Android Faceoff: Which Browser Wins Out On Speed, Features, Usability

One of the many nice things about Android is that you can install your own essential apps, like a browser, as your better default option. But do third-party alternatives like Firefox, Opera or Dolphin actually deliver a better browser? In many cases, yes. Here’s how.For a lighter kind of mobile browser test, I used some of the same protocols as we use with our full browser speed tests, such as the recent Firefox 4/IE 9 showdown. First, I wiped my Nexus One phone, running Android 2.3, for a fresh start. For JavaScript testing, I used Mozilla’s Dromaeo suit, which combines elements of the SunSpider test from Webkit, V8 from Google, and other elements to provide a good overview of a browser’s scripting prowess. I wiped out caches and lots of rebooting to test the “cold start” of each browser.

Mobile browsers are somewhat limited in other testing abilities, though, and I need to make a deeper study of Android’s memory management before claiming to report each browser’s usage. Beyond that kind of actual testing, I shuttled between five different browsers over the last 48 hours, trying to get a feel for when they’re useful, when they’re not, and what sets them apart. Those browsers were:

  • The standard Android “Browser” app, for Android 2.3
  • Dolphin Browser HD
  • Firefox Mobile (Release Candidate)
  • Opera Mini
  • Opera Mobile (the more native, full-fledged browser replacement

Note: We’re using the release candidate of Firefox Mobile in these tests; apologies that the charts don’t reflect that fact (yet).

The Alternatives Can Often Be Faster Than Stock

Above are the results from fully loading the New York Times’ full (non-mobile) home page earlier this morning, averaged out and with obvious errors/abnormalities taken out. The page is often usable and readable before all loading has finished, but these are the times for everything to be in place.

Android’s stock browser runs in the middle of the pack, while Dolphin shows surprising speed. Opera Mini, the smaller, lighter, less native browser from the Opera group, remains a very snappy browser, as when Adam tested it against the iPhone’s Safari. That said, Opera Mini’s font and page rendering are definitely compromised for speed, and even more so if you enable the “Turbo” mode that streams compressed images to your phone.

A few seconds here and a few seconds there add up, especially over a mobile connection, or when you’re pressed for time to look something up on the go. But take note that Firefox Mobile is just about one second behind the stock browser, and is competitive in other aspects.

See what we mean? In pure horsepower, Firefox Mobile is notably out in front. If you’re frequently accessing web apps, or perhaps Gmail’s very handy mobile site, you might see fewer spinning circles on Firefox. Opera’s Mobile browser is close behind, and Android 2.3 and Dolphin HD are tied. Opera Mini couldn’t complete the Dromaeo suite’s JavaScript tests.

As for booting up your browser when you first start your phone, or haven’t used it in some time: it’s definitely less of an issue on a device like an Android phone, as you’ll likely keep your browser in the background throughout the day. But to round out the number nerd-ery, Firefox takes its time loading up, while other browsers are generally dropping in as soon as they can.

Add-Ons And Synchronicity Can Be Revelatory

If all you use your browser for is to load up pages that you’ve typed into a URL bar, then you need never look beyond Android’s standard browser. It’s fast, it’s relatively standards-compliant, and probably the most stable of the browsers I tested.

But if you’re using Firefox on your desktop, you should really consider Firefox Mobile. The synchronisation of bookmarks, passwords, and last-open tabs between the two browsers is just about seamless, and that is no small thing. It’s much easier to sign up for sites and services on a desktop or laptop than on a phone; logging into that site or service, then, is super quick on mobile after that. Opera Mobile offers a similar, if reduced, synchronisation of bookmarks, search engines, and “Speed Dials” between your desktop and mobile Operas.

Beyond that nicety, both Firefox Mobile and Dolphin HD offer some really helpful add-ons. Both Dolphin and Firefox offer LastPass integrators, which just happens to be our favourite anywhere-and-everywhere password solution. The convenience of having LastPass available in a browser of choice, rather than having to use a separate LastPass “Browser” to fill in your site details, will become immediately apparent the next time a teller asks you to log into a web banking service while you’re at the front of a long line (ahem). There are also ad-blocking, script-managing, reading, bookmarking, and social-sharing services well worth exploring, and which, in my tests, generally don’t affect your browsing performance.

So Which Browser Should I Use?

Honestly, I was surprised in trying out the non-standard browsers. Earlier in Android’s history, I would rapidly try, grimace at, and usually put away the non-stock browsers I could find. But Firefox, Opera, pp and Dolphin, in particular, have had time to expand, refine, and hear from their communities as to what’s important.

Here’s are the key points I’d recommend, or at least characterise, about each browser, to anyone interested in trying something different:

  • Dolphin HD: Tabs on top instead of in “windows”; near-perfect compatibility with Android-friendly mobile sites; helpful add-ons without a speed sacrifice.
  • Firefox Mobile: Almost essential if you’re using Firefox on the desktop; also recommended for heavy web app users (like Gmail mobile).
  • Opera Mobile: Definitely handy for Opera desktop users; perhaps the best looking of all the alternatives.
  • Opera Mini: Most helpful as a “keep handy” browser, for limited/slow mobile connections or nearing data use caps.
  • Standard Android 2.3 Browser: If add-ons, syncing, and data crimping don’t hold any special appeal.

That’s our take on what’s available in the browser market, on the Android Market, so far. What’s your favourite alternative Android browser, and why?

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