The Best Browsers for iPhone

I love how far desktop browsers have come, in terms of the functionality and flexibility they offer users. Between extensions and bookmarklets, I’ve got all my essential functions just a click away, including saving articles to read later, taking a screenshot of the active page, and sharing links via email and social networks. So when I’m browsing pages on my iPhone, I definitely want as much of the same experience as when I’m using Chrome on my PC.

When I tried various browsers for this roundup, I looked for a few key features that are important to have on a mobile device with a small screen for browsing:

  • Change user agents or toggle between desktop and mobile versions of sites
  • Private/incognito mode
  • Gestures for various browser functions like back/forward, reload and so on
  • Download management
  • Sharing and saving options for pages and links
  • Reader mode to reduce clutter and display only article content for easy reading

If executed well, these essential features can make browsing on your iPhone a delight. We looked for browsers that offered an expansive feature set so as to accommodate as many kinds of users as possible, without feeling clunky or complicated.

It’s worth noting that the App Store doesn’t allow browsers that don’t use incorporate Apple’s version of the Open Source WebKit browser engine to render pages — and I suspect that’s why basic page rendering performance across these browsers was similar. So let’s take you through our picks for the Best Browsers for iPhone, where you’ll find a range of browsers with features that will make your browsing experience easier and more enjoyable.

Safari

The default browser in iOS only barely made it to our selection because it offers the least features of the lot — but it’s also, well, the default browser and you is available to use as soon as you turn on your iPhone for the first time. It does a good job of handling the bare necessities (multiple tabs, private browsing, clutter-free reader mode and pop-up blocking), and that’s actually enough for folks who only browse pages occasionally. Plus, it’s perhaps the fastest browser you’ll be able to run on your iPhone without jailbreaking it, because it runs the Nitro JavaScript engine that isn’t available system-wide. This should be fixed in iOS 8, as it should bring the same Javascript performance to third-party browser apps giving them a level playing field.

Safari is a good basic browser that syncs with iCloud
Safari is a good basic browser that syncs with iCloud

Safari also has a couple of nice features that I enjoyed using: syncing bookmarks from desktop browsers like Safari and Google Chrome via iCloud, and Reading List, which saves pages to read offline later and is accessible via the Bookmarks menu. Other than that, however, Safari doesn’t support plug-ins and isn’t great with sharing links and content with other apps or your contacts.

Still, it’s a free browser that’s fine to use if you only ever browse occasionally and open links from social networks and other apps. If you’re looking for more features, check out our other picks below.

Dolphin Browser

Using Dolphin for the first time feels a little different than most other browsers, most notably because of its bright green UI elements, but it’s designed such that you quickly get used to its feature set that certainly enhances your browsing experience. Dolphin Browser includes ad blocking and private mode (as both, a new tab option and a setting for all your browsing), as well as a nifty New Tab page with customizable Speed Dial shortcuts that you can add to from any active page. What sets it apart though, are its other thoughtful features.

Update Facebook and Twitter right from within Dolphin
Update Facebook and Twitter right from within Dolphin

Dolphin also packs a nice sharing module that lets you share the current page via Facebook, Twitter or email — but you can also use this to just update your status or send a tweet without having to launch separate apps to do so, and you can even choose from your contacts to tag them in your updates. You can also save pages to Evernote or Box with just a couple of taps.

Update Facebook and Twitter right from within Dolphin
Update Facebook and Twitter right from within Dolphin

When you want to save time while browsing, Dolphin’s support for custom gestures comes in very handy. You can draw your own gestures and assign web pages or browser actions to them, which means it’s a lot easier to get into the habit of using them than if there were only preset gestures. If voice commands are more your style, Dolphin Sonar (available for 99c) lets you navigate, search and share from your browser without having to draw or type. Finally, Dolphin also syncs bookmarks and open tabs with your desktop browsers via available extensions.

Skip typing and use gestures to get around with Dolphin
Skip typing and use gestures to get around with Dolphin

I really like how each of these features have been implemented to be intuitive and easy to access. Dolphin is certainly a worthwhile upgrade for most users from Safari, and I’d recommend checking it out since it’s also free to use and a cinch to get around.

➤ Free – Download now

Mercury

Another great free option, Mercury packs a great set of features into a sleek interface that lets you extend its functionality based on your usage habits. In addition to basic features like reader mode and a reading list to save pages for offline reading (a la Safari), Incognito browsing and password autofills, Mercury lets you choose from a range of extensions, including a file downloader, saving to Pocket and Instapaper, LastPass password syncing, a screenshot tool, Search in Page, QR scanning and Translation — all within an easily accessible menu on the toolbar.

Mercury packs a nice feature set
Mercury packs a nice feature set

Mercury also lets you share pages via Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Weibo, email and more, and also lets you save them to Evernote or Dropbox. This free browser also doesn’t get behind in the desktop syncing game, with extensions to sync bookmarks easily.

Choose the functions you want to access easily in Mercury
Choose the functions you want to access easily in Mercury

Mercury is a competent browser that’s simple enough to use and allows for easy sharing, but could use a few features to make browsing easier. In fact, if there was a browser that combined the best of Dolphin and Mercury, it would win this war hands-down.

➤ Free – Download now

iCab Mobile

Of all the browsers we’ve listed, power users will feel most at home with iCab Mobile: the iOS counterpart of the famed iCab browser for Mac offers flexibility like no other. Customize your toolbar icon and menu loadouts, use drawn and multi-touch gestures, choose from a wide range of browser IDs to test web sites, import/export your browser settings and bookmarks via cloud services like Dropbox and iCloud, select from a range of search engines for auto-suggestions and congifure how you want the browser to handle operations based on how much memory is free on your device.

iCab's interface disappears almost completely to allow for full-screen browsing - the arrow button at the bottom reveals it with a tap
iCab’s interface disappears almost completely to allow for full-screen browsing – the arrow button at the bottom reveals it with a tap

As if that wasn’t enough, iCab Mobile includes a ton of modules to enhance your browsing experience: find all the sites that link to your active page, share to major social networks and read-later services, examine pages with Firebug Lite, save pages to PDF, query Google Cache to find older versions of a page and even autoscroll your active page for hands-free reading.

You can customize just about everything in iCab Mobile, including the bottom toolbar buttons, to suit your usage habits
You can customize just about everything in iCab Mobile, including the bottom toolbar buttons, to suit your usage habits

iCab Mobile also offers fine-grained control over every aspect of how it works, including whether the address bar should clear itself when activated and how links from the same domain of an active page should open (in a new tab or in the same tab). These are precisely the kind of features that fans of desktop browsers will appreciate, and iCab Mobile brings these in spades — making this browser totally worth its asking price of $2.

➤ $2 – Download now

What about the rest?

We checked out several other browsers available in the App Store, but they didn’t really offer enough features and usability to make the cut. Google Chrome [Free – iTunes link] is perhaps the one we’ll get asked about a lot, so let’s start with that: other than allowing you to reduce data usage by routing HTTP requests through Google’s servers and optimizing the images and data downloaded to your browser, this crowd favorite doesn’t really offer any novel features that enhance your browsing. Sure you can sync bookmarks with your desktop version of Chrome, but as we’ve seen with our other choices above, that’s possible with most modern browsers these days too.

We also gave Opera Coast [Free – iTunes link] a try: while it looks neat, it’s really about as bare-bones as a browser can get and offers little more than a New Tab page with Speed Dial to talk about. Maxthon [Free – iTunes link] and Diigo [Free – iTunes link] too brought very few features to the table, and so didn’t hold up against the tough competition here.

Opera Coast is as basic as it gets
Opera Coast is as basic as it gets

Puffin Browser [$3.99 – iTunes link] unfortunately didn’t work for me during our testing, and I imagine that might be because of its dependency on US-based servers that can only serve data locally. We’ll issue an update once we know more.

If you’re looking for a fun browser that does a lot, Dolphin is a great choice at the low, low price of free. And if you’re fanatical about how your apps should behave, look no further than iCab Mobile.

Did your favorite browser make the list? Let us know in the comments!