Chrome for Android might be a beta, but it’s a Google beta in the grand tradition of innovative, relatively bug-free betas. Chrome is going to force users and developers to recalibrate, and consider what a mobile browser on Android needs to be. The stock browser has been shown up by the more feature-rich competition for some time, but is Chrome good enough to put Google's efforts on top?
We’re going to go down the list, feature-by-feature and see how the competition compares to Chrome for Android. Get ready to browse harder than you’ve ever browsed before.
Page Loads and Rendering
Stock ICS: Google stepped things up with the stock browser in Android 4.0, and we were very impressed with it at launch. When comparing the stock browser to what we get with Chrome, it’s clear that Chrome’s page loads are all around better. After some testing, we’ve pinned down the speed advantage at around 20% for Chrome.
Most web pages also look much better in Chrome, with it’s more intelligent text sizing and zooming. The stock browser tends to use smaller text, and makes the page look a little odd.
Dolphin HD: We’ve always found Dolphin HD to be a little faster than the stock browser, but that gap was lessened with Android 4.0. When compared to Chrome for Android, Dolphin is just a bit slower to load heavy pages, but there’s no difference on mobile sites.
Firefox Mobile: Mozilla has been trying in vain to get the Gecko rendering engine working on Android. There were times when we saw a glimmer of hope for Firefox, but in its current incarnation, it can’t stand up to Chrome. Page load times are, on average, 40% slower. That means it’s still a fair bit slower than the stock browser, too.
Firefox’s rendering has gotten much better over the last few months. Pages no longer end up in an unusable state, and text is flowed correctly in columns. Although, text is small and if you turn on text reflow the page will be pretty badly broken every time you zoom in.
Opera Mobile: Without any of the data compression magic enabled, Opera Mobile is clocking in a little slower than we expected. Page load times are about 50% longer than those on Chrome for heavy sites, and 20-30% longer for simple ones. Opera seems to have trouble with some of the background scripts being run on many sites these days.
Page rendering is actually quite good in Opera. We like the way it renders the page with a default text size, but lets you reflow automatically as you zoom. Nothing on the page is broken, and as long as you don’t mind zooming in, everything is readable.
Tab Management and Sync
Stock ICS: Google built in an ICS-style interface for open tabs in the new stock browser. Just hit the tab button in the address bar, and you go to a page not unlike the Android Multitasking UI. Scroll up and down to see the tabs, and swipe to the side to close them. This is a little less flashy than Chrome, and it isn’t as good for getting an overview of the page due to the smaller thumbnail size. Still, it works well enough. We are missing that handy edge gesture to switch between tabs, though. There is also no tab sync here.
Dolphin HD: Dolphin does not rely on a separate screen to manage tabs. Rather, it just has a row of tabs at the top of the screen. As you scroll down, these will fall off and be hidden from view. You have to go all the way back to the top of a page to switch tabs, so it’s not terribly convenient. Dolphin HD also has no tab syncing to any desktop app.
Firefox: Mozilla has opted to place your open tabs in a pull-out list on the left of the screen. Just drag the page to the right, and you get your tabs. We like this system, and it’s really fast and effective when it works. Unfortunately, the browser sometimes doesn’t get the message when we want to pull out the tab drawer.
Firefox has had the ability to sync tabs for some time now, but as you might expect, it works with Firefox only. If you use Firefox on the desktop, just head into the settings and set up Firefox Sync. You will have to enter a unique code on your PC to link it to the phone or tablet, but the actual tab syncing works well. All the open Desktop tabs will be in the Desktop section when you tap on the address bar on the phone.
Opera Mobile: To access open tabs on Opera, just hit the tab button in the bottom toolbar. We like that it shows the number of open tabs, just like Chrome. The tabs will be shown in a small drawer that slides up from the bottom. You can tap on any tab to pull it back up, and hit the plus sign to open a new tab. This is a solid interface for managing tabs, but that extra bar at the bottom of the screen takes up far too many pixels. We prefer Google’s approach of keeping everything in the top Action Bar. No tab syncing here either, but really, who uses Opera on the desktop anymore?
Stock ICS: Where are the bookmarks? Seriously, this was one of the strangest design decisions Google made with Android 4.0. Bookmarks in the stock browser are only accessible from the tab management screen, or with a long-press of the back button and a swipe to the left. Terrible.
On the plus side, If you’re signed into Chrome, your Chrome bookmarks will be synced to your device automatically. Just make sure you have not set your data to be encrypted, and it happens like magic. The interface is a bit better with Chrome, but all the same functionality is in the stock browser.
Dolphin HD: You won’t find any bookmark syncing features in Dolphin HD. That shouldn't come as a surprise as there is no desktop equivalent of Dolphin. All your bookmarks in Dolphin are available in a slide-out toolbar on the left. You can import the local Android bookmarks, but there is nothing special here that can compete with Chrome.
Firefox: This is a another place that Firefox Sync has your back. All your desktop bookmarks will sync down with no problem whatsoever. Like the tabs, your bookmarks are shown when you tap on the address bar. There will be a folder for your desktop favorites, and the sub-folder structure will be preserved within. While this is a fine interface, it’s not as easy to find what you’re looking for as it is in Chrome. The space the UI dedicates to bookmarks is just very small.
Opera Mobile: Users of Opera Mobile can use Opera Link to keep bookmarks from the desktop in sync on the phone. For an Opera user this is a nice feature to have, but there is some more unrelated bookmark weirdness. Opera pulls in all the Android bookmarks under a separate heading, but if you have your desktop Chrome synced, it can make quite a mess in Opera. It’s just one giant list that doesn’t differentiate between mobile and desktop bookmarks.
Stock ICS: Google managed to make the stock browser much more snappy in Android 4.0. Part of this is the hardware acceleration baked into Android, but there is also a difference in the way pages are rendered. In previous versions, the entire page would be redrawn when the user scrolled. The stock ICS browser segments the page into smaller units and only redraws what is needed.
There are still times when large graphics or pages with heavy scripts will cause the browser to lag just a bit. Zooming is fast, but it suffers when the page is not finished loading. Chrome is fast even when pages are loading, and it’s blazing fast when they’re done. The stock browser feels slightly slower in practice.
Dolphin HD: Dolphin HD is about on par with the stock browser because it uses most of the same framework elements. The rendering engine is the same, and it’s mostly just the extra features that change the experience. What goes for the stock browser, goes for Dolphin. It’s good, but it’s still less responsive than Chrome in most places.
The only time when Dolphin feels faster is when you’re typing an address. Chrome uses cloud data to generate suggestions in addition to your bookmarks. Dolphin does much less of that, so there’s no lag.
Firefox: The problem we’ve had with Firefox consistently is it’s overall performance problem. It uses too much memory and tends to drag down the phone. Mozilla’s XUL interface has proven to be too heavy for mobile devices, and a native UI is being worked on in alpha builds. It may even hit beta before long.
In general, scrolling and zooming are okay. It just doesn't feel as smooth as Chrome or even the stock browser. On more powerful devices, Firefox is usable, but slower phones with 512MB of RAM are going to have more issues.
Opera Mobile: It's hard to explain what is going on with Opera. There are few outright freezes in Opera, but it all feels just slightly laggy. It's like the frame rate is just a bit slow when you're scrolling around. On heavier pages, the pinch zooming feels disconnected from the gesture. You'll start moving your fingers, and the browser will react a moment later.
Google’s Chrome for Android has come out of the gate with an impressive feature set thanks to the Google Cloud. Only Firefox can compete with those features, but connecting the desktop and phone is a pain and the Firefox UI is slow. Tab management is really great in Chrome, and it is reasonably faster than all the competition. As soon as Google irons out the occasional UI hang Chrome, it won’t even be close.