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Alternative mobile browsers tested: Skyfire vs Opera Mobile vs Fennec vs Safari vs Internet Explorer vs BlackBerry

Mobile browsing is better than ever, but you're not necessarily limited to the Web browser that came on your phone. We compare the alternatives to the best of the built-ins

Surfing on your phone doesn't mean riding it over wind-swept waves -- it's actually worth getting on the mobile Web. Mobile browsers are doing a good job of bringing the Internet to life, even on the tiny screens and anaemic processors of our phones.

But you don't have to dance with the browser what brung you -- you can install browsers other than the default, especially if you have a phone that runs the Symbian S60 or Windows Mobile operating systems, which are particularly app-friendly, despite their lack of decent app stores.

We took three of the main contenders for Web-browser domination and stacked them up against three popular built-in browsers for your fun and edification.

We also looked at Opera Mini, which only requires a phone that can run Java, and the built-in Symbian browser, but both were so simple compared to the rich mobile Web of the other options that we didn't bother testing them -- neither could finish the tests required for this comparison.

Opera looks set to release a version of its Opera Mobile browser for Android soon -- when that happens we'll be taking Android competitors into the ring, so stay tuned.

The challengers

Skyfire (Windows Mobile, Symbian S60)
Opera Mobile (Windows Mobile, Symbian S60)
Fennec (Windows Mobile, Maemo)

The incumbents

Safari (iPhone)
Internet Explorer (Windows Mobile)
BlackBerry browser (BlackBerry)

As on our desktop browser tests, we tested standards compliance with the Acid3 test, and JavaScript-rendering abilities with the SunSpider JavaScript benchmark.

We also tested the browsers' speed and subjective usability. Tests were done on a Toshiba TG01 running Windows Mobile 6.5, an iPhone 3GS, and a BlackBerry Curve 8900. On each phone, all applications and network connections, including the 3G connection, were turned off while we tested over the same Wi-Fi network.

Click 'Continue' to enter the teeny-tiny browser fray.

OS: Windows Mobile and Symbian S60
Version tested: on WinMo
JavaScript benchmark:
Acid3 result:
Get it from:

Skyfire renders pages on its own servers, and then displays them on the phone, so it can bring full versions of Web sites to your phone's screen insanely fast. Although it did poorly on the Acid3 test, Skyfire is one of the few browsers that will render complicated Web sites on your phone so they look just as they would on your PC.

In our tests, Web sites looked accurate, but heavily compressed. Text and images both looked like over-squished JPEG images, which made small text hard to read.  We were able to interact with Flash banners and movies -- Flash reported our version of Flash Player as for Windows Server. Videos, however, were jerky and very heavily squished, often out of sync with the sound, and we couldn't open them in full screen.

On our test phone, the Toshiba TG01, Skyfire itself wasn't attractive -- icons were grey and compressed looking, not shiny and smooth. But we appreciated how the user interface stayed out of the way -- menu buttons were compact, and it was easy to hide the address bar away and get it back again.

OS: Windows Mobile and Symbian S60
Version tested: 9.7 beta
JavaScript benchmark:
Acid3 result:
100/100 (Wow!)
Get it from:

Opera Mobile did an excellent job of rendering complex Web sites such as the BBC and CNET UK accurately and fast -- although there was no Flash at all, so we couldn't look at Flash elements or videos.

The user interface was innocuous and straightforward, and we particularly liked how Opera Mobile handled multiple pages. In our tests, it did a good job of loading multiple pages at once, and switching between them was simple. Opera Mobile calls this tabs, but there were no tabs visible when we had several pages open -- instead, an icon on the menu bar along the bottom shows how many pages you have on the go, and we could select the one we wanted from a menu.

Opera Mobile offers a Google search bar along with the address bar when you tap to enter text there, which was a clear and helpful way to give us the option to type an address or search.

Overall, Opera Mobile didn't have many bells and whistles, but it was a good, solid workhorse we'd be happy to recommend. And with a score of 100/100 on the Acid3 test, you can be confident that pages will display how they're meant to in this browser.

OS: Windows Mobile (alpha) or Maemo (beta)
Version tested: 1.0a3 on WinMo
JavaScript benchmark:
Acid3 result:
Get it from: for WinMo or for Maemo (direct downloads)

We don't have a Nokia N900 Maemo phone in the house, unfortunately, so we had to test the alpha version of Mozilla's mobile browser -- soon to be Firefox Mobile -- on Windows Mobile instead. But even in this early state, this browser from the people who brought you Firefox shows bucket-loads of potential.

We loved Fennec's innovative user interface, with a menu that slides in along one side of the screen and a list of thumbnails of open pages along the other side. This works gorgeously when we browsed in landscape mode. Overall, Fennec's user interface was the slickest of the contenders, although it wasn't the most intuitive.

Fennec was insanely fast at loading complicated pages -- the fastest of the browsers we tested. But there's no Flash support yet, and we had no trouble crashing this prototype version. Nevertheless, it may be worth a few crashes to take advantage of Fennec's slick user interface, speed and support for loading multiple simultaneous pages.

OS: iPhone
Version tested: OS version 3.1.2
Javascript benchmark:
Acid3 result:

A couple of days testing browsers actually made us appreciate Safari on the iPhone even more, despite its drawbacks. There's no Flash support, and multiple pages won't load simultaneously, but the user interface is serene and easy to use. The iPhone's large, responsive touchscreen can take much of the credit for this though, especially compared to the Toshiba TG01's resistive effort. But Safari does an excellent job of rendering pages accurately and quickly -- better than its desktop cousin, we'd argue.

There are heaps of alternative browsers available in Apple's App Store, but they all use the same underlying browser technology as Safari, with minor differences in the user interface or privacy settings setting them apart.

OS: Windows Mobile
Version tested: 7
Javascript benchmark:
Acid3 result:

The latest version of Internet Explorer on Windows Mobile 6.5 is a huge improvement on what came before, but it still sticks too close to a desktop browser. Although the menu options are bigger and more finger-friendly, we still had to navigate through a maze of menus to get what we wanted.

Internet Explorer was one of the slowest browsers we tested, but it handled Flash the best of all. Flash elements showed up perfectly, and videos were easy to play. We particularly liked how double-clicking videos opened them in full screen. But beware, this is still limited -- even on the powerful Toshiba TG01, videos were jerky and often out of sync. Nevertheless, it was the only browser we'd want to use for Flash sites.

OS: BlackBerry
Version tested: OS version
Javascript benchmark:
Did not finish
Acid3 result:

Despite the BlackBerry's email strength, its browser doesn't come close to a full Web experience. It's more like a mobile browser -- the kind you'd find on a feature phone, rather than a powerful smart phone. That means mobile versions of pages, no Flash, and no loading multiple pages -- either simultaneously or not.

The BlackBerry's little rollerball should give fine control over pages' tiny links, but we had to zoom in before we could click anything. To top it off, it was by far the slowest browser we tested when we tried loading complicated pages. The BlackBerry has many strengths, but compared to other big-screen smart phones, browsing is not one of them.

After all that, we needed a cleansing table to help us sort everything out.

We've distilled each browser's strengths, but note you can't get all of these on the same phone -- if you've got a BlackBerry, you're stuck with its browser, and you can't stick the iPhone's Safari browser on a WinMo phone. But it's still worth knowing what the competition is like, especially if you're looking to invest in a new Web-surfing pocket powerhouse.