Which is the best web browser for the iPhone? Safari is the default browser pre-installed on every new iOS device, but there are plenty of alternatives, ranging from Google Chrome and Opera’s various mobile offerings to Dolphin, Atomic and Ghostery.
In this article we rate each iOS browser for speed, features, user-friendliness and other key factors. Find out which is best for you in our browser face-off.
If you want to replace some of the other stock iOS apps, check out our guide to some of the best alternative apps. Or if this inspires you to try a new desktop browser too, find out what we think is the best Mac browser.
Pros: The only iPhone web browser that can be the default – therefore all email links etc. will open into Safari; based on the same ‘design language’ you will experience throughout the rest of iOS, so many features and defaults will feel more natural to use
Cons: Behind rivals on some features – gesture support, speed
What about the built-in Safari web browser? Safari is behind its rivals on certain features (and Opera Mini on speed) and certainly has its critics. But there are some big reasons to stick with Apple’s own browser.
The first and the biggest is the simple fact that you can’t change the default browser on your iPhone (unless you jailbreak). This means that links in emails and similar will default to Safari when you click them. Links in Facebook or Twitter will open in a web view that remains inside the app, but offer the option to open the page in Safari – not other apps.
And Safari is integrated into iOS in more intangible ways – the overall design aesthetic, for example. This means that Safari feels like a natural extension of the iPhone and its menus and settings.
Finally, there are the advantages held by any incumbent: it’s the easiest option, since it’s preinstalled and you don’t need to invest any time looking into alternatives; and it’s comfortable, because you’re already used to the way it works. All of the other browsers here will require some getting used to – but if you find one that’s worth sticking with that’ll be a one-off investment.
The advantage that Safari holds over its rivals at the moment – that it’s the only browser you’re allowed to have as the default – is so huge (and, you could say, so unfair) that we still don’t feel able to recommend switching to a rival.
Still, they’re all free, so you can take a look for yourself.
Pros: Fast; saves on data consumption; fantastic keyboard helps handle fiddly URL text on a small screen
Cons: We’ve found it a tiny bit crash-prone; compromises in image quality etc required in order to achieve big speed/data improvements
Opera is widely understood to be the connoisseur’s choice of web browser software. It occupies only about one percent of the web browser market on desktop, but its users claim (not without some justification) that it’s the best product around.
On iPhone, Opera has two browser apps to choose from.
The first we’ll look at, Opera Mini, takes the approach that speed is key. By some clever trickery involving proxy browsers returning static pages (don’t worry about it) Opera Mini is quicker than the most popular browsers.
In (very unscientific) tests it appeared to return pages in about half the time it took Safari and Chrome (oddly enough, Dolphin was the slowest, although it has the habit of returning a page fairly quickly but then sitting with the progress bar virtually finished for another 10 seconds, so the experience isn’t significantly worse).
It’s also an economical browser, reducing your data usage significantly. You can track the savings you’re making on a dedicated analytics page.
Opera Mini makes compromises to achieve these savings, but you are able at least to choose how extreme you want these compromises to be. There are three settings – Mini, Turbo and Off, of which the fastest, confusingly, is Mini – and you can choose to load or not load images, and at what quality you want them to appear.
The tab manager view is 3D, as is apparently industry-standard now, and like Chrome allows you to simply swipe a tab to close it. The tabs are arranged horizontally, though, and therefore swiped upwards. This horizontal layout also means (in this user’s humble opinion) that it’s a little easier to see at a glance what’s on each page. And again like Chrome, the interface incorporates a handy ‘drag down to refresh’ that we’d like to see in Safari.
Opera Mini’s keyboard, meanwhile, is masterly – the best of any browser in this roundup. It includes two handy shortcut buttons: one to input a QR code, and another to switch between default searches in Google, Wikipedia, eBay and Amazon. But its triumph is the central slider/rocker switch that deftly moves the cursor in the URL bar and, if you hold it down for a moment, selects text too. The only thing missing is a ‘.com’ or ‘co.uk’ autocomplete button.
If Apple removed the restriction on default browsers, we’d probably be inclined towards the fast simplicity of Opera Mini over Safari, so it’s definitely worth trying it.
Chrome for iOS
Pros: User-friendly tab organisation and navigation; many useful features
Cons: Google-phobes may dislike the company’s tendency to track and sync, and if you don’t want to sign in you lose some of the advantages
Google’s Chrome browser for iOS is well made and a pleasure to use, particularly if you’re deeply entrenched in Google’s ecosystem. If you use Chrome on the Mac, for instance, you can sign into Chrome on both and sync your tabs.
Like Dolphin, Chrome includes a voice-search mechanism, but this time it’s bundled with the browser for free.
Chrome’s tab management is excellent, if currently quite similar to Safari. You can quickly create new tabs, rearrange them and move between them in a 3D manager view; unlike in Safari’s equivalent, swiping any tab to the right closes it.
The general interface is strong, too: back in the main view swiping right takes you to the previously viewed tab, and we like the user-friendly ‘drag down to refresh’ that you get on all web pages – a nice echo of the increasingly standard method of refreshing your mail or Twitter client.
As with Dolphin, it’s easy to invoke ‘private browsing’, although in this case it’s called Incognito Mode. And like Opera Mini, Chrome offers to cut your data usage with a Data Saver optimisation mode. According to Google the reduction may be as much as 50 percent.
Read our full review of Google Chrome for iPhone.
Pros: Feature-rich; gesture support is both convenient and cool; various modes (Night Mode, Private Mode) are handy and easy to access
Cons: Larger range of features makes interface more confusing than that of Safari – especially at first
Dolphin is a feature-rich alternative to Safari with some impressive gesture support. Its tabs are easier to navigate than Safari’s – swipe from the righthand edge to bring up the tabs page. A horizontal swipe from the lefthand edge allows you to access bookmarks and navigation shortcuts.
Dolphin’s gestures can be used to navigate to a page or refresh the current one, or open a new tab, among other things. The app lets you draw your own custom gestures directly on the screen, and we’ve found its gesture recognition consistently accurate.
Night Mode dims the screen to a suitable level for nocturnal browsing. There’s a one-button QR reader feature next to the URL bar. The sharing pane has Facebook, Twitter and Evernote options, as well as AirDrop and a proprietary device-to-device web-syncing feature called Dolphin Connect. And there’s a neat Sonar voice control option (with a clever ‘shake and speak’ approach) if you’re willing to pay 99p for the privilege.
Dolphin’s range of features is hugely impressive, although this can be overwhelming for new users.
Pros: Very strong privacy and anonymity features
Cons: Interface doesn’t look great
If you don’t like advertisers tracking your browsing habits, Ghostery is the browser for you.
The app is designed with privacy – and anonymity – as its primary aim. There are no cookies, no signups and no collection of user data by the app itself (unless you opt in to provide anonymised data to help Ghostery compile its database). And if the web page you’re on is using any ad trackers, Ghostery will spot them and warn you with a red icon: tap this to see a list of trackers and block the ones you don’t like the look of.
The devs have also added an experimental feature called WiFi Connection Protection which is designed to monitor ad trackers in any app you use on a particular Wi-Fi network.
Pros: Blocks ads, analytics, social and tracking data, making it one of the most security-focused browsers on iOS; simple to use
Cons: No history, menus or tabs; very basic browser; slower rendering engine than Firefox and Safari
In November 2016, Firefox released its standalone security-focused browser Firefox Focus.
If you recognise the name, that’s because Mozilla previously released Focus by Firefox, a dedicated content blocker for Safari.
We found the browser to do exactly what it said on the tin (or App Store) – it blocks a wide variety of trackers, allows you to easily clear your history and puts you in control of your internet history.
However, it is limited – you lack a history, menus, or even tabs! This is a major drawback, but if security and privacy are the most important things on your agenda it’s a compromise you may want to make.