Mobile Browser Battlemodo: Which Phones Deliver The Real Web

Before 2007, using the internet on your phone would make you want to kill yourself, if you were dumb enough to believe the crap splattered across that tiny screen even was the "internet." But the combination of increased bandwidth and better mobile software means that more phones really are promising to deliver the real internet, in living colour. We tested eight different browsers, and while some put smiles on our faces, others proved that rendering HTML correctly is a far cry from actually giving you an awesome web experience. And what about 3G vs. Wi-Fi? Everything the carriers have told you is a lie. This is the true state of mobile web.

Before we give you the rundown of each of the most prevalent mobile browsers, here's how they all stacked up in a timed test of how fast (and how well) they could render websites, chosen for their diversity and particular challenges:

CHART KEY: Number value is time for complete page load in seconds; page rendering is rated from "Fail" to "Excellent" for each; and the colour (red, yellow, green) indicates overall performance taking into account both speed and rendering accuracy: Green = good overall, Red = fail overall.

This second chart runs through the same procedure with all of the phones that had Wi-Fi options:

It's a pretty daunting pile of numbers, so let's break it down into standard prose, rating each browser as we go:
A fast, smart mobile browser based on WebKit. It tackles most sites with (almost) unrivalled grace and speed. Panning and zooming could be smoother and more responsive, but with a ton of options for getting around a page—various touch methods and the trackball—few sites will be challenging to zip around. The only thing we really miss is multitouch for zoom. Buttons just aren't a very elegant or precise solution, and while the whole-page magnifying glass technique is nice, we'd love something a bit more refined. Overall though, we're happy campers on Android's browser. Grade: B+

BlackBerry Bold
Leaps and bounds ahead of the browser BlackBerry users have put up with for years, it renders most pages correctly, even if scripts give it a conniption fit (hence its long load times for Wikipedia and the WSJ). It uses the standard "click to zoom" metaphor, which works well enough, though getting around a page with the trackball can be kind of a work out for you thumb. The Column View, which squeezes a whole page into a single column, is fairly convenient and makes it easier to get around wider pages, even if it doesn't work equally as well on every site (nice on Wikipedia, ugly on Giz). Hopefully they fix the script performance in the Storm, which is using an updated version of the Bold's browser. We humbly suggest they ditch their home-baked browser for one based on WebKit, which would help out there. Grade: B-/C+

What can we say? It's still got the best mobile browser around. It crushes basically everything but Android's browser—which is also based on WebKit—in speed and outclasses its still classy brother-from-another-mother (and everyone else) with the ease and elegance of its multitouch zooming. Some pages still give it fits, and it's missing Flash support, but it really does deliver an unrivalled mobile web experience. We love it, but make no mistake we're eagerly waiting for something better. (Mobile Firefox? Is it you?) Grade: A-

Nokia E71 Symbian S60
Hey look, another web browser with WebKit guts! It doesn't perform quite as well as Android's or iPhone's iteration where speed or render accuracy are concerned (can any Symbian nuts explain why?), but it does a serviceable job. The big thing it has going for it is Flash Lite 3 support, though performance there is kinda assy and memory intensive. Navigation is tougher with the E71's d-pad than with a trackball, but the whole page magnifying approach makes it easy enough to get around (too bad you have to dig through a menu or two to get to it). Not bad, but short of excellent. Grade: B-

Internet Explorer on Windows Mobile
Jesus Christ. This is a joke, right Microsoft? Hahaha. No really, this is the worst smartphone browser on the planet. It couldn't render its way out of an ASCII-art paper bag. It totally screwed up every single test page, except for Wikipedia, which it only mostly screwed up. Good luck navigating a page if you're granted the miraculous occurrence of it being rendered in a state that's usable. Grade: F-

Opera Mobile on Windows Mobile
Microsoft's own intentions notwithstanding, you can use the internet on a Windows Mobile phone. You just need Opera Mobile. It's kind of hobbled by Windows Mobile's assy performance, but it usually gets the job done. Not as quickly or always as accurately as its WebKit rivals, but it's definitely usable. Interestingly, it benefits more from the extra bandwidth offered by Wi-Fi than the WebKit browsers do. Menu-based zoom is annoying and imprecise. Touch-based panning worked okay, though a little laggy. We mostly navigated with the Samsung Epix's optical cursor, which worked pretty well, somewhere in between a d-pad and a trackball. Grade: C

Sprint Instinct
Holy CRAP. This is not the painfully lousy browser the Instinct shipped with not by a long shot. The original was slow and fairly feeble, even if it was the head of its (dumbphone) class. The new 1.1 browser really is a life-changing upgrade. It suffers in the chart because it's much slower than most other browsers, and zooming is still clumsy, but once the page loads, it's much smoother to pan and actually move around. I got a bit annoyed that it lied about pageload time, hanging at the last 2 percent of the status bar for half the load, but it usually gets things right. This is the best non-smartphone browser you can get. Grade: C+

LG Dare
Like the Instinct, the Dare proves you can actually get a usable browsing experience on a feature phone. It's a little nimbler at loading pages than its Korean blood rival, but the reason it ultimately posts lower marks than the Instinct is that it buckles way more easily under a moderate to heavy pageload, turning it into an unresponsive picture of the website you were trying to look at. Still, it renders most pages fairly accurately, and we like the sliding zoom scroll bar, at least in theory, since it seems like an intuitive way to deal with the zoom issue. Unfortunately, it works more like a glorified pair of buttons. (Note: I don't think the speed was actually a pidd ly 300 Kbps—I think it just had a problem dealing with DSL Reports' mobile speedtest, even though it's text-based for the dumbest of phones.) Grade: C

We tested every browser only using the full—not mobile—versions of selected sites, over 3G and, whenever possible, Wi-Fi. All scripts were turned on, and the cache was cleared before each round of testing. We took the average of a series of five sequential speedtests to give us an idea of the bandwidth we're dealing with, and timed how long it took to completely load a site according to each browser's progress bar. We assessed whether or not it rendered the page correctly, on a scale ranging from "excellent" to "good" (a couple things out of place) to "utter fail" (I've seen prettier train wrecks).

A few additional issues to note: Internet Explorer would not work on Wi-Fi. Opera yes, our Skyfire install, yes, Internet Exploder, no. (Samsung suggested it might be because of Opera.) We didn't pursue the matter because of how IE did in the 3G tests: A page that looks like a pile of blended dog poo is going to look like that no matter how much faster it loads. Sprint's updated Instinct and Verizon's Dare, which we included as best-of-class examples of feature phones, don't have Wi-Fi capabilities. We left out Opera Mini and Skyfire, since they both leave most of the hard work to servers which essentially spit out a kind of image file—besides, we don't think this kind of internet-by-proxy browser will be around for much longer.

The Big Gulp
Remember our mantra it's code that counts? It's true for mobile internet too. An awesome browser can make up for a mediocre network, but a terrible browser delivers a crappy experience no matter how great the network is. It's all about the browser. As it stands, WebKit is clearly the best thing going, but even then, software implementation matters, or Nokia would deliver as good a performance as Android and iPhone. Proving the point, it's striking how little Wi-Fi actually boosted speed beyond 3G—hell, WebKit browsers on 3G slid past some of the others that were running on Wi-Fi.

Another thing to note is that the zoom metaphor is a tricky thing to nail. Buttons are too brutish, the magnifying glass is imprecise. Multitouch seems to be the best way to handle zooming in and out in a way that's intuitive and precise. Hopefully we'll see other developers start to use multitouch interfaces in touchscreen phones (*cough*ANDROID!*cough*).

As much as this blow-by-blow battlemodo shows you all the problems we encountered, the big picture is that really, mobile web is pretty dandy right now, and getting dandier. It could be more reliable, faster, maybe a little more versatile, but for the most part, yes, you can access the internet on your phone. Compared to just two years ago, that's really saying something. We can't wait to see what it'll look like in two years. Maybe Internet Exploder will actually work. Nah, that's a little too sci-fi.

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