Best browsers for Android tablets

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According to current stats in the Google Play app store, Dolphin, Firefox and Opera Mobile have each been downloaded and installed at least 10 million times. We know that these browsers are optimised for smartphones, but how well do they work on tablets?

Obviously, the larger screen size of a tablet can allow for more leeway in how an app’s UI is presented, and also better accommodate for two-fingered (or two-thumbed) interactivity. We also tested the Android version of Chrome, since it’s the default browser that comes with the latest version of Android (Jelly Bean). We tested each browser on a Lenovo IdeaPad A1, which has a 7-inch screen and runs Android 4.04 Ice Cream Sandwich.

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Chrome - What we liked

Like its desktop counterpart, tabs are set along the top of the browser. You can rearrange their order by tapping-and-holding on a tab and sliding it left or right, and this works smoothly and swiftly. There are arguments for and against using this UI on a mobile touchscreen device; several tabs can indeed become jammed together and difficult to tap on when a browser is used on a smartphone. But we found tabs in Chrome manageable on our tablet, especially when holding the device in its landscape orientation.

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Chrome - What we liked

When you grip your tablet on its sides with two hands, you can use your right thumb to easily tap open the browser’s settings panel, within which you can start a new tab, or access your bookmarks also using your thumb.

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Chrome - What we didn’t like

When you open a new tab, the page shows thumbnail shortcuts of the sites you visit the most, which you can tap to go to a site. It’s too bad you can’t customise this page with shortcuts to your favourite sites, which would make things convenient on a tablet when you first launch Chrome.

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Chrome - What we didn’t like

Chrome's text reflow worked capably and quickly on most sites we tested it on. (Text reflow is the function of a mobile browser which zooms in on, resizes, and re-frames a block of text - when you double-tap on it - within the width of a mobile device’s screen.) But when we pinched-and-zoomed-in on text at higher magnification, Chrome wasn’t able to reflow their formatting.

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Dolphin - What we liked

You can customise the new tab/start page with links to your favourite sites. The shortcut images are based on the favicons and titles of these web addresses. You can access your bookmarks by swiping to the left. Tap a bookmark to visit the site. When holding your tablet by its sides, you can easily use your left thumb to perform these actions. Dolphin also uses a traditional tab interface for letting you close, navigate, and open multiple pages. Unlike Chrome, though, you cannot reorder your tabs.

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Dolphin - What we liked

Dolphin includes gesture-input functionality. For example, you can set it so when you scribble a letter on the screen, the browser will then load a specific page.

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Dolphin - What we didn’t like

We have to rate Dolphin’s text reflow technology as fair. Double-tapping on blocks of text in Dolphin would not invoke the browser to zoom-in on words as closely as we would have preferred. When we pinched-and-zoomed in extremely close on them, the margins of text blocks would not reformat automatically to fit within the screen’s width. You must then double-tap on the zoomed-in text block for Dolphin to reformat it.

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Firefox - What we liked

Even though Firefox forgoes using a tab UI, we found that its way of helping you to manage multiple open pages can be convenient - but mostly if you are gripping your tablet by its sides with both hands. On the upper-right of the main browser screen, you would tap the numbered button with your right thumb. A tab preview panel scrolls down from the top of the screen, which displays a scrollable, vertical listing of your open pages as thumbnails along with their titles. Tap a listing to go to that page. At the top-right of this panel, you can go to your bookmarks by tapping the “+”.

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Firefox - What we liked

On a tablet with 1280-by-800 screen resolution, and when you hold the device in landscape orientation, the numbered button is set to the left of the URL entry box. Tap it and the tab preview panel appears as a column along the left of the browser window. You can switch between viewing a site as it would appear on a standard desktop web browser, or its mobile version. This can be handy if you’d rather not be forced to see a mobile version of a site that might not be as easy to use or which lacks the features found in its original full-size version.

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Firefox - What we didn’t like

You cannot directly set or easily edit the new tab/start page with links to your favorite sites. You’re only presented with thumbnail shortcuts to what Firefox deems are your “top sites.” Firefox’s text reflow seemed to be about as capable as Dolphin’s - meaning it tries to do the job, but isn’t exceptional. Font size remained looking small on the 7-inch screen of our tablet, and the browser couldn’t reflow text blocks that we pinched-and-zoomed-in on very closely.

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Opera Mobile - What we liked

Launching Opera Mobile or opening a new tab shows thumbnail shortcuts to your favorite sites in a grid. You can customise this page with only the sites you want to see, and even rearrange their order. The thumbnail images are large, and their placement within one another in the layout is tight. On a tablet, they look inviting to tap.

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Opera Mobile - What we liked

Text reflow worked extremely well - in fact, Opera was able to re-format the margins of text that we pinched-and-zoomed-in on at high levels of magnification. Unlike Dolphin and Firefox.

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Opera Mobile - What we didn’t like

Navigating through multiple opened tabs requires two steps: you tap an icon to the left of the URL entry box (or the Opera logo and then Bookmarks). This will slide down and open a carousel-style interface depicting large thumbnails of your active tabs, which you can scroll through horizontally. (Through this, you can also close a tab or open a new one.) It works decently, but we really think either the traditional tab UI that Dolphin uses or something similar to Firefox’s system may have been better when using Opera on a tablet.

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And the winner is...

We’re going to give it to Opera Mobile because of its superior text-reflowing, and visually appealing and customisable start page. After you set the start page with your favourite sites, using Opera Mobile on a tablet to browse the web feels like a casual reading experience from the moment you first launch it, tap a thumbnail shortcut to one of your favourite sites, and double-tap on text blocks in a page to magnify their size and legibility. We just wished it used a tab UI - or a method like Firefox’s - to manage multiple open pages.

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