Best of the Mobile Net

Note: Don't miss our slide show of 15 mobile Web sites we deemed essential.

Mobile Web graphic
Illustration: Mick Wiggins
You can see a lot of the Internet on a mobile phone these days. More developers are offering stripped-down, mobile versions of their Web sites (find PC World's at mobile.pcworld.com), and more handsets can display the full sites themselves. Of course, the experience remains far from perfect. Sometimes you get a site's mobile version; other times you don't. Your hardware and your cellular connection can limit your speed. And then there's your cell phone's preinstalled browser: While designed, in theory, to work with your cell-phone hardware, it can force you to scroll around endlessly, it can mangle Web pages, and it can't yet fully display Flash content. For other options, see "Top 5 Third-Party Browsers" on the last page of this article.

But if you have the right setup, getting instant access to driving directions, the latest headlines, and other online content becomes downright addictive. To test the five predominant Web browsers, we grabbed a representative smart-phone handset and loaded some mobile Web pages and lots of standard Web pages (the true test). We checked JavaScript support, and measured the speed at which each browser rendered individual pages.

Browser Shootout

Overall, Apple's Safari leveraged its sophisticated interface and the iPhone's spacious screen to create the best browsing experience. We also looked at Palm's Blazer, RIM's BlackBerry Internet Browser, Symbian's S60, and, in last place, Microsoft's Internet Explorer Mobile, a slow and clunky affair that had trouble with all but the simplest of Web sites.

Safari Mobile

iPhone's Safari, our mobile browser winner, displays Web pages the best.

iPhone's Safari, our mobile browser winner, displays Web pages the best.
Photograph: Rob Cardin
No matter what you might think about Apple's iPhone, the Safari browser it runs is the best-looking and easiest-to-use mobile browser you'll find today.

More than any other mobile browser, Safari renders Web pages so that they look like pages rendered on a computer. Of course, few Web sites fit readably on the iPhone's screen, but that is where the killer features of mobile Safari kick in. It lets you drag the cursor around and zoom in and out with extreme ease. And by using the two-Finger "pinch" gesture on the iPhone, you can zoom in to whatever size you'd like, then use a single finger to scroll the page. This simplicity makes reading text faster with Safari than with any of the other mobile browsers.

Safari is adept at more than just text: It renders most Web pages perfectly, even ones using complex CSS layouts. Its ability to display multiple Web pages is the closest thing to tabbed browsing you'll find on a phone. Its integrated search system, which works in much the same way as the Google toolbar, is a godsend.

All this overhead means Safari isn't fast, but it isn't as slow as you'd think, even on AT&T's pokey EDGE network. Use it for a day, and you'll find switching to another mobile browser painful.

Symbian S60

Symbian's S60 browser renders pages quickly but has trouble streaming video.

Symbian's S60 browser renders pages quickly but has trouble streaming video.
Photograph: Rob Cardin
Second fiddle to Safari is Symbian's S60 browser, which we tested using the Nokia E61i. (In America, Symbian is almost completely exclusive to Nokia handsets.) It made the most of the E61i's relatively low-resolution display and lack of a touch screen. (Note: Nokia plans to add support for touch screens to S60 in 2008 for use on touch-screen devices.) Like Safari, S60 attempts to portray Web pages exactly as they look on your PC. It lets you use the phone's navigation pad to scroll horizontally and vertically through the page and incrementally move an on-screen pointer. This works better than it sounds, but getting around on a large page is tiring.

S60 renders both mobile and full Web pages accurately and exceptionally quickly--a bit faster, in fact, than the iPhone on every site we tested. That said, many large pages caused the phone to stutter or lock up for a few seconds, and S60's tantalizing promise of being able to stream video via its integrated RealPlayer application resulted in a no-show. Both in my experience and according to reports posted on numerous discussion boards, the browser shows an error message when you try to stream video, no matter what the video's format is or what type of connection you use.

Palm Blazer

Palm's Blazer browser lets you keep graphics and formatting, but it's better to view pages without them.

Palm's Blazer browser lets you keep graphics and formatting, but it's better to view pages without them.
Photograph: Rob Cardin
Palm's Blazer, which we tested on a Treo 755p (you'll find it on all Palm OS-based Treos), came in a distant third. This browser places emphasis on raw data and text rather than graphics, generally reformatting Web pages one column after another. It does have a Wide Page Mode that leaves some pages in their original layout.

The touch screen on Palm handsets makes navigating a Blazer-rendered page fairly speedy. To scroll a page, you can either use the horizonal and vertical scroll bars or enable the Tap and Drag command to move the page via the stylus. That works, but not as well as Safari's interface.

The large font and smallish screen on most Palms means you'll be scrolling a lot. The problem is compounded because Blazer reformats pages by stripping out most of their design, mangling layouts. In our Treo 755p rendering of the relatively simple pages of The Internet Movie Database, photos overlapped text.

Your best bet with Blazer: Switch it to Fast Mode, which strips all formatting and graphics from a Web page, giving you only straight text.

BlackBerry Internet Browser

BlackBerry's browser renders pages, but it's not great with graphics.

BlackBerry's browser renders pages, but it's not great with graphics.
Photograph: Rob Cardin
Roughly on a par with Blazer is the BlackBerry Internet Browser that comes on RIM's BlackBerry hardware. We tested it using the BlackBerry 8300 Curve smart phone. You can tweak the browser to strip the images and formatting from pages--which would be wise, since the browser is hardly a master at handling graphics. The browser is fast, but the Curve's trackball--present on newer BlackBerry devices--slowed things down considerably. (BlackBerrys lack touch screens.) A bevy of settings let you control whether you want the browser to render elements such as tables, CSS, and background colors; however, choosing to render them or not doesn't make much difference, because the browser makes pages look chunky no matter what you set.

Internet Explorer Mobile

Microsoft's ubiquitous Internet Explorer Mobile is slow and clunky.

Microsoft's ubiquitous Internet Explorer Mobile is slow and clunky.
Photograph: Rob Cardin
Microsoft's Internet Explorer Mobile, the default browser on a wide variety of Windows-based smart phones, lands in last place. Some sites looked perfect, but it garbled others to the point of unusability. Even major sites like Digg and the Yahoo home page (their full, not mobile, versions) came across as messes on our test phone, a T-Mobile Wing.

Still, having a handset with a touch screen helps in navigating sites. Windows Mobile is the only OS among the five that comes installed on hardware both with and without touch screens. On the other hand, scrolling is practically mandatory on an IE-rendered page, even in landscape mode, because of IE's rendering difficulties. While the browser's default font is compact and easy on the eyes, it's the little things--like a bug that abruptly overwrites the URL you've nearly finished typing--that make it so aggravating to use. Worse yet: It is the slowest mobile browser we tested, taking, in one case, over 2 minutes to load the home page of the irreverent news site Fark.com.

Top 5 Third-Party Browsers

Flickr mobile screen.
You may not have to put up with the browser that came preinstalled on your phone. Third-party options are available for every platform except the iPhone. Remember, however, that not every browser will run on every device, even if it says it supports the device's OS. Also, many browser builders target service providers and developers instead of consumers, so support can be spotty. Some offer limited-time trials.

Opera Mini 4 beta 2 runs on virtually every smart-phone platform, with free versions available for BlackBerry, Palm, Symbian, and Windows Mobiledevices. (The similar Opera Mobile runs only on Symbian S60 and Windows Mobile handsets). Opera Mini is a very small, very fast browser with no frills and no rendering problems. The current beta version is a bit buggy, but it's the way--the only way--to go if you want a single interface across multiple devices.

If Palm's Blazer doesn't float your boat, give the $30 Mobirus Xiino 3.4E a spin. It generally does a better job than Blazer at displaying complex Web pages, though it still reformats them into a single-column view. The bookmarking system is somewhat better, too. (Blazer's bookmarks are rendered in childish buttons.) For heavy browsing on your Palm device, it's a worthwhile upgrade.

Just as you can replace Internet Explorer on your PC with the open-source Firefox, you can replace IE Mobile with the free Mozilla Minimo 0.2, which runs on Windows Mobile 5 and above. Minimo is a large download (4.5MB), and it runs slowly. It's also prone to crashing. But for a beta browser, it's certainly worth a peek as an alternative to IE (it even has a tabbed browsing system).

Access NetFront 3.4, currently a free beta, is another IE Mobile alternative. It supports Ajax and other modern Web standards and renders most pages closer to their desktop versions than any other Windows Mobile-compatible browser. It has a useful visual thumbnail layout for bookmarks. (Symbian versions cost 10 Euros.)

ReenSoft PIEPlus 2.2 isn't a stand-alone browser, but rather, a $15 add-on to make IE Mobile less useless. It can't fix IE's poor rendering, but it does add tabbed browsing, iPhone-like screen dragging and zooming, and many other features. However, like some of the other alternative browsers we tried, PIEPlus is prone to crashes.

Christopher Null is a veteran journalist who covers technology topics daily on his blog at Christopher Null, The Working Guy.

For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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