Why I switched to DolphinHD

The original Dolphin browser for Android was more than a bit kludgy, but the new DolphinHD combines a killer feature set with decent benchmarks.

I was never a fan of the original Dolphin browser for Android, but when DolphinHD was released for Android 2.0 and above I figured I'd check it out for the feature set alone. Little did I know that within a day I'd make it the default browser on my Motorola Droid.

Tapping the designated corner in the DolphinHD browser will let you control many browser functions with gestures. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Much like the Skyfire browser, which boasts unique in-house Flash video playback, DolphinHD's feature set gives users significant feature enhancements over the default browser. There's tabbed browsing, link sharing via your installed social networking apps, add-ons, themes, smoother in-browser multitouch, a generally high level of customization, the ability to save your cache and history to the SD card, and one of the most logical features for a touch-screen phone browser, customizable gesture support.

There used to be one other awesome feature: YouTube video downloading. But lest you think that only Apple played hardball with its application developers, Google forced Dolphin's publishers to remove the feature for a Google and YouTube Terms of Service violation within a week of the browser's release.

For me, the gesture support is Dolphin's killer feature. It comes with several default actions, including jumping to your bookmarks, moving forward and backward in site navigation, jumping to the top or bottom of the page you're on, reloading the page you're looking at, and sharing the page you're on. You can also set gestures to load specific sites, open new tabs, or add a bookmark. In all, Dolphin comes with 20 gesture options. A few have been wedded by default to predetermined gestures, but you can overwrite them easily with motions more to your liking, or move the gesture hot corner around.

Pulling up bookmarks is an easy win for gestures on a touch screen, but the two gestures I've been most surprised and impressed by have been for highlighting text and sharing pages. Suddenly, I no longer have to worry about remembering to clip a bit of text at home, where the desktop makes it a no-brainer. I can select text with my thumb, and as soon as I lift my thumb off the screen, the selection gets copied to the clipboard. Likewise, the share gesture means I can paste a link to the site I'm looking at into an e-mail, an SMS, a note in Evernote, a tweet, or a Facebook status update without complicated fiddling around on the phone.

Tabbed browsing is another feature I can't imagine not having in a mobile browser, now that I've been using it for a few weeks. The tab bar can be set to disappear when there's only one tab, and it will also hide, to maximize your screen real estate, as you scroll down a page. Being able to open tabs I want to read soon but don't need to bookmark or add to ReadItLater, and yet not jump away from my current tab, is a feature that seems to mesh well with how I prefer to browse Web sites. DolphinHD does have a ReadItLater add-on available, along with one for Delicious and seven others. One of those seven lets you buy a license to remove the ad bar from the bookmarks, history, add-ons, and themes window.

Personally, I don't use the add-ons, but the ones I toyed with worked well and added some slick, powerful tools to the browser. One add-on can back up your bookmarks to an SD card, another provides deep hooks into multiple Google services, and a third arranges your bookmarks in a 3x3 display similar to Opera Mini's Speed Dial. The default list of bookmarks is not static but can be re-arranged by holding and dragging a bookmark.

In addition to gestures, DolphinHD offers add-ons, themes, tabbed browsing, and other features not found in the default Android browser. Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

One problem with the WebKit-based DolphinHD is that it felt slightly slower at times than the default browser, but because I'd played with a lot of Android browsers recently I decided to benchmark it against the default browser, also WebKit, and Opera Mini to see what shook out. I didn't test Skyfire, despite the sweet Flash video support, because I've found it to generally be a buggy, crashy browser. So, I defined three tests for the three browsers and ran each three times.

The first was a cold start of the browser, with each application launched from the main home screen immediately after booting finished and clocked till Google.com finished loading. The second test checked load times for CNET.com, a site that represents a heavy content load of pictures, text, and video. The third ran the browser against the SunSpider JavaScript testing engine. This turned out to be slightly flawed in that Opera Mini was unable to complete the test in all three of its runs, freezing the test after a few seconds.

On a Motorola Droid running Android 2.1 and using Verizon's 3G for network access, DolphinHD's cold start placed it in the middle of the pack, with an average start time of 10.33 seconds. The default browser blasted through this test, going from zero to ready in 6.33 seconds on average. Opera Mini got to its Speed Dial page quickly, at 8.67 seconds, but even when the Google search Speed Dial button was tapped as soon as it was available, the browser crept to Google.com in an average of 13.67 seconds.

Loading CNET.com once they were warmed up, the browsers reacted much faster. DolphinHD and Opera Mini both finished rendering the page in 5 seconds on average; the default browser took 6.33 seconds. The SunSpider test saw Dolphin hit an average of 35,046.3 milliseconds, with the default browser a touch faster at 34,089ms. Opera Mini generally feels faster than the default browser when downloading sites, but not significantly so. Clearly, there's room for speed improvements on the part of all three browsers.

It's notable that all the extras Dolphin offers compared with the default browser aren't dramatically slowing it down, even though there's no doubt it could be faster. Throw in the gestures, tabs, add-ons, and bookmark management that I find preferable to those of the default browser, and Dolphin can count me as part of its pod--at least until the next better browser comes along.

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