codecs except Ogg Theora.

The biggest gap may be the lack of WebGL for displaying 3D content. There are also a number of lost points in the 2D graphics engine like the ability to create JPEG images and export them on the fly. But, hey, Dolphin continues to support Flash.

The speed results aren’t stellar either. The real attractions of Dolphin are the extra features such as Sonar voice recognition and the custom gestures. If you’re looking to run the latest HTML5 Web apps, though, you’ll probably be out of luck with any but the most basic.

Firefox for Android

The Firefox browser you use on your desktop is surprisingly close to the Firefox browser you use on your phone. Well, the extra buttons are hidden and the entire screen is given over to the Web page, but the inside is similar. You can install add-ons, as you can on the desktop, and some of them look pretty useful.

The world of Firefox add-ons is surprisingly fertile and creative because Mozilla has created an open API. One called Lazy Click will expand the radius of a click, making it easier to hit tiny targets. Another called URL Fixer will eliminate some common typos like .rog and .ocm. Several dozen of these add-ons that might be called essential.

Firefox on Android

Firefox for Android tracks your top sites and syncs with your desktop.

Firefox’s HTML5Test score of 474 is good but not in the 500s. The browser lost most of its points because it doesn’t support many of the newer tags like the toolbar menu type or the form fields that check your input. Most of the other points disappeared here and there for lack of features like the ability to choose the audio track or video track with JavaScript.

It will be interesting to see how long Firefox can resist some of the protections for artists like the Content Security Policy 1.1 or DRM. But most of what you might need for an interactive Web app is there.

Firefox’s Octane and SunSpider performance results are both very good, but not the best. The real standout is the collection of add-ons that build upon the success of the desktop browser.

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