Which is the best web browser software for the iPhone? Safari comes installed as standard, but there are plenty of alternatives - which is best for speed, features, user-friendliness and other key factors? Is Chrome, Opera or Dolphin a better bet?
Find out which iPhone web browser is best in our browser face-off.
What’s the best browser for iPad and iPhone: Dolphin Browser
Dolphin is a feature-rich alternative to Safari that includes some impressive gesture support.
Dolphin supports tabs (like Safari does) but it’s easier to navigate between them: swipe from the right-hand edge to bring up the tabs page and pick an option (we prefer this to the showier but generally less informative and intuitive '3D view' offered in Safari on the iPhone). A horizontal swipe also allows you to access bookmarks and navigation shortcuts.
A unique feature in Dolphin called Webzine reads external feeds - from Twitter or Facebook, or from online publications - and presents them in a stream. Speed Dial, meanwhile, offers an easy way to set up a short list of your favourite bookmarks. And there's a feature called Wi-Fi Broadcast that lets you share pages with people nearby. The range of features is hugely impressive, although this can be overwhelming for new users.
Dolphin's gestures can be used to navigate to a page or refresh the current one, among other things. The app lets you draw your own custom gestures directly on the screen.
Key advantage: Gesture support is both convenient and cool; Private Mode is easy to access
Key disadvantage: Larger range of features makes interface more confusing than that of Safari - especially at first; can't be made default (see Safari section, below)
What’s the best browser for iPad and iPhone: Chrome
Google’s Chrome browser for iOS is well made and a pleasure to use, particularly if you're deeply entrenched in Google's ecosystem.
Chrome’s tabs are excellent. You can quickly create new tabs, rearrange them and move between them easily:
Above left: the open tabs are presented neatly and conveniently; swiping to the right closes unwanted tabs. And if you use Chrome on the Mac (as many of us do) you can sign into Chrome on both and sync your tabs, as seen above right.
Other clever features in Chrome include a handy button that lets you switch to the desktop version of a website that’s served up a mobile-optimised version instead, and its use of black-and-white web previews in tabs whose content is cached and will be refreshed when you select them. As with Dolphin, it's easy to invoke the 'private browsing' mode, although of course in this case it's called Incognito Mode.
Key advantage: User-friendly tab organisation and navigation; many useful features
Key disadvantage: 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; can't be made default (see Safari section, below)
Read our full review of Google Chrome for iPhone
What’s the best browser for iPad and iPhone: Opera Mini
Ah, Opera: the connoisseurs' choice. Opera occupies only about one percent of the web browser market on desktop, but its users claim (not without reason) that it's the best product around.
On mobile, 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 any of the browsers above.
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:
There are compromises with Opera Mini, however. It's a basic-looking browser, with the sort of skeuomorphic gradients and shadows on buttons that went out with iOS 6, and for this reason it can seem distinctly retro after using iOS 7. This may we be dealt with in an update, of course.
More seriously, Opera Mini doesn't take on either audio or video elements; embedded video simply doesn't appear.
One last cheer for the refresh button, which is massive and sits in the middle of the bottom bar. That's unusual but, aptly, rather 'refreshing': I for one find it tiresome pecking at the fiddly refresh button by the address bar in Safari for iPhone. Little things.
The tabs are arranged at the bottom of the screen when you hit the relevant key (above left); somehow Opera makes it easier to see at a glance what's on each page than any other browser we looked at.
Key advantage: Fast; saves on data consumption; nice tab organisation/navigation
Key disadvantage: Doesn't serve audio or video; has slightly old-fashioned look that clashes with iOS 7
What’s the best browser for iPad and iPhone: Atomic Browser
Last of all, a paid-for option. Atomic Web Browser provides an alternative for iPhone power users. The £1.49 browser app is neither flashy nor beautiful, but it packs powerful features into a truly customisable experience.
Atomic is highly flexible and useful, allowing the user to set up advanced privacy controls, choose from several colour themes, activate an ad-blocker, customise the search engine bar, view the source of a web page, and even make web servers identify Atomic as another browser.
The main downside, of course, is that you have to pay for the full version of the browser, whereas all of the other browsers we've looked at are free. There is a free lite version, but this comes with some limitations on the number of tabs you can open, doesn't support multitouch gestures, and doesn't offer password protection or a bookmark bar.
If you're looking to truly harness the power of Atomic, buy the full version.
Key advantage: Extremely deep feature set: appear as another browser, customise search and appearance, view web page source
Key disadvantage: Price tag. It's cheap (and a free version is available) but the accepted standard for most web browsers is to be free across the board
Read our full Atomic Web Browser review
What’s the best browser for iPad and iPhone: Reasons to stick with Safari
What about the built-in Safari web browser? Safari is behind its rival on certain features (and Opera Mini on speed) and certainly has its knockers. 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 7 in more intangible ways - in 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 (and both Dolphin and Opera are worth a shot) that'll be a one-off investment.
Key advantage: Is the only 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
Key disadvantage: Behind rivals on some features - gesture support, tab navigation
What’s the best browser for iPad and iPhone: Verdict
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. Opera Mini is quicker - significantly so - Dolphin has great gesture support, Chrome offers useful syncing with other Chrome-based devices and Atomic has the best feature set. But Safari isn't as far behind on the features front as it used to be, and there simply isn't a big enough reason to switch.
Still, the first three we looked at are free, so you can take a look for yourself. If Apple removed the restriction on default browsers, we'd probably be inclined towards the fast simplicity of Opera, although the lack of video remains an annoyance.
Additional reporting by John Fuller and Lex Friedman