The Best Android Browsers – December 2017
There’s a lot to love about Android as an operating system. It’s matured a lot over the past half-decade, with an emphasis on improved performance throughout the Android 4.x days and leading up to a total visual rehaul in 2014 with the release of Android 5.0 Lollipop and the unveiling of material design. In the three years since, Android has evolved to a rich, modern ecosystem. While both iOS and Android have their fair share of criticisms, it’s surprising to see Google’s mobile operating system overtake iOS as one of the best-looking pieces of software you can get today. Despite the sense of visual maturity, Android hasn’t lost its true sense of customization that has been around since the beginning of the platform. From changing your home screen layout to setting up custom launchers, Android has always felt a little more open than its competition, and this remains true to this day.
One of the most underrated abilities in Android’s customization is the ability to set specific apps to as system defaults. By setting an application as a system default, you can control how your phone opens up all sorts of different files in your device. This is incredibly similar to what we’ve seen from other operating systems like Windows, where you can set an application to open specific file types automatically. For example, if you want VLC to handle all of the video file types on your laptop, setting VLC as your default video player will allow the file to open directly inside of VLC without have the device ask you each time you open a file, or you having to manually redirect your computer to a specific application. Android has the same built-in function, allowing you to easily replace the apps that ship on your device with your favorites downloaded from the Play Store. From replacing Google Maps with Waze or Gmail with Google Inbox, it’s easy to replace the applications on your Android phone or tablet with your own favorites.
This includes switching out your browser for a new choice. The market for mobile browsers on the Play Store has been heating up over the past year or so, and as 2017 draws to a close, we’re seeing some great competition for mainstays like Chrome that are included with nearly every Android device out of the box. Whether you’re looking for an application that uses less data than Chrome, helps preserve your device’s battery, or to use plugins like night mode and other applications that can help you improve your standard browsing experience. Of course, there’s so many different selections to choose from, picking a replacement browser can be difficult. Here’s the good news: we’ve tested some of the most popular browsers on the Play Store today, and we think we’ve found some great selections. This is our guide to the best browsers on Android today.
For most Android users, Chrome is the ultimate browser for your smartphone. First announced in beta back in February of 2012, Chrome quickly replaced the stock Android browser that shipped with older builds of the operating system. Since then, it’s become the default browser on every Android device, shipping on every Android device that includes Google Play Services, regardless of manufacturer. Though designed for a smaller screen, Chrome on both smartphones and tablets can perform the same basic functions as its desktop counterpart, albeit with some capabilities lost in translation. Still, Chrome is a great browser for anyone who is looking for a way to sync their content between devices, or anyone who’s dedicated to Google’s own services. Let’s dive in.
When you first boot up Chrome on Android, you’ll be prompted to login with your Gmail account. If you use Chrome as your desktop browser, you’ll love this. All of your bookmarks, browsing history, search results, and more sync between the instances of Chrome. For anyone who routinely visits the same sites for updates or new posts (and we’d hope TechJunkie is one of those sites), this is a huge benefit to reading and browsing the web. Not only does it speed up your mobile browsing, but it also makes it incredibly easy to pick up wherever you left off when leaving your desktop browsing behind. Since Chrome can sync everything from your recent tabs (more on that below) to your most-visited pages between devices thanks to your account sync, you’ll always have shortcuts handy for when you want to visit a favorite site.
When it comes to Chrome’s Android interface, you’ll likely find it clean and familiar if you’ve used the app on a traditional computer. The “new tab” screen, for example, is nearly identical to its appearance on desktop Chrome, displaying the Google logo, a search box with optional commands, and eight shortcuts displaying your most-visited pages (synced from both your mobile and desktop version of Chrome). On Android, however, there are some additional features within the app. You can scroll further down the list to view recent bookmarks, synced from all instances of Chrome you’ve logged into. Below this, a list of suggested articles populate the feed, with everything from technology to politics to entertainment news and think pieces filling in the space below these bookmarks. These are customized directly for your personal taste, and since the feature was added, it has improved dramatically.
Also included, unsurprisingly, are the standard browser features you’ve come to expect from most, if not all, web browser apps. The Bookmarks menu is solid, with the ability to organize into folders and sync all of your bookmarks between any device you sign into with your Google account. Same goes with browser history, along with the Recent Tabs menu that displays any recently-opened tabs on your collection of computers, tablets, and smartphones. This feature functions as a replacement for the older Chrome to Phone extension, which allowed you to pick up where you were on your desktop PC right on your Android phone. It’s probably Chrome’s single best feature on all of the versions available, and it’s instantly missed when switching to new applications on Android. Finally, you’ll find a Downloads page inside Chrome, showing files, images, and videos downloaded through Chrome to your downloads folder, and a private browsing mode called “Incognito,” identical to what we’ve seen on desktop.
How often Chrome reloads your tabs depends on how many tabs are open on your device, and how much RAM your phone shipped with. Our first test device, a Galaxy S7 edge, includes 4GB of RAM and had no major issues keeping five or six tabs open in the background. The device was able to switch back and forth between tabs fairly consistently without reloading the page. Unfortunately, our second test device, an NVIDIA Shield Tablet, didn’t fare nearly was well under load. Opening more than two tabs at a time caused constant reloads, and running Chrome in the background of the device overloaded the RAM, causing other applications—including media apps like Google Play Music or Pocket Casts—to close. The Galaxy S7 edge has double the RAM as the Shield Tablet, and browsing in Chrome really shows the benefit of having extra RAM. Devices like the OnePlus 5/5T and Samsung Galaxy Note 8 are starting to include 6GB or 8GB of memory, so expect browsing to improve over the next few years of Android updates.
As usual, loading times for Chrome depend on the amount of content on a specific page. Most of the time, Chrome was quick to load the majority of pages necessary for browsing, but when it came to loading multiple pages at once in the background or loading long pages with lots of content, the phone occasionally lagged and began to feel warm during browsing. This will obviously differ based on the device you own, and any modern phone will obviously handle Chrome better than devices from 2015 or 2016. For most users looking to pick up newer Android phones like the Pixel 2, you’ll likely find Chrome to be plenty quick for your needs. The general browsing experience is smooth, though not without occasional hitches or stuttering when scrolling. Chrome is really good at getting out of the way of your browsing, lacking any sort of menu along the bottom of the screen and hiding the URL bar along the top of the app when scrolling down. With the current market preference for large, bezel-free displays, it makes browsing feel absolutely magical.
Chrome’s settings page is a bit sparse, if we’re being honest, especially compared to the flexibility of the desktop version of Chrome. You can change your choice of search engine, though Google is obviously set by default. Autofill forms, password saving, and a toggle for the default homepage are all listed here as well, allowing users the option to set up default shipping addresses or payment methods, or manage their saved passwords between devices. Chrome also offers a Data saver feature that, when enabled, helps compress pages through Google’s servers before downloading the content to your phone, which can help preserve your data and your battery life. There are some “hidden” settings as well, accessible using the flags options, but the average user won’t need to activate these. The biggest missing feature here is extensions; that’s a big part of what makes the desktop version of Chrome so powerful on desktop. That said, rumors have reported an upcoming ad-blocker for Chrome on Android to be shipping directly from Google next year. Consider Google makes most of their money through ads, we’ll see how powerful the service truly is after it ships in the Stable channel of Chrome sometime in 2018.
Google Chrome isn’t the browser on Android that has the most features, or the smallest footprint, but it is the most well-rounded of every app we tested. The lack of extra features and plug-in support makes Chrome appear a bit dated compared to Google’s rivals on both the Play Store and Apple’s Safari browser on iOS, but the magic of Google’s instantaneous syncing options keep it a must-have browser even as we approach 2018. There are plenty of great options and alternatives to Chrome available on Android, and you’d likely be surprised how close the competition is to surpassing Google’s own browser. But when it comes down to which browser most users will fall in love with, the ability to sync your browser history, bookmarks, tabs, and more between your phone and your desktop is too great to turn down. Chrome is the most-used browser in the world, and as long as that remains true, it’s difficult to argue with the success of the mobile version of that same app.
In some ways, Chrome does feel like the obvious answer when picking the best browser on Android. It’s created and developed by Google, ships by default on most Android devices (basically, any device not made by Amazon), and syncs directly with the Google account you’re required to have to use Android. It’s also directly tied to the most popular desktop browser in the world, giving it an edge that basically no other browser can compete with. That said, it’s shocking how close Samsung’s “Internet Browser” app comes to beating out Chrome for the top spot on this list, and if not for the Google account advantage, it might have just done it. Still, the fact that Samsung’s browser—which, we should add, works on any device running Lollipop or higher—is this good still catches us off guard, and if you’re willing to venture away from the garden built by Google, you might just find the best browsing experience on Android.
A common criticism of Samsung over the past several years has been the quality of the company’s software. Even three years ago, their user interface on their collection of phones or tablets was known to be bloated, laggy, and difficult to use, and their pre-loaded applications often duplicated utility supplied through Google’s own stock Android apps. From offering two internet browsers and two separate email clients, to two music players and as many as three apps, Samsung’s software experience lagged behind Google and other third-party manufacturers like Motorola thanks to the over complication of their software. Since the launch of the Galaxy S7 nearly two years ago, however, Samsung has done a much better job in reducing the amount of redundant software on their devices while simultaneously increasing the quality of their in-house applications, and Samsung’s Internet Browser shows this more than any other piece of software to ship from the company.
Though this won’t be readily apparent, Samsung’s browser is based off Chromium, the open-source basis Google uses to build Chrome. This means that performance is incredibly similar to what you may come to expect from Chrome, and truly puts the emphasis on the little details Samsung adds to the browser. The appearance of the app, for instance, is somewhere between Chrome and Safari on iOS, and matches Samsung’s general aesthetic heading into 2018. Small details stick out here, like the “New Tab” screen that features a series of quick bookmarks and the ability to add any website as a Quick Access shortcut. Like Chrome, this page also allows you to search the web, supports voice search, and can access your homepage and bookmarks list right from the main menu. Obviously, you won’t find a Google logo here, but the page feels and functions fairly similarly to the New Tab page in Chrome, and you won’t feel too out of place here.
As mentioned, speed seems to be about equal to Chrome, thanks to the same Chromium build powering both applications. Samsung’s browser does allow for some additional tweaks that can speed up your browser, though we’ll cover those in more detail below. Scrolling seemed to be a bit smoother and displayed less stuttering than what we had observed through Chrome, though it’s impossible to tell what made this a real, measurable difference. Using the browser was fairly similar to Chrome as well, with an automatic full-screen mode activated by scrolling down the page. Samsung’s browser does have a bottom taskbar, in addition to the top URL display, but for the most part, this will benefit those who have large-screened phones. The bar automatically hides itself when scrolling through a page, meaning you won’t have to experience any kind of content-blocking, and since the bookmarks, tabs, and navigation buttons are closer to your thumb, it’s easier to browse through the web without making much of a difference in terms of visibility.
In terms of settings, you’ll find Samsung’s browser to offer near-identical settings as Chrome, along with a few neat additions. Tapping on the triple-dotted menu icon in the top-right corner of the screen will give you options to share the web page, search the site, add to your home screen, and more. You’ll also find the option to save a page in your bookmarks tab, and the ability to login with a Samsung ID. While it’s a bit of a pain to have to maintain a new account outside of Google, we can’t recommend this enough for desktop Chrome users. Thanks to an extension made by Samsung, not only can you open your mobile bookmarks on your desktop browser, but you can also sync your desktop bookmarks with your phone. It’s an extra step over the automated process provided by Google, but hey, it’s something. Two more features: first, Samsung allows you to earn Rewards points for browsing with their mobile browser. These points sync with the same rewards program used with Samsung Pay, but we didn’t test the feature during our time with the app. Second, and most importantly, Samsung’s newest version also includes a Night Mode that switches black text to white and white background to black. On phones with OLED displays, this works particularly well. Finally, it’s worth noting that, though the browser defaults to Google search, you can change your default engine to Yahoo, Bing, or DuckDuckGo.
As mentioned, of course, Samsung’s browser offers a major addition to your internet experience over Chrome: extensions. Similar to Apple’s mobile version of Safari, Samsung offers their browser users the ability to add extensions to their browsing experience, albeit in limited form. These extensions are, unsurprisingly, not nearly as robust in options as Safari, the fact that extensions are offered at all means Samsung’s app really takes the win over Chrome here. Heading into the extensions menu shows a few additional options Samsung built into their browser: CloseBy, which provides users with information from nearby beacons; a QR code reader that allows your phone to scan and read QR codes without having to install a separate app like Barcode Scanner; a Quick Menu option that now ships on by default, allowing users to automatically access certain features inside the browser with the help of a button in the corner of your display; a tracking blocker; and finally, a video assistant that allows you to change the video mode, rotate the screen, and cast videos to a television without pausing the video.
The most exciting extension added inside of Samsung’s Internet Browser are content blockers, a term taken directly from Apple’s mobile version of Safari that effectively allows users to block advertisements while browsing. Up to five content blockers can be used at once, with options including Adblock fast, Adblock Plus, Crystal for Samsung Internet, Unicorn, and Disconnect for Samsung Internet, the latter of which also powers the tracking blocker extension mentioned above. In our tests, Adblock Plus seemed to be the best at hiding ads from our browsing experience, dramatically decreasing load times and basically eliminating any amount of stuttering. On a device with less RAM like the Shield Tablet, it also helped improve memory consumption. Most of these content blockers include the ability to allow some suggested ads, and also include white listing options to allow your favorite sites to get paid for your browsing.
When we first reviewed Samsung’s Internet Browser back in May, it came dangerously close to superseding Chrome as our top pick for the best browsing experience on Android. In the seven months since, Samsung has rolled out a number of updates, including a major upgrade to version 6.0, and expanded the app to work on almost any Android device. New features like Night Mode or the Quick Actions menu have made it an improved browsing experience overall, and previously-praised features like the Content Blockers and other extensions have continued to be great additions to the app. At this point, the only thing stopping Samsung’s browser from overtaking our recommendation for Chrome is Google’s popularity on the desktop. The account sync between devices works perfectly, and even Samsung’s own Chrome extension can’t fully replicate the experience. Still, we highly recommend checking out Samsung’s browser on the Play Store, because what it sets out to do, it does better than nearly anyone else on the market today. If you’re looking to switch away from Chrome for something new and fresh, Samsung’s Internet Browser is the way to go.
Firefox was the first rival to emerge against Internet Explorer back in the 2000s, offering a better browsing experience in the days of Windows XP. Since then, the browser has gone through plenty of changes, redesigns, and more, and eventually lost a good portion of market share when users began to leave for Chrome. That said, Firefox published a major upgrade near the end of 2017 for both its desktop and mobile apps, and if we’re being honest, both platforms have been greatly improved in terms of both visual design and speed. The new Firefox for Android features a brand new New Tab page, displaying your most-visited pages, bookmarks, and most interestingly, suggested stories recommended from Pocket, the app that allows you store your stories offline for later reading down the road. Pocket is owned by Firefox, and it’s good to see the company taking advantage of the partnership. Our original review of Firefox stated that pages loaded slower than we’d witnessed in Chrome or Samsung’s app, but this has more or less changed since then; the app loads fast, and the visual refresh has placed it much closer to what we’ve come to expect from our top picks on this list. The older version of this app featured some quirky decisions design-wise, like an odd URL bar that hid its tabs. This new version of Firefox is faster, leaner, and cleaner, and still features the advantages of Firefox Sync and data saver options. Firefox just barely misses out on getting one of our top two recommendation slots, but it’s certainly the most improved app on this list
Firefox and Opera helped popularize third-party alternatives to Internet Explorer prior to the rise of Chrome, so it’s only appropriate that both Firefox and Opera offer mobile browser alternatives to a browser with as much domination as Google Chrome on the Play Store. Unlike Firefox, Opera Mini isn’t just a traditional port of a browser; it tries to change how mobile browsing feels day to day. Though Opera also offers a full-fledged version of their browser on the Play Store, it’s Opera Mini that marks the more-interesting port of their browser. With a promise to reduce RAM usage and lighten the load on your CPU, Opera is ideal for older or budget devices that might have trouble powering our other top picks. In many ways, Opera feels entirely like its own thing. Like Samsung’s browser, Opera Mini uses a bottom navigation bar, but also adds a specific menu in that bar to show how many ads have been blocked by the browser, in addition to the amount of data. It’s a cool feature, though it would be improved if moved to settings as opposed to taking up room in the menu. Additional features like a night mode, which reduces your brightness and adds a blue light filter, along with colored themes for the app go a long way in customizing your browsing experience. Opera Mini was, overall, a bit more susceptible to stuttering and slowdown when browsing large pages as opposed to most of the other browser on this list, presumably due to its low bar for performance, and this might make Galaxy Note 8 or Pixel 2 owners turn away from the device. Still, not everyone has a flagship device, so if you’re interested in a browser that manages to reduce your data use and limit the amount of RAM used by the application, Opera Mini might just be a perfect choice.
Dolphin is one of the older third-party browser alternatives on Google Play, having been around since the Android 2.x days, and is the only browser on this list not based on a standard desktop browsing experience. Overall, it’s a solid offering on the Play Store, despite feeling a bit dated in its featureset. The app uses a tab interface on both phone and tablet-sized devices, marking a major departure from every other browser on this list. The address bar features suggested search results as you type, which is a nice alternative over apps like Firefox, though Dolphin does occasionally display suggested advertisements over its URL bar . Ads are a serious problem in Dolphin, though some users will find that they don’t affect their everyday browsing habits. Like Samsung’s browser, Dolphin features a sync service that can be added to the desktop browser of your choice with an extension called Dolphin Connect, and also includes something not offered on any of the browsers on this list: gesture support. Gestures can be assigned to websites, allowing you to draw a letter G to load Google, for example. The service isn’t perfect, and definitely could use some enhancements down the road, but nevertheless, is a cool addition to the browser. Dolphin also offers services like Flash support, one of the only mobile browsers left to do so, and a built-in ad blocker, though some of these utilities caused the browser to feel slower than many of its competitors. Overall, Dolphin is a solid alternative browser, and the only one on this list not from a major company. If you’re looking for something completely new, it’s worth giving a shot—so long as you can deal with its built-in ads.
Like Opera, Mozilla happens to list two different versions of their browser on the Play Store for users to choose from. In addition to the typical Beta and Nightly builds of Firefox, you’ll also find Firefox Focus, a browser first released on Android over this past summer (and previously released as an iOS exclusive). Unlike most other mobile browsers on Android, Firefox Focus simplifies the experience of browsing, instead choosing to implement several different privacy features that help make Focus one of the safest browsers we’ve seen on the Play Store. Gone are extensions, account managers, and even tabs, making this a simple, one-page-at-a-time browser that doesn’t keep history or tracking information for advertisements. In fact, there are no advertisements at all, since Focus includes a built-in ad blocker that stops paid content from loading at all, though as usual, this can be disabled in the settings menu for any websites that prevent you from browsing while an ad blocker is enabled. When Firefox claims that Focus doesn’t track your data, they aren’t kidding. You also won’t find password trackers or any kind of cookies in the browser, making it ideal for checking bank account balances or other privacy-sensitive information. You can’t even take a screenshot inside of the app in its default state, making it perfect for anyone looking for a new style of browser that puts security and safety above browsing features. When you finish browsing, a quick-action trash button allows you to quickly delete the content on your phone, refreshing Focus and starting all over again. While it might not be ideal for everyday browsing, Firefox Focus is perfect for those moments where you value privacy over all else. Definitely an app to keep on your phone.