Android smart phones are blessed with snappy software, a growing app selection, and alluring designs, but, at their original release point, some lacked a key feature found in the iPhone: a multitouch display. Some of that functionality can now be found in Dolphin Browser, a free Android Web browser. Now in version 2.0, this must-have app brings multitouch vitality to devices like the Droid (our test bed for this review), and allows you to create your own multitouch gestures. Additionally, it integrates well with Google’s services, offers tabbed browsing, and comes with instant access to social networking Web sites.
Editorial Note: Shortly after publishing this review, the developers of Dolphin Browser released another update to their software, version 2.5.0. Many of the software changes are cosmetic tweaks to the user interface. We've added a note regarding those changes within this review. All other comments regarding Dolphin Browser 2.0.0 are true for Dolphin 2.5.0 as well.
We've also updated the image gallery of this review with a new screenshot of the interface changes. It is the very last image in the gallery.
Interface and Navigation
Dolphin has undergone some changes since version 1.2.9. The interface is much cleaner; buttons are now integrated in the same manner as a desktop browser. Whereas pressing the hard menu button formerly popped up two rows of touchscreen buttons for navigation in previous releases, doing so in Dolphin 2.0 displays a border around the edge of the screen that includes a bottom rung of navigation buttons (Back, Forward, Home, thumbnail views of open Web pages, and a secondary settings menu). Along the top you’ll see a URL bar with buttons to reload, stop loading, or add a Web page to your bookmark.
Update: In Dolphin 2.5, pressing the hard menu button continues to display a border around the edge of the screen, however the placement of buttons has changed slightly. Namely, the bottom rung of navigation buttons now include a task-appropriate "Refresh Page" or a "Cancel Page" key in addition to Back/Forward buttons and access to thumbnail views of open Web pages. The Home button has moved to the top rung along with the URL bar, a button to add a Web page to your bookmarks, and a button that launches Google Reader.
Tabbed Browsing and RSS Feed Finder
You can open up to six pages in one browsing session with Dolphin, which is less than the eight pages you can access inside the stock browser for Android 2.0. What makes Dolphin unique is that you can move to other open pages with a left or right swipe of your finger or view thumbnails of all your open windows. Plus, navigating open windows is as easy as clicking tabs at the top of the screen.
Click to enlargeA setting enables Dolphin to alert you when a Web page you visit has an RSS feed. It will even add that feed directly to your Google Reader when prompted. Unfortunately, Dolphin supports only Google Reader, and there’s no method to sort feeds into categorized folders; you’ll have to sign in at a notebook or a desktop PC to organize feeds added with Dolphin.
Pinch-to-zoom control is much more responsive and smooth in Dolphin 2.0. In the older version we noticed a lot of bouncy, uncontrollable scaling when we zoomed, and there was some lag between the zooming motion and the contact our fingers made with the screen. In Dolphin 2.0 pages expanded and contracted in perfect harmony with our gestures.
Dolphin also lets users define and set touch gestures. A transparent palette can be set to appear over the Web page by pressing the menu key. That palette allows the user to move his or her finger in a variety of one-stroke motions—such as a circle, L-shape, angles, and some letters—to execute particular browsing commands. For example, drawing a circle saved articles from The Washington Post in our Read Later list, and we drew the letter M whenever we wanted a page bookmarked. There are 23 commands to customize.
Sharing Content Click to enlarge
When users push the Share button, they can share links and info via Delicious, Facebook, Gmail, Messaging, and Twitter. Plus, if you’ve downloaded a social networking client like twidroid, Dolphin is smart enough to add the app to its list of sharing options.
Figuring that Android users are major Google fans, Dolphin also offers in-browser shortcuts to a host of Google services ranging from the frequented (Gmail, Search, Talk, Maps, News, and YouTube) to others we suspect only a small minority of people actually use (Book Search, Notebook, and Tasks).
On the Motorola Droid, we didn’t notice significant speed differences between Dolphin 1.2.9 and 2.0, nor between Android’s standard browser and Dolphin 2.0. The mobile versions of Web pages for The Washington Post, CNN, and Techmeme loaded in 4 to 5 seconds no matter which browser we used, and the load times for full versions of those Web sites were also nearly identical (14 to 15 seconds).
YouTube Downloads and Themes
YouTube fans will appreciate the ability to download videos directly from the popular media hub and save them to the device as MPEG-4 files. Since Android doesn’t support that file format natively, you’ll need to install another app to view the video. We used Media Player XXXL, developed by BluMedialab.com.
One mild complaint about Dolphin 1.2.9 was that the software supported decorative themes yet none were available during our testing. So far, at least one theme, Heat, is available for download in the Android Market. It adds an interesting flame-covered aesthetic to the browser window, but we hope to see more options in the future.
There’s a reason Dolphin quickly became the most popular Android browser around our office. It’s a smartly designed application that not only fills a gaping hole in Android-based Web surfing, but also improves the tech’s implementation by allowing users to define their own touch gestures. Features such as tabbed browsing and close integration with Google Reader and social networking services help Dolphin set the pace when it comes to function, ease of use, and fun in mobile browsing.