FULL ROUNDUP: Browsing the Web on Windows Mobile just like on iPhone, incl. IEM6 review
After purchasing an iPhone 3G, I immediately fell in love with Safari, its Web browser. Granted, it's somewhat less capable as the best, comparable Windows Mobile (WinMo for short) titles (no Flash, no page saving, no copy/paste, no Opera Link, no explicit text size settings, no caching etc.) and, from time to time, it crashes even with the last, 2.2 firmware version, but it's still much better usable and much faster than anything on Windows Mobile.
Needless to say, seeing the immense success and popularity of iPhone's Safari, Windows Mobile software developers followed suit and, for quite some time now, have been trying to simulate the interface and easy controllability of Safari. Sure, they can't circumvent the problems caused by the hardware (namely, the resistive touchscreen, which, in cases, require a lot of pressure, unlike on the capacitive iPhone); nevertheless, the Windows Mobile developers have indeed managed to come up with some really decent alternatives.
In this roundup, I mostly explain how current Windows Mobile Web browsers are able to provide the same user experience as Safari on the iPhone (again, apart from the much inferior hardware, touchscreen-wise). There have been several shots of providing the same; see for example THIS and, most importantly, THIS article. The latter one, unfortunately, severely lacks in that it only compares Internet Explorer Mobile and Opera Mobile 9.5 - read: no SkyFire, no Iris, no NetFront, no Opera Mini. In addition, the date of the article also shows that it doesn't test the latest Explorer Mobile 6 and the latest, further enhanced builds of Opera Mobile.
Being focused on Safari-like finger-only controllability, I've also reduced the stuff that is more technical: for example, Web compliance testing, strict benchmarking and documenting even the most hidden features. Please consult my previous all-in-one article (my W3C speech) for more info and further links on all these.
I've only tested browsers capable of finger-based scrolling. This is why I've completely disregarded older, non finger-based scrolling-capable plug-ins and that I used Spb Pocket Plus with the older (but still exclusively used) Internet Explorer in order to add this kind of functionality.
Note that I provide a lot of info never before published; for example, a decent (!) comparison of the latest buzz, Internet Explorer Mobile 6 (IEM6) to the previous version, running on real(!) devices - and not just emulators. As you will see, the current IEM6 version is simply not worth bothering with - it's definitely slower and, configurability-wise (see the lack of One Column mode or the lack of the, on (W)VGA devices, highly useful Use High Resolution switch), far less capable than the previous IEM. It's just not worth flashing your device with a ROM containing IEM6 - for example, Tomal 8.5 for the HTC Universal and MoDaCo's Touch HD ROM's - currently, there [still] aren't easily-installable CAB distributions of IEM6, you need to hunt down an XDA-Devs or MoDaCo-cooked ROM coming with it; currently, it's the only way to get the browser onto your phone.
Also note that, now with high-resolution screens being increasingly used in devices like the Diamond and Diamond Pro (VGA) and the X1 and the HD (WVGA), I've found it sufficient to run the tests on VGA devices, and only some on QVGA ones (mostly for testing QVGA-only versions). Therefore, most of the screenshots and the additional hacks (for example, the VGA Jbed one) I provide are for VGA devices.
Note that I paid special attention to elaborating on how the reviewed Web browsers are able to use large(r) fonts so that you'll be able to use them while, for example, commuting to/from work. (Actually, it was, at first, because of this that I started testing browsers in this regard. I generally love riding the bike in the gym. I want to remain thin and biking is the best way to do this. It, however, can become very tedious, particularly if you ride three hours without any pause so that you can always keep your pulse over 120. Watching a movie from one of my 15" UXGA ThinkPads is one way of killing the time during this; another is browsing the Web on my PDA's and smartphones. This, however, requires you to use comparatively large characters as you're constantly moving and keep the device in your hand.) In this regard, the VGA screenshots I present and the approach I take (let's find out whether the browser is able to render the test pages with sufficiently large characters) can be perfectly applied to QVGA devices. After all, it's only when rendering text with small character sizes ("requiring a magnifying glass") that there's significant difference between low-res (QVGA) and hi-res (VGA or WVGA) screens; with large character sizes used, the difference pretty much diminishes. (Apart from the characters' being much prettier and less blocky / pixelizated, of course.)
Mozilla's Mozilla / Firefox port still has no Windows Mobile version. Finally, note that while Makayama's Touch Browser does support iPhone-like scrolling, I just don't see any point in actually paying for it. In the tests of the latest, 1.16 version on my HP iPAQ 210, it proved to be vastly inferior to the IEM + Spb Pocket Plus 4 combo. The latter scrolls pages orders of magnitude faster and nicer. There is just no comparison between the speed of the two browsers. Speed issues aside, the current, 1.16 version still isn't much better than the initial version I've reviewed HERE (albeit some of my biggest, interface-related, complains have indeed been fixed; for example, a QWERTY keyboard has been added.)
1.1 Opera Mobile 9.5
Let's start with Opera Mobile, which is, especially with its latest version (so far, only released for the Samsung Omnia, but already ripped by the XDA-Developers folks and released as an easily-installable CAB file), offers everything a decent Safari-alike should - and more. With Opera Mobile, the only difference in browsing the Web will only be your having to actually hold down the touchscreen for it to work.
Currently, there several versions of Opera Mobile. Of them, I’ve reviewed the (currently) official and, compared to the Omnia version, old (Oct. 2008) version 9.51b2 available for download HERE and the much more recommended, latest, unofficial Samsung Omnia version available HERE (direct links to download HERE and HERE. Note that there’s a combined VGA + QVGA + Flash Lite 3.1 version HERE; it has all the three CAB’s in one RAR file). The latter is the way to go if you have a QVGA Pocket PC or want to see embedded, Flash Lite 3.1-compliant videos (currently, YouTube, Google Video, blip.tv and PornoTube - nothing else; please see THIS for more info). If you, on the other hand, have a VGA model, you absolutely don't want built-in support for the above-mentioned video services or don't need the freedom of the zooming the new version offers (most of the time, you'll find the old, official version in this regard just OK), you may want to stick to the official version.
Note that there’re a lot of (slightly) older “unofficial” Opera Mobile builds. Some are, in some respects, better than the Omni release reviewed in this roundup; for example, some support being installed to a memory card, while the Omni version doesn’t. I haven’t included these older builds in the article to keep its size down.
Speaking of “unofficial” “rips”, also the question of legality should be mentioned. While, strictly, it’s not really legal to rip a browser off a ROM (and installing it on a device), as Opera, currently, doesn’t offer any kind of a downloadable and purchasable, stable and final version of Opera Mobile, I think that, for the time being, you can freely install these XDA-Devs rips on your phone. However, when a commercial (and superior) version of Opera Mobile is released, you will want to upgrade to it. Not only because you it’s everyone’s interest to support the, currently, best multiplatform browser developer that produces browsers that are really pleasant to work with on both desktop PC’s and mobile phones / PDA’s so that they can continue improving their products, but also because the final version will surely have Opera Link.
Support for Opera Link, unfortunately, is severely missing from the currently available 9.x Opera Mobile builds. I’ve played a bit with overwriting \Application Data\Opera9\opera6.adr with the desktop Opera’s \Documents and Settings\username\Application Data\Opera\Opera\profile\opera6.adr, but in vain: it didn’t work. (The reason for this may have been my bookmark file containing some 3000 bookmarks.) I’ll go on with hacking the file to see whether there’s an easy way of doing so. If I succeed, it’ll mean you’ll be able to easily replicate your desktop Opera favorites on your WinMo phone (and vice versa), which will, to some extent, fix the lack of Opera Link.
1.1.1 Problems on VGA devices
Note that the CAB above is strictly meant for QVGA devices; if you want to install Opera Mobile on VGA devices, you'll need THIS file instead. It fixes all the issues of the original version: provides a VGA skin (directly available HERE, should you want to deploy it on the original, QVGA version), which, in addition to providing large icons, also doubles the size of the on-screen zoom arrow and, finally, increases the zoom magnification to 200%.
You may want to know what the latter means (even if you no longer need it - the VGA CAB comes with the hack applied) - after all, Opera Mobile has excellent (!) configuration and tweaking capabilities worth knowing of (some of them are listed HERE - and, of course, my chart.) With the QVGA version, automatic (the one with double-taps) zoom-in seems to calculate the right zoom level based on QVGA horizontal sizes; that is, the zoomed-in state will contain at most half the size of the actual, zoomed-in contents as can be seen in the following screenshots:
The same screenshot taken showing the exact same screenshot on a QVGA model (also showing the newly-introduced, albeit, for quick positioning, useless minimap in the upper left corner):
This means you, unless you do the hack I'll describe soon, almost always want to prefer using manual zoom to correctly zoom into the text. To avoid having to do this, just enter "opera:config" in the address bar:
Then, select Adaptive Zoom (it's on the top) and scroll down to Maximum zoom. Change 100 to 200:
After this, automatic (!) zooming will work just fine.
Important: this version (both the QVGA one with the additional tweaks explained above and the VGA one) uses pixel doubling with images (and videos). This, to my knowledge, can't be fixed. Nevertheless, it, otherwise, works just fine on VGA models.
The second, particularly for QVGA users, most recommended browser is SkyFire, which works in exactly the same way as the pretty much useless, incapable and, since then, cancelled DeepFish did: everything is done on the central server(s) of the developer. The server only transfers (QVGA-resolution) images to the client. In this regard, it's less data use- and CPU-efficient, than Opera Mini, the other (current and recommended) solution using the central server approach. Yes, it constantly uses your data connection and CPU; which means both (at times, dramatically) decreased battery life and increased data usage. Keep this in mind if you plan to use it over a non-unlimited cellular connection. Furthermore, if you have a VGA device, you may want to look for something else if you can't put up with the low-resolution, pixel doubled text and graphics.
It has a lot of goodies. For example, it has one of the best zoom-in algorithms: it has never failed to zoom into text. With all (!) of the other browsers, there have been problems doing this with some sites or forums - even the latest, b15233 version of Opera failed at this sometimes, necessitating some kind of a manual zoom-in, let alone the others.
Furthermore, it supports playing Flash, Java applets, Ajax and everything else Firefox / Mozilla on the desktop Windows supports. This means it's capable of playing back YouTube etc. videos - and not only them, but virtually everything: as it uses the "real" Flash behind the scenes, it has no problems playing back Flash 9 contents either - that is, the video services Flash Lite 3.1, used together with Opera Mobile b15233, is incompatible with.
Note that it does have some disadvantages at playing back YouTube (Google etc.) Video compared to the Flash Lite 3.1 + Opera Mobile b15233 combo. Granted, it's far better in that
1, it uses far less CPU at rendering videos than Opera Mobile: about 40-50% on my 624 MHz HP iPAQ 210, while Opera Mobile is around 90%.
2, initially loading a page containing several compatible videos doesn't result in a major performance hit. Just try to load a TouchArcade page containing more than two or three videos in Opera Mobile and you'll see what I mean. Opera spends minutes loading it; SkyFire, on the other hand, only spends some seconds. Quite big a difference! (Note that the same stands for the Opera Mobile & Flash Lite vs. iPhone Safari relationship – the latter loads pages having a lot of directly embedded YouTube videos - like TouchArcade – in some seconds only. Yes, at times, not having true Flash Lite, “only” YouTube support pays off.)
3, video playback works just great on slow Pocket PC's; for example, ones based on 195 MHz TI OMAP CPU's like the HTC Wizard. The Opera Mobile + Flash Lite 3.1 is plain incapable of playing back any videos on this kind of a CPU without major stuttering and pauses.
However, particularly in not supported countries, the speed of the video playback will be much lower - between 4-5 fps (frame per second) and there will be times there won’t be any sound at all (and, if there is, it’ll be of worse quality than with direct, non-streaming playback like that of Flash Lite). While, on faster WinMo devices, Flash Lite 3.1 has no problems in playing them back at full speed - that is, 25-30 fps.
Fortunately, now SkyFire is accessible from all around the world – in the first few year of service, you could only register to it from the US and Canada.
1.3 Opera Mini 4.2.13337
Opera Mini, along with all Jbed versions (the MIDlet manager - that is, the execution environment - I recommend the most to be used with Opera Mini), offers a lot of goodies; for example, finger-based scrolling. It surely isn't as nice as Safari or Opera Mobile (there're no "rubberband", that is, inertia effects); however, the traditional strengths of Opera Mini (for example, the very low data traffic essential if you're on a limited cellular data subscription and Opera Link, which, unfortunately, is still not supported in the latest Opera Mobile versions) can easily make this browser the browser of choice.
For VGA users, I especially recommend the VGA-hacked Jbed 5.1 version; please see THIS for more info. For QVGA users, you can safely stick with older versions of Jbed.
Opera Mini behaved pretty nice in my tests - it zoomed into text very well and reflown the columns intelligently. No problems in here - much as it's "only" a Java MIDlet, it's still a very decent browser, particularly if you want to make use of its excellent (!) Opera Link and multitab capabilities.
Finally, note that, after my W3C speech, I've published a full tutorial on making Opera Mini your default system browser.
1.4 Iris 1.0.16 (1.1.0 b3)
This browser was another nice surprise - no wonder for example the MSMobiles folks liked it very much. While it's still lacking a bit here and there (the most important of them being the lack of keeping the previously zoomed-to screen contents horizontally aligned when finger-scrolling vertically), it can already be rightfully compared to the other browsers available on Windows Mobile. I, however, would still stick with Opera Mobile, SkyFire or Opera Mini (depending on your needs) instead - they're (still) superior.
1.5 Pre-6 Internet Explorer Mobile (IEM) with Spb Pocket Plus 4.0.2
Unfotunately, the "old" (but still the only built-in IEM version shipped with even the latest devices) Internet Explorer Mobile (IEM) is far inferior to anything else, even with the really decent, 4-series Spb Pocket Plus plug-in to allow for multitabbing and iPhone-like scrolling.
The biggest problem with this browser, along with the heavily outdated HTML / scripting engine, is the inability to dynamically zoom in/out to/from the page: to switch between reading some text (with sufficiently large and readable characters) in the zoomed-in state and the page overview. All the other browsers are capable of this via single or double taps on the selected (textual) area. (Yes, even Opera Mini - it's just that you can't use the same screentap(s) to switch back to zoomed-out, page overview mode but have to use the hardware Action button [if available] or a menu command to do so.)
Add the poor testpage rendering results to this (many times, you will need to switch to One Column mode very often to be able to make use of the entire screen estate), the comparatively slow page loading speed and you'll see why I don't recommend this browser at all.
1.6 Internet Explorer Mobile 6 (IEM6)
Unfortunately, the current version of IEM6 has turned out to be a real disaster. While it supports goodies like dynamic zooming (with screen taps) and built-in, rubberband-like finger scrolling, it is very slow (actually, much-much slower than even the previous, pre-6 IEM version(s)), its zoom-in capabilities are really bad (doesn't take advantage of the entire screen and, in addition, it uses really small characters, which can't be fixed) and, what is more, you can't even use the One Column mode to make it render properly.
All in all, stay away. This browser is pretty bad and, currently, not worth installing (which, currently, involves flashing an entire XDA-Devs or MoDaCo “cooked” ROM). Hope Microsoft does fix these issues before releasing a "real" version for OEM's to be included in their ROM's. Again, note that the current version of IEM6 most probably doesn’t represent the final version Microsoft releases some time. I’m absolutely sure they’ll for example include for example the “Use High Resolution” checkbox, which will make it possible to make it render large(r) fonts. That is, my “trashing” the current IEM6 doesn’t mean the final, official version will be this bad at all. The current version is definitely an early alpha.
1.7 NetFront (NF) 3.5.009 b729
NF has recently received screen dragging support. Unfortunately, it can barely be used as, as soon as you start to drag the screen, in most cases, the context menu is displayed. The situation is way worse than with other browsers also having a context menu (Opera Mobile etc.).
It has other problems too: compared to the, in this regard, best browsers (Opera Mobile / Mini, SkyFire and, of course, the really fast iPhone Safari), it is slow to load pages. Even screen orientation or view mode changes require (lengthy) page reloads, unlike with most other browsers (except for Opera Mini and SkyFire, which also reloads pages if you dynamically change your screen orientation).
All in all, I cannot recommend NetFront at all. There is simply no point in preferring it to the three most recommended browsers: Opera Mobile, SkyFire and Opera Mini.
2. The feature / comparison chart
It's available HERE. Make sure you open it in a maximized (F11 in all the three major Web browsers under Windows) Web browser window. Also use zoom in/out (Ctrl+mouse wheel on all the browsers; if you don't have a wheel, Shift + and - in Opera; Ctrl + and Ctrl - in both Mozilla / Firefox and IE) to avoid having to scroll the chart horizontally.
Explanation (and additional comments) of the chart:
2.1 Real-world rendering tests
The first part of the chart elaborates on rendering some forum engines, also with some that caused iPhone Safari some problems. Note that I've tested (and published) the results in both orientations because, at times, you'll want to prefer browsing in Portrait mode simply because most phones are easier to hold that way, particularly while walking / doing some physical exercise - or, if you have a phone / PDA with a screen that has issues like that of the Dell Axim x50v / x51v. I used the letter "L" to denote landscape and "P" the portrait orientation.
A very important note: I’ve evaluated the browsers based on their ability to render text with large, well-readable-even-when-commuting-or-walking characters (or, with character sizes that are well readable on 2.8” VGA or 3” WVGA screens like those of the HTC Diamond, HTC Diamond Pro or the S-E X1), NOT based on the overall rendering quality of the engine. That is, I’ve only given “Poor” to browsers that could render textual content with small characters, regardless of the overall quality and standards compliance of the engine.
This is why IEM6, which is plain incapable of rendering text with acceptable-sized, in general, got very bad marks. Nevertheless, the IEM6 engine isn’t THAT bad – it’s pretty much on par with, say, NetFront. That is, based on the “Poor” and “Unacceptable” marks I’ve given IEM6 in most cases, don’t think it is THAT bad. It’s currently bad for reading in circumstances where you do need considerably larger characters. If you have a (W)VGA phone (like the HP iPAQ 210, hx4700, the HTC Touch HD or the Athena with the 5” screen) with a large (at least 3.8”) screen AND you aren’t moving, you may find IEM6’s rendering quality just fine. (It’s another question IEM6, being just an alpha version, severely fails in many other areas: speed, capabilities etc.)
The first link takes you to a pretty problematic site with code not compatible with the zoom-in engine of any of the Web browsers (except for Mozilla / Firefox, which has no problems with zooming them in) - which is a major problem on higher-resolution, but not very large screen like the UXGA 15" or WUXGA 15.6" screens of high-end ThinkPad models. I've paid special attention to checking out how the browsers render the number of the post (it's in the upper right corner of every individual entry). As you can see (of the three most recommended browsers), Opera Mobile is the best to retain this - at least in Landscape mode, using automatic (non-manual) zoom and large char. Unfortunately, only the first part of this number is visible in Opera Mini (and only in Landscape), unless you switch to the more restrictive (albeit a bit more bandwidth-friendly) Mobile View mode (either the “Mobile View” context menu or in Settings) – then, it’ll show these numbers without problems. SkyFire fares the worst in this regard: it not only hides the number of the post, but also (in Landscape, part of) the date.
Other than these, I haven't found other problems related to zooming-in in order to display large characters (where it was at all possible - for example, the maximal size I could get was still very tiny with IEM6 and it was only by switching to the very restrictive One Column mode that I could get readably large chars with Iris.)
(Incidentally, you can easily make these forum pages work in the desktop Opera by just removing all occurrences of <div class="art_t"> [and the accompanying </div>] from the source. Nevertheless, the Opera / Microsoft folks could really look into this problem to make the non-Mozilla/Firefox folks' life easier that long for the ability to freely zoom in.)
The second link takes you to the Pocket PC Thoughts frontpage. I've chosen this page to one of the standard test pages because iPhone Safari severely fails at rendering the contents of this, otherwise, when it comes to the HTML source, very simple page: it uses relatively small characters you may not be able to read (particularly not while moving). In this regard, all of the Windows Mobile browsers behaved orders of magnitude better - except for, again, IEM6, which behaved far worse than anything else.
The third link points to a Thinkpads.com thread, where one of the posts contain a very long thread. iPhone's Safari fails at rendering these kinds of HTML pages without any advanced markup. Needless to say, zooming in (with pinching the screen) doesn't help either - Safari isn't as sophisticated as Opera Mobile, where the latest build already supports reflowing the text at any (manual) zoom level - not just automatic ones. IEM6, as usual, sucks really bad; with Iris, you again have to switch to the One Column mode, but even then the charsize may still turn out to be too low. Speaking of the most recommended three browsers, Opera Mini and SkyFire had no problems with fully taking advantage of the available screen estate (note that, in SkyFire, you can hide the address bar as is also explained in the "Full screen" row). Opera Mobile, in Landscape mode and using Large characters, only used the two-third of the screen on the left (and left the rest unused); this is why I only gave it a "Fair". Again, only using dynamic, automatic zooming; I haven't tested the text reflowing capabilities of b15233, used together by manual zoom fine-tuning, with this particular case. You might want to give it a try to see whether, then, you can use the entire screen estate or not - I bet you will.
The fourth link shows how the DPReview main page is rendered by default. As can you see, you will most probably want to use manual fine-tuned zooming with Opera Mobile so that the text fully fills in the entire screen estate. Alternatively, if you use the latest, b15233 build with the VGA hacks I've explained (or, straight the VGA version), you won't have problems with the zoom - the screenshots here have been made with the official, earlier 9.51b2 and not the latest b15233.
The fifth link takes you to the DPReview forum. The recommended browsers have no problems rendering this, not even with large characters. Iris, again, needs to be switched to the restrictive Column Mode and IEM6 uses uselessly small characters.
2.2 Scrolling-related tests
In the first test, Scrolling speed, I've elaborated on how quickly you can scroll and how much time it takes to display the text you've just scrolled to. The best and fastest browser is, in this regard, Safari; Opera Mobile and NetFront aren't much worse, though.
The second one, "Real rubberband and inertia", elaborates on whether the tested browser is able to measure the speed of your finger when the latter leaves the screen, and if the speed is above a certain threshold, the screen will continue to ‘roll' in the last direction of your finger when it lost contact with the screen. This is one of the best features of iPhone's user interface, and, of course, Safari. As you can see, of the three most recommended titles, neither Opera Mini nor SkyFire support this. Hope this will be later implemented.
"Does it try to keep the same horizontal position while scrolling?" lists whether a slight horizontal displacement while you quickly scroll up or down results in the screen content dragged to the left / right, which, then, may result in having to re-position the text column you were previously reading. As can clearly be seen, the two Operas (and, of course, Safari) are the least sensitive to this kind of error.
"Minimap? Quick positioning possible on it?" shows whether there's any kind of a minimap on the screen and whether it can be directly used to quickly change your zoomed-in position. In this regard, Iris is by far the best. Note that it's only the QVGA version of Opera Mobile b15233 that supports minimap (but, unfortunately, no quick positioning); the VGA version doesn't have this any more. However, you can add this back with some manual hacking, should the need arise.
Other scrolling issues: here, I listed the problems you may face during scrolling the web pages. NetFront has the biggest problems of all with displaying the context menu almost as soon as you start dragging. This makes NetFront almost useless for this kind of usage.
Manual (free) zooming?: in addition to the well-known automatic zoom (which has been elaborated on in the first section), some browsers also support freely zooming into any area of the screen. You may already seen this on the iPhone, where the two-finger "pinching" of the screen does exactly this - in not only Safari, but also a lot of other apps as well. Of the other solutions, Opera Mobile b15233's is by far the best because it allows you to use any zoom level: it'll always make sure the text is correctly re-flown in the given level. Unfortunately, this kind of functionality is really missing from Safari. Yes, this is one of the areas where Opera Mobile is way better than its iPhone alternative.
This group examines the various input capabilities of the browsers.
Finger-friendly drop-down lists: if you've ever used Safari, you may have already noticed it has very nice and finger-friendly drop-down selector lists:
Here, I explained (and shown) how finger-friendly Windows Mobile browsers are. Unfortunately, none of them excel; probably the best are the two Opera browsers, but they're still a far cry away from iPhone's Safari. Note that if you have a D-pad, you can use the up/down arrows to move the selection and the Action button to select the current one, which, to a certain degree, provides a solution to this problem. Too bad some WinMo phones (for example, the Touch HD) don't even have a D-pad…
How does it work together with third party full screen keyboards?: as the built-in on-screen keyboard in Windows Mobile is almost impossible to use (even after switching to Large size in Settings / Input / Large Keys) with fingers, you may want to take a look at alternative, considerably bigger (or even full-screen ones) on-screen keyboards to allow for finger-based, stylus-less input. I've, in this regard, tested Spb's Full Screen Keyboard. It turned out to be working wonderfully with all browsers, the only exception being Opera Mobile 9.51b2, which always switched back to the standard keyboard on my iPAQ 210. Fortunately, I haven't run into the same problem with version b15233 any more.
This category, as you may have guessed, lists all the miscellaneous tests I didn't want to put in other categories.
Copy / paste: iPhone's Safari is heavily lacking copy/paste capabilities. In this regard, most WinMo web browsers are clearly better. Unfortunately, two (SkyFire and Opera Mini) of the three most recommended apps fail at this: they don't support copy/paste at all. (With Opera Mini, of course, you can still save the current page and, then, find and copy the given text from a simple text viewer like Total Commander.) As usual, with the other browsers, I've explained how you can switch to the text selection mode, as the default "screen dragging" mode, in general, needs to be disabled first.
Other goodies: I've listed some additional features I didn't want to create a separate row for: finding text in the current document (Iris, Opera Mini & Mobile, NetFront), Opera Link support etc. Unfortunately, SkyFire doesn't support finding in page - the only goodie it supports is image saving (also available with all the other browsers). Note that I haven’t listed all features of Opera Mobile: in addition to what the chart contains, it also supports sending image/links via MMS, SMS and E-mail. It even has a download manager that can even pause/resume a download – as has also been explained in my two-year-old article on downloading with Windows Mobile Web browsers.
DPReview top left menus: DPReview.com has a menu in the top left area none of the WinMo browsers can invoke subcategores of - unlike Safari. (An exception is Opera Mobile if you navigate over the main menu items with the D-pad - then, they don't get selected; still, their submenus are displayed, where you can already select anything. This means Touch HD users will need to use the custom onscreen keyboard displaying a virtual D-pad to fix this problem - not the cleanest solution...)
Page saving: the two Operas, Iris, NetFront and PIE, thanks to Spb Pocket Plus, are capable of saving the current page into the local file system. Unfortunately, the pretty barebone (but, still, excellent) Safari doesn't - neither does IEM6 (not that I'd recommend it to anyone) or SkyFire.
CPU usage: I've also benchmarked the CPU (and, consequently, the battery) usage of the tested apps (except for that of iPhone, as I don't know of anything like Windows Mobile's acbTaskMan for the iPhone. I may need to write it myself? After all, Unix does support getting the CPU usage of a given process.) NetFront has turned out to be buggy if and only if it's in the background. SkyFire has a continuous CPU usage: 40% while not doing anything (on the 624 MHz iPAQ 210). This may be quite much a stumbling block for many requiring as good a battery life as possible.
Dynamic zoom, only zooming into a given column: here, I elaborated on whether the browser supports the dynamic two-tap zooming in/out pioneered by Safari. The three most recommended titles work just great in this respect. Unfortunately, IEM6 has nothing comparable.
Clicks vs zooming: here, I explained how easy it is to click / activate links. With some browsers (for example, Iris), it's a bit harder to do this on most Windows Mobile phones, unlike you're using the D-pad and the action button to do this. Sometimes, you need to re-tap the same link some three or four times in order to activate it. This isn't an issue on the iPhone, where links do get activated at once.
Makes use of VGA?: as you can see, SkyFire will always use the 320*240 (QVGA) resolution to converse bandwidth, reduce the load on their servers and speed up screen rendering. This, unfortunately, results in a not-that-spectacular rendering quality on VGA screens. Opera Mobile's current Omnia b15233 rip, having come from a QVGA device, is VGA-unaware and, therefore, displays images (and, via Flash Lite 3.1, compatible videos) pixel-doubled, resulting in low-resolution images.
Quick(!) navigation to beginning of page: in cases, it might be very important to be able to navigate to the beginning of the page without having to waste some 10-20-30 seconds to continuously scroll everything up like mad. In this case, I've explained whether the browsers have a way of quickly doing this. As most current WinMo browsers (except for PIE, IEM6 and the non-native Opera Mini) no longer have a verticalscrollbar, this, in cases, may turn out to be very tedious. Of course, you can still avoid having to scroll all the way up by just reloading the page.
…end of page: unfortunately, getting to the bottom of a page can be even more tricky if a browser doesn't have a draggable scrollbar or hardware button / key shortcuts as simple page reloading won't help in this case. This can be a real pain in the butt if you want to quickly visit discussion threads where the (new) posts you'd like to see are at the bottom of the page.
A quick note: while the iPhone Safari supports quickly going to the top of the page, there's no support of doing the opposite, unfortunately.
Multitab/page: here, I explained whether the browser supports opening more than one tabs (windows) and, if it does, whether you can force the current link to be opened in that tab. The latter is really missing from the iPhone Safari. The fact that Safari always reloads the previous page when you tap the Back icon makes things even worse. Fortunately, it's still the fastest browser to download and render pages, even when compared to Pocket PC's that have an 1.5 times faster CPU, but still...
As you can see, of the WM web browsers that do support mutitabs (unfortunately, SkyFire isn't one of them; nevertheless, it's also very fast to reload previous pages as it just sends over the image of the current viewport to the phone, not that of the entire page), Opera Mobile lets the user to select whether the link should be opened in a new tab. Note that, by default, Opera Mobile only allows for 3 tabs; this, fortunately, can really easily be raised. Opera Mini should be also mentioned: it automatically opens the link in a new tab and only after opening 30 links (new tabs) does it start closing the previous ones.
Making use of memory : especially on memory-restricted devices (for example, most Windows Mobile devices only having 64Mbytes of RAM and running WM5 or later) and with browsers supporting multitabs can the memory consumption be of high importance.
Fortunately, the best (and most recommended) browsers (the two Operas and SkyFire) all have pretty low memory requirements, even with (with the first two) tons of tabs (web pages) open. Not so with Safari: in addition to it always reloading pages when you press Back, if you load a page in another tab, the Web page on the old one will be reloaded except when the page you loaded in the new tab was a small one.
Stability: as you may have heard, Safari's stability isn't the best: it often crashes, particularly upon loading large pages (for example, the comments at the old [before the recent switch] iPhone Dev-Team Blog). Yes, this is indeed the case, even with the latest, 2.2 firmware. Fortunately, it remembers (and quickly and automatically reloads after restarting it) the last page you were on - or the one before, so, this issue isn't that bad.
In general, I've found the stability of all the tested WinMo browsers significantly better than that of the Safari. Another thumbs up for using Windows Mobile for Web browsing. (Now, I can only hope there were WinMo phones with capacitive touchscreens not requiring any kind of physical force when scrolling or doing stuff!)
Flash support?: as has also been explained in my earlier articles (particularly the one on the Flash Lite 3.1 hack and in my Flash bible), you need Flash or Flash Lite support to play back (most) Web videos, play games etc. Safari, again, is really bad at this: all it offers is playing back most YouTube videos but doesn't support Google Video (and the other, less relevant ones like blip.tv and PornoTube) at all. (Note that not even its YouTube support is as full as that of Flash Lite 3.1. For example, THIS video can't be played back in Safari. Furthermore, it doesn't play back stereo videos in stereo like THIS either, which is played back without problems by Flash Lite 3.1).
As you can clearly see, the current, hacked Flash Lite 3.1 is only compatible with the latest (b15233) Opera Mobile version (but not the official 9.51b2) - and not on all devices. (It worked OK on my HTC Wizard and HP iPAQ 210 but not my HTC Universal with Tomal 8.5.) SkyFire supports even the latest, desktop Flash (as it's running on the central server) and PIE only supports the old and pretty much useless, full Adobe 6/7 plug-ins (and the even more useless Flash Lite 2). NetFront, unfortunately, isn't a tad better either because of its sub-par Flash engine, which is even worse than the native Pocket PC Adobe 7 support.
Full screen?: finally, I elaborate on whether the browsers can use the entire (full) screen estate. Most of them can; the two exceptions being Iris (which will always display the bottom bar) and iPhone's Safari.
3. Verdict – will I switch back to WinMo from iPhone Safari?
As has already been mentioned, the three most recommended Windows Mobile browsers (Opera Mobile, Mini and SkyFire), generally, are more featureful, stable (no crashes) and compatible (see for example the PPCT or the ThinkPads test cases) than iPhone Safari. The latter, however, is definitely faster at both loading and scrolling pages than any of these browsers (unless you want to do some special kind of scrolling; for example, going straight to the end of a page, which is very easy in Opera Mini.) If you can live with WinMo browsers loading your pages slower, you may want to prefer them to the iPhone.
This was strictly about the software part. As far as the hardware is concerned (and my switching back to WinMo to browse the Web), the advantage of the capacitive touchscreen of the iPhone pretty much negates the software superiority of particularly Opera Mobile. It’s just far easier to scroll and control the iPhone Safari than any of the browsers on any(!) of my Pocket PC’s and Pocket PC phones. (I’ve, in this regard, tested the following Pocket PC’s with Opera Mobile 9.5: Dell Axim x51v, HTC Wizard and HP iPAQ hx4700 (all three with a high-quality, expensive [Brando] screen protector) and HP iPAQ 210 and the HTC Universal (both without a screen protector) so that I can have a picture of how each of these models, with varying force needed to make screen taps / drags registered, fare. (Yes, I did test at least Opera Mobile 9.5 on five different WinMo models and the rest of the browsers on at least one [mostly the iPAQ 210, except for IEM6, which, currently, is only available in flashable ROM images and not as freey installable CAB files] of them) It was painfully harder to scroll around a page on all(!) of them. While I have a screen protector on my iPhone 3G as well, even with it, it’s way easier to scroll around. In this regard, the Safari (that is, browsing the Web on the iPhone and not any of the current WinMo models) is simply unbeatable. (Note that I use the screen protectors that come with the Switcheasy Rebel cases; according to THIS thread, they’re Pure Reflects. They make screen taps just a little bit harder to register and make the surface a bit less slippery, meaning it’s a little bit harder to drag the screen with the screen protector on. Nevertheless, the touchscreen interface still remains orders of magnitude easier to use than any of resistive WinMo models I’ve ever tested or had.)
All in all, while I’d prefer using Opera Mobile on Windows Mobile because it’s more powerful and stable, the fact that scrolling around pages is way harder than on the iPhone, I’ll stick with the latter. I’m afraid I’ll only change my mind if and when Windows Mobile hardware manufacturers, at last, come up with real capacitive screens, as easy-to-use (even through screen protectors) than those of iPhones. Hope the Microsoft folks are listening…
If you "only" have a Windows Mobile device and, consequently, must select from the browsers available for the platform (and can't go for the iPhone instead), selecting the right one should be based on your personal preferences. In my opinion, Opera Mobile (particularly when backed up with Flash Lite 3.1) is the best. However, if you absolutely must have a browser that either supports Opera Link (Opera Mobile, currently, doesn’t) or have the lowest available data usage figures, go with Opera Mini. It’s not as spectacular as its big brother (there’s, for example, no copy/paste or “inertia” support) but still does what it’s meant to – and it’s free.
SkyFire is, on the other hand, a perfect choice if you have a QVGA device (or a VGA one, but the QVGA-resolution text / image rendering isn’t a problem), have an unlimited Internet subscription (its data usage is far higher than that of even Opera Mobile, let alone Opera Mini) and the much higher CPU usage (and, consequently, battery consumption) aren't an issue.
UPDATE (01/05/2009 3:33 AM CET): I’ve cleaned up the article a little; for example, added a Verdict section. I've also very thoroughly explained the evaluation of the tested browsers largely reflects on how they're able to render text with large(r) characters, NOT the overall rendering fidelity / quality. After all, one of the main aims of this article is explaining which of these browsers can be used when you simply can't use small characters on a VGA screen because you're either moving, the screen physically is just too small (2.8...3") or you have bad eyesight. I’ve also added some explanation of why the current, “hacked” IEM6 version (hopefully) isn’t a representative of the final one Microsoft will release some day. (They have a lot of time bugfixing it and they too surely realize IEM6 is plain useless in many usage scenarios like the one requiring large(r) characters.)
There’s a frontpage of the article at WM Power User.
UPDATE (01/05/2009 4:26 AM CET): MobilitySite frontpage