Before multitouch came to the stock Android browser, Dolphin was the answer for Android users eager to pinch and zoom their way through the web. Afterward, there were still plenty of reasons to stick with Dolphin, including tabbed browsing and customizable gestures (such as opening bookmarks or navigating forward/back). With the release of Dolphin Browser HD, which now features add-ons and a slicker interface, its developers have given us even more. No, it's not the fastest browser on the block, but Dolphin offers the best overall surfing experience.
Dolphin Browser HD shares many of the same aesthetic flourishes of the previous Dolphin versions, and you can definitely tell it was designed with an eye toward making the browsing experience very close to using a notebook. The main browsing screen is clean and uncluttered, but frequently used commands and features aren't too far away.
Where many other mobile browsers require users to tap an icon to view all the tabs/windows available, we like that Dolphin HD places the tabs at the top of the screen, similar to Firefox. The tabs disappear once you start scrolling so that they don't continuously take up screen real estate. Users can have up to eight tabs open at a time, just as with the stock Android browser.
Other than the Home and Refresh buttons that flank the address bar, Dolphin HD doesn't clutter the main interface with other quick-access buttons. It's more streamlined than Dolphin 2.5, Opera Mini, or Skyfire. However, that doesn't mean users will have to dig deep into menus to access features.
Sliding the screen to the right reveals the bookmark sidebar, which also includes a list of the most-visited sites and buttons along the bottom for all available windows. You'll also see the Edit option for adding and rearranging bookmarked sites, managing themes and add-ons, and viewing your browsing history. A third button, My Dolphin, was a placeholder for a future feature, but the company told us it will be changed to an About page in future versions.
To access the Add-on Toolbar, slide the screen to the left; from here you can activate add-ons as well as enter or exit full-screen mode, which eliminates the notification bar and the tabs up top.
As with previous versions of the browser, users can also access extra features or quickly load any URL using Dolphin HD's Gestures. Tapping the transparent gray icon on the bottom left of the screen activates the gesture layer. We found the pre-loaded gestures a little more intuitive than those on Dolphin 2.5, but users can still change existing ones or add their own. Most gestures are intuitive: draw an N for new tab, a circular swirl to reload, and up or down arrows to jump to the top and bottom of the page. We had about 90 percent success executing gestures the first time we tried, and with practice it became easier.
Dolphin was the first Android browser to offer multitouch; even though that's now standard on the default Android browser, it's still a compelling feature here, too. Users have the option to zoom in and out via double tap, or via the magnifying glass buttons. No matter the manner of zooming, the browser intelligently reflowed text on single- and multiple-column websites.
In most cases, Dolphin HD loads the full version of a site by default, though some sites load the mobile version at first regardless of your user preferences. Switching to the mobile version is easy enough, and users can assign a gesture to the command. However, there's no Dolphin command to switch back to the full version of the site; you have to retype the URL again to reboot the page. We wish there weere a way to have Dolphin HD load the mobile version of all sites when this option is available, as you can with Opera Mini and Skyfire.
Flash 10.1 plays as well with Dolphin HD as it does the stock browser. Sites where Flash elements or videos were available didn't load at first, but tapping one would activate them all. On pages with too many Flash instances (e.g., seven videos in a row) the browser slowed down considerably.
Features and Settings
Dolphin HD offers a wide range of customization options, both in the basic setup and via add-ons. The robust list of settings may seem daunting, but it provides users with plenty of options and functionality. We particularly appreciated the option to scroll using the Volume buttons, use our SD card for the cache, and clear HTML5 data. For users concerned with prying eyes, Dolphin HD has a Private Browsing option that makes it easy to clear history, cache, form data, and saved passwords, from the Settings menu.
The options offered under the Menu button could be better. These include Refresh, which is already at the top of the screen; Toolbar, which shows the same add-on bar accessible by swiping all the way to the left; and Bookmark, available by swiping all the way to the right. Forward and Exit are both useful, but we would have liked to see Share, Mobile View, or Settings here instead of under the More button. Other available options under More include Find on Page, Select Text, Save Page, and Downloads.
Another desktop browser feature Dolphin HD incorporates is add-ons, which allows users to further customize and control their browsing sessions. The list of available add-ons closely resembles the kind of extras we're used to seeing on Firefox for the desktop, including themes/skins, a quick search for popular sites like Amazon and Wikipedia that we found especially useful, a password manager, ad blocker (another favorite), and Tab Mix Plus, which lets users bookmark, copy, and reopen tabs.
We like that Dolphin HD offers to save pages for later reading. Unlike Opera Mini, the app doesn't keep them in a Saved Pages area, but downloads the HTML file to the phone instead.
Dolphin HD may offer a good browsing experience, but it's a bit slower than other mobile browsers. To test the Dolphin HD's speed we loaded several websites heavy with images plus Java and/or Flash elements using the Motorola Droid X and a 3G connection.
The full version of Laptopmag.com took an average of 21.7 seconds to load; that time was the slowest of the lot, but not by much. Skyfire took 20.7 seconds, and the stock Android browser took 21.3 seconds. With NYTimes.com, Dolphin fared better, loading the page in an average of 15 seconds, fast enough to beat Skyfire (18.3 seconds) and a hair behind the stock browser (14.7 seconds). Regardless, Opera Mini loaded those two pages in 5.7 and 6.3 seconds, respectively.
Mobile sites loaded quickly--M.Espn.Go.com rendered completely in an average of 5 seconds, the same as Skyfire, just one second slower than Opera Mini, and 0.7 seconds faster than the stock browser.
One of the add-ons available for Dolphin HD called Browse Faster promised improved speeds by killing apps. According to Dolphin, it will kill system apps, apps that Android pre-loads, and third-party apps that use a lot of memory, leaving more room for Dolphin's operation. The add-on doesn't give you the ability to select which apps it kills and also doesn't inform you what it killed, only that it performed the operation. And in the end it wasn't even worth it because the browser didn't get any faster.
Dolphin Browser offered the best browsing experience on Android, and now the HD version is even better with the inclusion of add-ons. It's head and shoulders above Android's browser, from the tabs and gestures to the quick access to favorites. If it were as fast as Skyfire it would be unstoppable, but with the features it offers, that becomes a quibble. If you want desktop-like surfing on your Android phone, make Dolphin HD your default browser.