Browsing the web on your mobile device doesn’t have to be an exercise in futility. Sure, some of the stops along the information superhighway butcher its best practices, as anyone who’s had the displeasure of encountering undissmissable ads, oversized typography, and confusing graphics can tell you. But a good browser app can make even the least intuitive webpage or website better. Unlike the smartphone browsers of yesteryear, some of which omitted even basic pinch-to-zoom controls and support for tabbed browsing, the modern cream of the crop augment perusal in ways that were previously inconceivable. Some speed up the web by compressing unoptimized images and code on the fly, or by retrieving stored usernames and passwords from the cloud. Others convert content encoded with Flash, a proprietary plugin, into a form interpretable by smartphones. And still others offer support for third-party plugins — e.g., note-taking apps and sharing tools — that further beef up your browsing experience.
Indeed, perhaps the most overwhelming element of the mobile web today isn’t taking care to avoid its many tangles, but choosing from the wealth of browsers that do so exceedingly well. They run the gamut from refined to prototypical, from proprietary to open-source, and from privacy-oriented to data dependent. There’s Opera, a desktop stalwart that’s made the successful jump to mobile; Chrome, Google’s long-in-development effort which is matched in polish and flexibility perhaps only by its desktop namesake; and Firefox, a mobile effort by nonprofit foundation Mozilla with a focus on simplicity. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Choosing a browser is a challenge, to be sure, but hardly an insurmountable one. To simplify things, we’ve picked the most streamlined, intuitive, and robust mobile browsers we could find. It’s not an exhaustive list by any means, nor a definitive one — after all, like the web, the number of mobile browsers grows by the hour. But it’s a good starting point.
Chrome, the internet browser nearly as synonymous with the web as Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, launched on Android back in 2012. It wasn’t the first third-party browser on the platform to market, but it more than made up for its tardiness with a veritable cornucopia of features. Among the highlights? The ability to quickly initiate searches from the address bar with your voice or keyboard, browse the web in relative privacy with Incognito mode, and autofill lengthy forms with saved info such as names, credit card numbers, and addresses. And since its debut, it’s only become more compelling.
Chrome really shines if you’ve got a Google account. Once you’ve signed in, it synchronizes your bookmarks, tabs, and history across devices. It also remembers your usernames and passwords, if you allow it, and autocompletes your search inquires with a personal dictionary of learned spellings. But you needn’t sign in to benefit from Chrome’s other, labor-saving conveniences. It grants all users tabbed browsing and a rendering engine that sandboxes individual web pages, ensuring that the instability of one doesn’t affect the rest.
Last but not least, Chrome features Data Saver, a relatively new feature which conveniently taps Google’s servers to compress images, fonts, and other web objects. It confers the dual advantage of speeding up browsing and reducing your data usage, both of which are greatly appreciated when using a cellular connection.
Best for: Those already heavily immersed in the Google ecosystem.
Opera is nothing if not a resilient company. Despite its single-digit share of the browser market and a $1.2 billion takeover by a Chinese consortium, the firm’s mobile efforts are very much alive and kicking. That’s dedication.
Opera Mobile, the Android-compatible derivative of the long-in-development Opera browser for PC, continues to receive slews of new features through successive, regular updates. The most recent is a built-in ad blocker which, as you might expect, blocks pop-ups, interstitials, and banner ads you’d otherwise encounter on any given website. Opera’s new search bar supports the standard array of queries — i.e., web, pic, video searches — but also supports QR code scanning. And Opera Turbo, a feature comparable to Chrome’s Data Saver, compresses data — up to 80 percent, Opera claims — in order to boost your browsing.
Opera Mobile is otherwise standard fare. It supports tabbed and private browsing, includes a password manager and auto-complete tool, and, if you sign in with an Opera account, the app syncs your browsing session between other signed-in devices. Performance is about on a par with Chrome, which makes sense considering the two use almost identical rendering engines.
Best for: Those who seek balance between features and ease of use.
Firefox, the product of the nonprofit Mozilla foundation, is, like Chrome and Opera, hardly new to the internet browsing block. The open-source browser made its debut in 2002. The Android variant, appropriately dubbed Firefox for Android, got a later start — in 2012 — but now packs the same functionality as the rest. Perhaps the undisputed headliner is support for extensions, or third-party tools that augment browsing in a variety of ways. There’s the pop-up suppressor AdBlock Plus, for instance, along with the text-to-speech engine Speechify and password manager LastPass. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Extensions aren’t Firefox’s only unique contribution to mobile browsers. Its night-viewing mode dims the colors of webpages in order to minimize eye strain. Firefox for Android also features a robust set of privacy controls that allow you to, among other things, block advertising networks from tracking your browsing habits. And the seamlesness of Firefox’s bookmark, history, password, and tab synchronization are second to none.
But Firefox for Android tends to rest on the laurels of extensions — it lacks a native data compression feature, for example, and sports only a basic home page. Rest assured there’s an extension for practically everything, but you’ll have to resign yourself to tracking them all down.
Best for: Those who don’t mind a bit of tinkering.
If you aren’t familiar with CloudMosa’s Puffin browser, not to worry, as it doesn’t have quite the same pedigree as some of its heavyweight competition. But what it lacks in sheer force of brand it makes up for in novelty with one of the oddest collections of esoteric, albeit useful, mobile browser tools. It’s able to emulate a mouse cursor or trackpad. It has a virtual gamepad and a built-in virtual keyboard. And it lets you customize its themes.
What truly separates Puffin from the crowd, though, is its support for Adobe Flash content. It uses remote servers to download, process, and stream Flash games and videos to your device, and, more often than not, does so splendidly. It’s not perfect, however. Video content restricted by geography is often out of the question thanks to CloudMosa’s US-based servers, and the browser’s free tier only allows Flash streaming up to 12 hours a day. Still, if there’s a stalwart site or player out there yet clinging desperately to the internet plugin past, Puffin’s Flash remains one of the best ways around it.
Puffin also has a privacy mode, data compression, and a handful of add-ons like Twitter, Facebook, and Pocket.
Dolphin debuted to much fanfare as one of the first browsers on Android to support multi-touch gestures. The mobile landscape is a bit more competitive nowadays, but Dolphin has managed to avoid drifting into obsolescence with a robust set of time-saving tools. The cleverly named Dolphin Sonar lets you perform complex voice queries like “search eBay for Nike Shoes” and “go to Google.com.” Moreover, gesture browsing allows you to associate finger-traced characters with websites (e.g., “T” for Twitter). And Webzine, an answer of a sorts to Flipboard, aggregates more than 300 web sources in a variety of disciplines within an offline, “magazine-style” digest.
Dolphin’s competitive in other ways. It, like Firefox and Puffin, supports add-ons. It features tabbed browsing, too, plus private browsing, form autocompletion, and password management. And it supports syncing via Dolphin Connect, too. Log in with your Google or Facebook, install the corresponding Chrome or Firefox extension on your computer, and your tabs, history, and your bookmarks will automatically sync silently in the background.
Best for: Those seeking a kitchen sink’s worth of features.