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iOS Browser Review: iCab Mobile

icab mobile
Apple's mobile incarnation of Safari on iOS is certainly one of the best mobile browsers in the business. It's pretty fast, handles rendering well, and will even sync bookmarks with your desktop. But it's not perfect – there are many things it can't do, and although Apple won't allow browsers on the App Store that use their own rendering engines, there's a whole host of WebKit-based browsers that essentially add to the engine that powers mobile Safari. This is the first in a series of articles wading through what's available, looking to separate the wheat from the chaff.

First in my sights is iCab Mobile, the mobile version of iCab for Mac. Being a universal app, it is optimized for both the iPhone and iPad. However, I shall be concentrating on the iPad browsing experience. iCab Mobile attempts to provide a more desktop-like experience than Mobile Safari, bringing many features found in its OS X version to the mobile platform. Highlights include in-page searching (something the current full release of Mobile Safari for the iPad can't yet manage), full screen mode, ad blocking via filters, desktop style tabs, a download manager, and a nifty bit of Dropbox support.


In use, iCab Mobile handles quite well. Of course, page rendering and actual browsing speed isn't much different than Mobile Safari due to the WebKit underpinnings in iOS, but some of the additions really add to the experience. I particularly like the way iCab handles full screen browsing. Removing the UI from the screen adds quite a significant amount of Web page real estate. Translucent buttons hidden around the top and bottom of the screen give quick access to the address bar, your bookmarks, tabs and search, plus there are back and forward buttons for navigation. It's an intuitive and useful feature that, frankly, should have been built into Mobile Safari.

If that wasn't enough to warrant your $2, iCab mobile also gets around the file system limitation of iOS for downloads, using a built-in download manager with hooks into Dropbox. This means that you can download any type of file and upload it to your Dropbox, right from the browser. Admittedly, Mobile Safari now lets you open files in other programs on your iPad or iPhone that support the type of file you're trying to download, but it's certainly not as flexible as iCab Mobile's download manager.

Rather unusually, iCab includes both passworded access control and guest access, for times when you want to lend your iOS device to a friend, but you don't want them snooping over your bookmarks or browser history. That's not something I'm likely to worry about, but it could potentially help with keeping your browsing private. I can't help thinking that a private browsing mode would have been more useful, though. iCab also lets you change the browser agent, which allows you to view those few sites that like to divert you to a mobile version without giving you the option of viewing the full thing (something that can be particularly infuriating on the iPad). Unfortunately, bookmarks can't be taken or synced from Mobile Safari, which means desktop sync with iTunes is out. iCab does, however, let you manually import or export your bookmarks to your computer or Dropbox. Once you've got your bookmarks into the browser, you can use them for autocomplete in the address bar. It works in much the same way that a desktop browser would; that's a nice touch. Ad blocking (which uses user configurable filters in iCab) also works relatively well, so the need for additions like the jailbreak Safari adblock is reduced, and your browsing is cleaned of a significant proportion of the non-Flash-based ads.

iCab Mobile also includes a system of "Modules," which are essentially bookmarklets, that you can activate from a pop-up menu in order to do useful things, like increase the text size, send to Google for translation, or mobilize the current site using either Instapaper or Google. Five modules come pre-installed, but there are many more available for download both on the iCab Mobile website and elsewhere. If there's some tool that you need, but you can't find a pre-written module, there's a manual for creating your own module using JavaScript.

iCab Mobile iOS browser app


In the end, iCab Mobile adds a few decent features to the already winning formula of Mobile Safari, and it makes the browsing experience even better, especially on the iPad. There are a few shortcomings, such as a larger default UI that encroaches on your screen real estate, but considering that the full screen browsing is so good, it can be forgiven. With a modicum of ad blocking, a proper download manager, and built-in Dropbox support, there's a lot to love about iCab Mobile. Given that you get both an iPhone and iPad app in one, for the price of a cup of coffee, it's well worth looking at. But if you're still not convinced, have a look through the gallery above.

iCab Mobile [iTunes] - $1.99

Tags: apps, commercial, iCab, iCab Mobile, IcabMobile, IOS, iosbrowsers, ipad, iPhone, review, safari