Still using the stock Android browser? You’re missing out. Android users can choose from a plethora of browsers, bringing a richer mobile Web experience to your smartphone or tablet. We considered Android’s top third-party browsers, Firefox and Opera, along with relative underdog Dolphin, then tested and compared them to Chrome to see which one deserves to be the default choice on your smartphone.
A mobile browser that’s laid out well maximizes your phone’s screen real estate so you can see more at a glance. Since you’re mostly going to use your phone with one hand, button placement and navigational components also affect how easily and quickly you can surf the Web.
Thankfully, all four browsers keep their interfaces relatively free of clutter, but some do this more elegantly than others. Both Chrome and Firefox make use of just one URL-and-Search bar accompanied by a Tabs button on the top. Chrome also throws in a Refresh button at the end of its Omnibar.
Opera also uses just one row at the top, but this browser adds a Menu button at the end along with a Tabs button, crowding the space. Dolphin uses two separate rows persistently — one for tabs and one for URL — leaving less screen space for page content.
Chrome, Opera and Firefox automatically hide their top bars after you scroll down the page, providing more room to enjoy your content while Dolphin’s bar is persistent.
Opera leads the way in tab management, bringing up your open pages in a carousel docked in a slide-down panel that takes up about half the screen. Each thumbnail in this carousel shows a title and preview of the website, and you can easily scroll through these previews to look for the page you want.
Chrome’s cards arrangement stacks your open sites on top of each other, and only lets you see a preview of four at a time. Firefox displays your tabs in two columns — preview on the left and page title on the right. You can see up to four previews at a time without scrolling, and your most recent tab is docked at the bottom. While this isn’t the most effective use of real estate, we like how clean and aesthetically pleasing Firefox’s setup looks.
Dolphin employs a traditional desktop format when it comes to managing tabs, keeping them at the top of your screen. This makes it a little difficult to find the specific page you want, and it also eats up space.
Showing an understanding of the many ways people use their mobile devices, Opera offers three different layouts: Phone, Classic and Tablet. Phone view devotes more of your screen to page content by using just one navigation bar at the top. Classic is made for one-handed viewing, and offers easy-to-reach buttons at the bottom. Tablet mode puts your tabs at the top, as if on a desktop, to give you an overview of and convenient access to your open pages.
We also like the placement of Opera’s settings menu; it’s docked to a corner of the screen as opposed to taking up the bottom center. Opera’s menu is also effectively laid out, using icons in a grid pattern to maximize space. Dolphin offers a grid-based settings menu setup, too, but we prefer Opera’s choice of location for its menu (top right vs. bottom).
Both Firefox and Chrome use a more traditional menu that slides up from the bottom and displays options in rows. Firefox’s share option in the menu will split over time to show your favorite sharing tool for easier access, which is a nice touch.
Winner: Opera. Opera’s carousel for tabs and multiple layout modes give it the edge (30 points).
When you’re on the move, you don’t have time to wait for a page to load. The best browsers can deliver fully loaded pages in the blink of an eye, so you can get movie listings, Wikipedia entries or restaurant menus as soon as you need them.
We put the browsers through the most common performance benchmarks, using a Galaxy S4 on our office Wi-Fi network. We also timed (using Numion.com’s site-loading stopwatch) how long each browser took to deliver NYTimes.com, Laptopmag.com and ESPN.com and averaged the results.
When it came to HTML5 performance, Dolphin’s Peacekeeper score of 671 put it in the lead speed-wise, but it was only able to run two out of the benchmark’s seven tests. We give the edge to Opera, which scored 606 (runner up) while completing five out of seven HTML5 tests. Chrome was a close second, with its score of 601 (3/7 tests run), and Firefox trailed behind (505, with 4/7 tests run).
In real-world testing, though, Chrome shined. The browser loaded our three test websites (Laptopmag.com, NYTimes.com, ESPN.com) in an Opera was just slightly behind Chrome, taking 4.8 seconds to load the three sites.
Dolphin came in third, displaying NYTimes.com, Laptopmag.com and ESPN.com in 4.3, 9.4 and 4.1 seconds, respectively. Firefox was the slowest, delivering those pages in an average of 7 seconds.
Tie: Chrome and Opera. Both browsers won two rounds out of five speed tests.
Android browsers pack a lot more special features than their counterparts on iOS or Windows 8, but which of these works well and is really useful?
Across the board, all the browsers offer the features you’ve come to expect, such as private browsing, history and data clearing, gesture support and speed-dial navigation.
Some other features are less common, such as Dolphin’s Sonar voice-control tool and Gesture shortcuts. We really liked being able to go directly to pages such as YouTube or Google by just drawing the letter Y or G respectively (you can assign your own letters), especially when we were in a hurry. Unfortunately, you’ll have to go through some steps (tap the menu, hit the gestures button) before you can draw the shape to trigger the page load, making this feature less effective.
Opera stands out for its thoughtful features, including different layouts optimized for use cases such as One-handed, Tablet and Phone. Its Discover service is like Flipboard in your browser, aggregating the latest and hottest content so you can get updates without having to leave the browser. An Off-Road mode compresses images before loading them so you can save on data use and get pages to load faster.
With Chrome, you can open an unlimited number of tabs, translate any website into any language with one tap and see search results as you type into the URL bar. That last feature is particularly nifty when you are typing a calculation such as “Convert 160 centimeters to feet” into the search bar; the answer displays immediately, right below the URL bar, and you don’t have to hit Go. Chrome also offers the same data-saving feature as Opera, compressing large files before displaying them in your browser.
Despite the intense competition in this round, Firefox proves it has much more to offer. With this open-source browser, you can save a page as a PDF document and start a Guest session. We found the Guest session feature very useful, because it creates a separate browsing session that’s free of history and bookmarks. This way, you can hand your phone off to a friend without worrying about her coming upon your previous searches for “cute cat videos” or “Miley Cyrus ‘We Can’t Stop.'”
A handy Reading List feature lets you save articles you can’t get to at the moment so you can pick them up later. Better yet, Firefox offers the ability to install add-ons that expand the functionality of the browser, with extensions such as Tap Translate, AdBlock Plus, HTTPS Everywhere and Lightweight Themes Switcher. Mozilla also offers a Health Report that tells you how certain add-ons or apps affect the performance of your browser.
|Number of Tabs||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited||99|
|Do Not Track||Yes||Yes||No||No|
|Request Desktop Version||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Find in Page||Yes||Yes||Yes||Yes|
|Data Saving||Yes||No||No||Yes (Off-Road mode)|
|Gestures||Panning left and right, pinch-to-zoom||Panning left and right, pinch-to-zoom||Panning left and right, pinch-to-zoom, custom page shortcuts||Panning left and right, pinch-to-zoom|
|Voice Controls||Built-in Android controls only||Built-in Android controls only||Yes||Built-in Android controls only|
Winner: Firefox. With add-ons that actually expand the functionality of your browser, Firefox beats the competition in this round.
Better standards support means that browsers are more capable of delivering Web elements or tools to your phone, such as HTML5’s drag-and-drop or CSS3’s background formats. We tested the browsers via HTML5test.com, Peacekeeper (HTML5) and CSS3test.com to see how well they supported each standard.
Chrome’s HTML5 test performance was the best, as measured by HTML5test.com, with Chrome registering a score of 488 (out of 555 total) narrowly beating out Opera (484). Firefox and Dolphin came in at 464 and 384, respectively. On Peacekeeper, however, Opera took the lead by completing five out of seven tests, while Chrome completed only three. Firefox finished four of the tests but took longer to complete them, while Dolphin blazed through the benchmark but could only handle two of the tests.
Chrome and Opera continue to tussle for standards support dominance in the CSS3 arena, with Opera’s score of 59 percent on the CSS3test.com benchmark just edging out Chrome (57 percent). Firefox followed closely with 54 percent, while Dolphin languished with 43 percent.
Some browsers also support less-common standards that can enhance your experience. Opera and Firefox both offer video chats within the browser through the WebRTC (Real Time Communication) standard.
Winner: Opera. Opera wins by virtue of its higher score on the HTML 5 test and better support for CSS3.
Sometimes you start reading a long article on your mobile device when you’re on the go and want to continue reading it from a comfortable, larger screen once you get home. A good mobile browser can make that transfer process easier with seamless syncing functions.
All four of the browsers we tested offer some form of syncing, but some let you share more content across more platforms. With Chrome, you can sync tabs, history, preferences, bookmarks and passwords across any signed-in device.
Google also makes it easy to open your pages; just go to Recent Tabs in the Options menu, and select the tab under the connected device. Syncing can take awhile, and there isn’t a way to force update, so it can get frustrating waiting for the system to refresh. However, we do like how easy it is to get your info across all platforms, including iOS devices.
Opera’s Link only lets you sync bookmarks, passwords, speed dial sites and preferred search engines, meaning you can’t use another device to pull up a previously visited sites or an open tab. You can easily save a page to the speed dial, though, by tapping the Plus symbol to the left of the URL bar and pinning it. This will sync to Link, and you can then open the page on your desktop version of Opera.
Opera says the feature should work “even if you’re using another browser,” but during our testing with Chrome on an iOS device and a Windows 7 laptop, the tool did not work, showing instructions pages instead of Speed Dial, Bookmarks and Notes.
With Dolphin’s Connect, you can choose to use your Google or Facebook profiles, or set up a new Dolphin account. We signed in with our Gmail credentials, and Dolphin presented us options to sync Dolphin Bookmarks, Desktop Bookmarks (works with a Chrome/Firefox extension to sync bookmarks across browsers), Tabs and History.
You can also choose to autosync only when your device is connected to a Wi-Fi network, and turn on background Services. The latter feature lets you launch the browser on your phone or tablet with a message from another Dolphin-linked device, even if the browser is closed.
After setting up the Dolphin Connect extension on Chrome, we shared a page via Dolphin Connect to our desktop, and a new tab with the selected page opened immediately. We love how handy this tool is for sharing sites among devices, so you don’t have to manually hunt through the abyss of open tabs and history logs for a specific page, as you’d have to do in other browsers.
Firefox’s Sync is a relatively new feature that syncs not just tabs, history and passwords, but also autofill form content. You can also share pages directly to the browser on desktop a la Dolphin’s Connect. However, the pages only appear when you hit Sync Now from the menu, instead of automatically as on Dolphin. On devices that support NFC, you can share pages by bumping them against each other. Unfortunately, Firefox’s Sync doesn’t work across other browsers like Dolphin’s does.
Winner: Dolphin. Dolphin offers real cross-platform compatibility and lets you sign in with more pre-existing accounts. We also like its page-push feature.
With a clean interface, blazing speeds and excellent standards support, this one’s a no-brainer. Opera beat its competition by sticking to its essential functions and doing those well. We liked runner-ups Firefox and Chrome for their special features and slick performance, but there isn’t much you’ll miss on Opera. The less-known Dolphin proves itself a worthy contender, providing great speed, though it doesn’t have the best support. Dolphin’s special features are also fun but seem a tad gimmicky.
Those obsessed with privacy can look to Firefox, which offers a Guest mode and more Do Not Track options. But if you’re looking for a browser that performs well and is thoughtfully built, you can’t go wrong with Opera for Android.