Google’s Android apps are by and large top-notch, although the increasing number of them means that average experience may be getting watered down by duds like Google News and Weather. With so many apps only ported to Android as an afterthought (many, like Instagram, have ported over their bottom-icon heavy look), Google’s specialized design is refreshing. Chrome is no exception. While it doesn’t have Dolphin’s speed or customizations or Firefox’s open source character, Chrome is fine, fast, and full of useful options such as bandwidth conservation (which can sometimes make its rendering of Facebook.com perform better than Facebook’s actual Android app).
You’re waiting for a “but,” so here it is: Mobile Web browsing is stuck in the desktop era. There’s still the URL bar and a bunch of tabs stuck weirdly (and inconveniently) in something that looks like a file cabinet – it doesn’t get much more “legacy” than that. Plus, a mobile Web browser is often somewhere you end up, not somewhere you open with intent. You’re sent to Chrome (or Safari or IE) because you click a link and then wait a few seconds for a blank page to fill out.
There’s something jarring about that process. It really becomes apparent when going through Google Search results, clicking on one, seeing it open in Chrome, then having to go back to Search to go through more that may be interesting. The workaround is to just search directly from Chrome, but the UI is less appealing. Ideally, Google would merge Search and Chrome into one runtime.
Until they do, though, there are some good alternatives to Chrome, both in terms of usability, privacy, and innovative design. I’ve rounded up a few of the best ones here.
If you want something with more pizzaz: Dolphin
Dolphin is speedy, with excellent HTML5 performance a fluid UI. It’s also an ecosystem unto itself, with tons of add-ons and color packs. The look and feel is especially good on tablets and big phones, since it has enough real estate to pull off its desktop-like tab design (if you’re into that). Possible drawbacks include its awkward sharing menus (the best way to share to Pocket is to install a supplementary app) and less support for deep linking (i.e., having links redirect to relevant apps rather than websites) than Chrome. Nice quirks include the ability to create and save drawings that stand in for URLs – you could doodle an ‘F’ to go to Facebook, for example.
If you want something that is private and different: DuckDuckGo Search and Stories
DuckDuckGo is known mostly as an anti-NSA search engine that doesn’t track its users. It’s more than that, as its mobile app name suggests. On Android, it can serve as a news reader with customizable feeds drawing up on various subreddits and popular Web publications – it’s way better than the card-heavy Google Play Newsstand. It’s also a browser. URLs can be entered into the search box and they’ll go directly to that page if correct. You could do all your browsing from within the DuckDuckGo for Android app. Plus, there’s the option to use Orbot to connect the app to Tor for privacy.
If you want something futuristic: Link Bubble
Link Bubble isn’t a replacement for Chrome per se. It’ll still need Chrome or another browser as a fallback, but it’s really a leap beyond almost every other mobile Web experience for Android. Here’s how it works.
When you click a link anywhere, it’ll load in the background and then appear in a small bubble that is drawn over the screen (it lingers until you dismiss it using the notification tray). So say you’re in Google Search and you tap something. It loads in Link Bubble to the side, but you stay inside Google Search, uninterrupted. You can have many bubbles open at once (they’re basically like tabs). Link Bubble has a unique, fun UI for dragging the bubbles to the upper left to save to Pocket, to the upper right to share, and down to close.
Link Bubble is perfect reaction to the disruptive “click, wait for a blank page to load in a Web browser” behavior that characterizes most mobile linking and browsing. It takes some time to get used to, but it becomes a time saver.
Chrome OS has come on big in 2013, thanks to the proliferation of cheap but reliable machines from Samsung and Acer, as well as the meaningless (for now) glitz of the Chromebook Pixel. While some people may easily embrace Chrome OS’s continuous, Web-based model of computing, others may balk at a platform that has no native apps except for a browser and file manager.
Fortunately, Chrome OS still gives us the illusion of having discrete apps that can be docked and clicked to open their own webpages. Here’s a list of some easy-to-use apps to get started
Recent hacks aside, Evernote is a reliable tool for storing or creating just about any type of content (text, photos, quotes, videos, screenshots). The Web-based version is fast and lightweight but still highly functional, making it a great counterpart to the native Evernote apps elsewhere.
This “app” takes you the Chrome-optimized version of the NYT sight, which is far less-cluttered than its standard page. It also supports Chrome OS’s desktop notification system, which is handy for keeping track of breaking news.
Gmail can sometimes be slow, an issue further compounded by limited resources on many Chromebook models. Gmail Offline solves two main issues for Chromebooks: it lets you manage your email more quickly, and it gives your device some real (and rare) offline functionality.
Infinite, free, customizable listening to NPR stations.
I’ve actually gotten GIMP to run (albeit painfully slowly) on my ARM Chromebook, but this is a solution much more suited to Chrome OS’s style. It allows for some light photo editing and sharing, with the option to upgrade for more sophisticated features. It also has a handy extension for detecting, capturing and editing images on the current page.
This one actually comes bundled with Chrome OS. Its Web app is one of the easiest ways to listen to music online, and a must-have in lieu of a fully functional Spotify Web app. You can listen to any of the songs stored in your Google Play Music locker, or songs purchased from the Google Play Store.
A Web app that runs in a native app-style standalone window, TweetDeck is the best way to use Twitter on Chrome OS. Luckily, it also seems to be getting even greater attention from Twitter now that the iOS, Android, and AIR version of TweetDeck are being retired.
My favorite text editor for Chrome OS. White on black, simple, and fast.
No native IM apps? No problem! IMO lets you manage all your major IM accounts (AIM, Skype, Jabber, Google Talk) from its Web app.
Perhaps a stretch, since this app is just a link to the usual Pandora website, but it’s free music (or paid, higher-quality music, if you have a subscription) nonetheless.
-The ScreenGrab Team