Android browsers come of age

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Chances are, you haven't though much about the browser on your Android phone or tablet. The browser that came with it is perfectly fine, right? There are actually some pretty good reasons to consider using a new browser, especially since, unlike iOS, browsers on Android are more than mere "re-skins" that rely on the stock browser engine. Significant new features like floating windows, popular plug-ins, desktop modes, and blazing speeds are all on tap, and most of these alternatives are free.

AOSP – solid, but basic

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The AOSP browser defines basic.

The AOSP (Android Open Source Project) browser installed by default on many Android devices is swift, simple, and serviceable, but there are other options worth exploring if you feel constrained by its paucity of features and rudimentary layout. It survives on older phones and gets bundled with carrier software preloaded on many Android devices because it's easy to support and rock solid stable. It's not a bad browser, but it doesn't scale well with modern, high-resolution smartphones or demanding sites.

Consider the AOSP browser a backup choice, if nothing else. Newer phones and tablets don't come with it installed, and it isn't available for download via the Play store from Google. You'll have to hunt down an APK, or use one of the installer apps from third parties in the Play store (if you trust them).

Chrome – the company man

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The Chrome experience on Android is very similar to the desktop version.

Recent Android releases come with Chrome installed as the default browser, and Google has worked hard to make it worthy of this privilege. Initial releases were dog slow and prone to constant crashing, but a stream of improvements has made Chrome a real contender. While it still feels slower than the competition, it enjoys newfound stability and is highly compatible with web standards (although Flash is no longer officially supported). If you use Chrome on your desktop or laptop, you'll love the ability to sync bookmarks, push open tabs between platforms, and search through your common search history. You'll want to grab the Chrome to Mobile extension to make the most of it.

Chrome isn’t the default on every phone yet, and bloat may be the reason. It’s a huge and hungry beast, and really only runs great on the highest-end phones and tablets. For many older devices, it’s just too much.

Another annoyance with Chrome is Google’s insistence on hiding many key settings in obscure system pages like chrome://flags/. Still, since Google has put the full faith and trust of the Android ecosystem behind it, Chrome is the place to start when looking for a new browser.

Daring users can also install Chrome Beta, which lives side-by-side with regular Chrome. New features and performance improvements show up there first, but stability isn't guaranteed.

Boat - whatever floats yours

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Boat's floating tabs can come in handy on large tablets.

Boat comes in two versions: the standard phone flavor and an HD version designed for high-resolution tablets like the Nexus 10. The palette and UI design make for a bland first impression, which is too bad, since Boat is one of the most innovative mobile browsers out there.

The feature list is extensive: synchronized bookmarks (with Firefox on the desktop), Flash support, custom gestures, and a built-in file manager. Top of the list, however, are floating tabs. These are resizable browser windows that remain in the foreground of the screen no matter what else is running at the time or which task you switch to. You can even open more than one. Floating tabs support everything from YouTube to email and are a godsend when multitasking on a large tablet. Expect this feature to be widespread before long.

Boat has some shortcomings, however. Compatibility is good but speed is mediocre. Boat may feel a little faster than Chrome, but that's not saying much. Swiping causes complex pages to stutter, and fonts sometimes display improperly. Moreover, Boat's full version isn't free, although the $3 price is low enough not to quibble. You'll want to keep this one around for the floating tabs alone, especially if you use a tablet.

Dolphin – Stylish, swipey fun at full speed

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Dolphin's swipeable side menus are in keeping with modern app interface design.

Dolphin's stylish radial interface and swipeable side menus are only part of its charm. The main reason to love Dolphin is speed. Gliding across challenging mobile sites like Google News produces smooth, glassy horizontal movement, limited more by download speeds than tablet horsepower. It's a tactile pleasure. Page rendering is crisp and accurate; there's a lot here to like.

While it’s no challenge to Firefox’s extensive add-on library, Dolphin sports a few plug-ins such as an ad blocker and Flash player, which help to round out the feature list a bit.

If you're using an older device, Dolphin’s low memory footprint and excellent speed make it a natural choice. It does crash a lot, however, so be prepared for a healthy share of unceremonious exits to your home screen.

Maxthon – Nothing a lick of paint can’t fix

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Maxthon is a little rough around the edges.

Maxthon is a curious specimen. It promises Dolphin-like speed along with a grab bag of handy browser tricks, but rough edges and poorly implemented ideas rob its potential. For example, an extensive cloud synchronization process has been implemented, but it requires you to install and use an obscure Maxthon browser on your desktop/laptop to be of any real value.

Another example is a handy quick-access menu where you opt to have the browser pretend to be a different kind of browser, so you get a specific optimized web layout. You can tell it to look like a desktop, Android, iPad, or iPhone browser, but Maxthon will often render pages with clipped fonts, obscured column edges, and other visual anomalies when fonts are set beyond default size. Often, you’ll find yourself staring at a grey apology; "Unfortunately, Maxthon has stopped."

Under most circumstances Maxthon does fine for itself. The layout is clean and attractive, and page loads are reasonably swift. It's a nice step up in features from AOSP, but there are others browsers here more worthy of your attention.

Firefox – A love letter for desktop Firefox fans

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If you like Firefox on the desktop, with its huge library of plugins, you'll love Firefox on Android.

If plugins are your thing then look no further. Faster and more feature-rich than Chrome, Firefox echoes the strengths of its desktop counterpart at the cost of an admittedly noticeable deficit in stability. Firefox also looks great, with design cues that are an attractive departure from the more conservatively styled browsers in this group.

Favorite add-ins like LastPass, NoScript, and AdBlocker have made the trip to Android along with Firefox, which will make the glitches worth enduring for many. The legion of desktop Firefox users will also find passwords, bookmarks, tabs, and history synchronized for easy crossover between devices. Handy, since Firefox is everywhere.  

Along with the crashes, Firefox could stand to lose a few pounds. It's second only to Chrome in memory usage. It also has a few problems rendering tablet-friendly sites like Google News, defaulting to desktop layouts. 

Opera Mobile – Polished perfection, sans innovation

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Opera's Discover page aggregates stories for you.

Opera is the granddaddy of this group, first released way back in 1994 on Windows PCs, but don't let the grey hair fool you. It's one of the best browsers here, and recently the recipient of a comprehensive rewrite. With speed and stability to spare, Opera serves up basic browsing features with a degree of élan and polish most of the others can't match. Site compatibility is top notch.

Unique features are few but helpful, such as the Discover page, a Buzzfeed-like story aggregator built into the browser that's reasonably adept at finding media items of interest. Another handy setting is Off-Road mode, which compresses content for reduced bandwidth situations. Don't expect anything too wild in terms of novel ideas, however. Opera's main flaw is playing it safe when it comes to trying new things.

Opera Software ASA also produces Mini and Classic versions, designed for lower clock speeds or pre-ICS versions of Android.

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