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Better Browsing on Your Android Smartphone

Smartphones can free you from your desk, as they allow you do many things on the go, including surfing the Internet. But the browser that comes preloaded on your phone doesn’t always offer the best features or performance.

Fortunately, you have a choice in mobile Web browsers. There are a number of free apps that you can download from the Google Play store, and this past week, I tested two of the more well-known mobile browsers: Firefox for Android by Mozilla, and Chrome for Android by Google. If the names sound familiar to you, it may be that you already use one of these browsers on your desktop computer or laptop.

I installed Firefox and Chrome on the Samsung Galaxy Nexus Android smartphone, and though still in beta (testing) mode, Firefox loaded Web pages faster than the smartphone’s default browser, and includes some nice extras, such as Do Not Track for extra security and offline reading.

Chrome, which is also available for the iPhone and iPad, is slightly faster than Firefox and has a sleeker user interface. But it only works with newer phones running the Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich operating system (Firefox supports devices running Android 2.2 and higher), so it may not be an option for some people.

Both browsers allow you to sync bookmarks, browsing history, saved passwords and stored data from online forms between your mobile phone and your computer, but this is completely optional. If you’re not comfortable with the idea, or only plan on occasionally viewing Web sites on your phone, you can simply enter a URL into the browser’s address bar and hit Go.

I read a lot of articles on my phone while waiting for the bus, so I chose to sync all my information, and the process is relatively easy on both browsers. Chrome and Firefox automatically sync your bookmarks once you enter your account information (Firefox also requires you enter three unique codes from your phone to your desktop browser). It only takes a couple of minutes, and afterward, I found all my bookmarks had transferred over from my computer to the mobile versions of Firefox and Chrome, while still preserving the order and folder structure I had on my desktop browser.

I used a stopwatch to see how long it took Chrome, Firefox and the Nexus’s default browser to load several sites over a Wi-Fi connection. Using Chrome, AllThingsD’s full Web site loaded in 10 seconds, compared to Firefox’s result of 12 seconds, and the Nexus’s result of 14 seconds. Meanwhile, the New York Times’ full site came up in nine seconds, 10 seconds and 12 seconds, respectively.

Both browsers offered smooth scrolling and easily zoomed in and out of pages when using the pinch-to-zoom gesture. You can also double-tap on part of the site to zoom in, but I thought Firefox was a touch quicker to readjust images and text.

Firefox (right) offers Flash support, while Chrome (left) does not.

Firefox offers Flash support for sites that use such technology to add animation, video and interactive elements. However, it requires an extra Flash Player plugin to work, and Adobe, the company who is behind the app, permanently removed it from the Google Play store this week, as developers shift to a new technology for building their Web sites. If you already had Flash Player installed on your smartphone, Firefox will continue to support it and you will be able to view Flash Web sites on your mobile phone. If you don’t, you won’t be able to view Flash content, such as videos. Meanwhile, Chrome does not support Flash at all.

There are a couple of other features I liked about Firefox. One is the ability to save an article as a PDF, so you can read it later without needing a Wi-Fi or cellular connection. I found that it’s best to save a story from the mobile version of a site if possible, as the full desktop version can mess up the format with various images and links. Chrome also has an offline reading feature, but you have to send it a saved Web site from your desktop browser to your phone.

Also, Firefox is one of the first mobile browsers to include a Do Not Track feature, which prevents Web sites from tracking which sites you visit for targeted advertising purposes. Chrome offers Incognito mode, which means searched pages won’t appear in your browser history, but Web sites can still collect and share information about you.

In terms of user interface, I preferred Chrome over Firefox. Chrome had a more minimalist and clean layout that made it easier to navigate. A toolbar at the bottom of the screen provides easy access to your bookmarks, browsing history and top sites, whereas with Firefox, I felt like I was digging through several layers of menus at times.

Chrome also makes it easier to switch between multiple tabs. Both Firefox and Chrome feature a small number icon next to the Web address field to indicate how many Web sites you have open, and tapping on the icon will take you to another screen, where you can switch between pages, as well as open and close tabs. Chrome goes a step further and gives you the option of simply swiping left and right from any Web page to view the other windows.

Finally, there is feature in Chrome that displays a pop-up bubble around a cluster of links, so you don’t always have to zoom in to click the right link. Just lightly tap the area, and you should see a small window with magnified text. It worked well in my testing, though there were a couple of occasions where the pop-up screen didn’t appear.

If you have an Android smartphone, Chrome and Firefox are great alternatives to your handset’s default browser. Chrome offers faster performance and a nicer interface, but it’s only supported on a limited number of Android smartphones. While Firefox might not be as slick, I really liked the offline reading and security features, so it would be my mobile browser of choice.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald