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Mobile browsers compared

With yesterday’s release of Opera Mini 4 Beta, I thought it would be a good time to do a browser comparison to show what the options are in the world of mobile browsing. I’ll review a standard WAP browser (as found on the vast majority of cellphones), the S60 browser (found on recent Nokia smartphones), Opera Mini 3 (used by over 15 millions people on any Java cellphone), Opera Mini 4 Beta (just released), Pocket IE (found on Windows Mobile smartphones) and the iPhone (although no hands on testing can be done yet). First let’s see which criteria can differentiate the browsers.

Criteria

The look

The first and most visual feature in comparing browsers, is how the pages look. There are 2 typical presentation styles: phone view and desktop view.

Phone view is the typical view a WAP browser gives you. Basically it takes the HTML and other web input, and formats them to fit the screen. This means that the page isn’t shown in the way it was intended to be, it can be painful to scroll through, and some elements may not appear at all. However the data transfer is less since there is only a minimum amount of images, and the power required is less so rendering may be faster.

Desktop view is what newer browsers are starting to adopt, and instead render the page as it would appear on a desktop browser, and then provide 4 way scrolling, as well as a rectangle where the user can focus and zoom in/out to read a section of the page. This can be done in 2 ways, either the screen shows the zoomed in view, with a mini map showing the full page (the S60 browser does this), or the screen shows the full page, with a mini map allowing for zooming (the new Opera Mini 4 Beta does that).

To illustrate these features, here are shots of the same 3 web pages (Yahoo!, The New York Times and Digg) on a WAP browser, the S60 browser, and Opera Mini 4 Beta.

browser_yahoo.jpg

browser_nyt.jpg

browser_digg.jpg

Features

The other obvious point to compare with these browsers is the features they support. This includes everything from web standards, JavaScript, AJAX, bookmarks, but also extra features like RSS feeds.

Also worth noting is if the browser is in beta or not, as it may contain bugs or stability issues. A crashing browser is not a pleasant web experience.

Availability

Finally of importance is also the availability of the browser: whether it comes pre-installed on handsets, if it’s available for download, and if it costs anything. It’s also worth noting which programming language the browser is written in, since different devices support different languages.

The browsers

WAP

netfront.jpgThe first in the list is the standard WAP browser. This is the browser that comes pre-installed on the vast majority of phones, and also the least powerful of the bunch. Some popular ones include NetFront, Openwave and PocketWeb. It’s the oldest type of browser and still the most used today on low end phones around the world.

These are usually part of the firmware of the phone and comes with handsets, and they provide a phone based look of the web. The early WAP browser only supported WAP pages, special sites ending with the extension “.wap” and not normal Internet sites. Modern WAP browsers also support basic HTML sites, and remove everything except text and sometimes images.

As far as features, they usually provide bookmarking, and that’s about it. Very rarely will they support even basic JavaScript and secure transactions, and you can forget any Web2.0 sites.

Pocket IE

pocketie.jpgThe second browser is Pocket IE (also called Mobile Internet Explorer), the Microsoft browser that comes with Pocket PC and Windows Mobile smartphones. This browser is made by Microsoft and has been through several versions already.

It provides a view of the web similar to the WAP browser, meaning it will take web pages and display them to fit the phone screen, instead of showing them as they were intended. It does display all the proper images, but they are smaller and not in their original locations. It’s worth noting that Microsoft currently has a new engine called Deepfish in development which will convert Pocket IE to display pages in the desktop view.

For features, PocketIE is much better than a WAP browser. On top of bookmarking and normal text and images, it supports the full set of web protocols like HTML, JavaScript, secure transactions and AJAX.

S60 browser

s60browser.jpgThe S60 browser is an open source project from Nokia that uses the khtml engine and was introduced in the spring of 2006. It’s available pre-installed on all S60 smartphones since early 2006.

This is the first browser to provide a desktop like web experience on mobile devices. It provides a zoomed in version of the page, and allows users to scroll in all 4 directions with the joystick or keys. When scrolling, a mini map appears showing all the pages. It also provides a back feature which shows every page in a scrolling list. For devices that support landscape mode, the latest version also supports it.

The S60 browser supports all the web protocols as well, plus RSS feeds in a special Feeds folder.

Opera Mini

operamini.jpgOpera Mini is the popular Java browser that runs on almost any phone which supports Java. It comes pre-installed on a few phones, but it’s also available for free download. The latest stable version is 3.1, but the beta version 4 was released recently.

The original look of Opera Mini was the same as WAP or PocketIE, meaning that web sites would be displayed to fit the phone. In version 4, this is changed to display pages in desktop view. Note that as of yet it does not support landscape mode.

Opera Mini supports all the web features, including RSS feeds. Note however that some features such as RSS and secure transactions are not available yet in version 4 beta.

iPhone

safari.jpgThe iPhone will come with a version of Safari. This browser is based on khtml, the same as the S60 browser. It’s not yet available, so the only things we know is what Apple has said. We do know it will be exclusive to the iPhone.

The display will be like the S60 browser and Opera Mini 4, showing a desktop based view. It also supports landscape mode, and provides a zooming feature. Apple also said that iPhone applications will be built around Safari.

We should also expect similar features as what the S60 browser provides, since it uses the same engine.

Conclusion

Obviously, if you intend to do a lot of browsing with your mobile device, the browser is an important part of the buying decision. That’s where smartphones such as S60 devices come in handy. If your device comes only with a WAP browser, but you can install additional Java applets, the latest Opera Mini seems like a clear choice. It’s currently the best free browser that can be downloaded.

As far as look, it seems clear that the future is headed to web style browsing, with the S60 browser, Opera Mini 4, Microsoft Deepfish and the iPhone all heading that way. In a year’s time, everyone will be expecting this type of full web support on the road, as it should be.

 

June 20th, 2007 Posted by Patrick Lambert | Editorials | | No Comments

 

About

Ever since early sci-fi shows like Star Trek showed futuristic hand held devices used for everything from scanning their environment, providing instant information, long distance communication, showing pictures, videos and much more, I knew this is how the future would be. Today I believe the age of true mobility has arrived.

The original idea for this site was to be a news portal about high end mobile phones. Unfortunately a lack of time and resources prevents me from keeping it up to date properly, and there’s already a large amount of sites covering the news. Instead, here you’ll find original content about the mobile world.

 

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