The new iOS 5 brings a refreshed mobile Safari, while Android's nameless Browser has been holding steady as the stalwart of Google's mobile operating system. I looked at two iterations of the latest browsers for iOS and Android: Safari for iOS 5 on the iPhone 4S, and the Android Browser for Gingerbread 2.3.4 on the Droid Bionic.
Although they come from two companies locked in fierce competition for users, the browsers are both built on the WebKit rendering engine and are remarkably similar.
Safari has some useful features that Apple has ported from the desktop version that Android's browser lacks. First is the Reading List feature, a convenient tool for marking pages and sites to be read later. If you tap the Action button (the box with an arrow coming out of it at the bottom of the browser,) the second option is to add it to your Reading List.
Once added, you can access it later by tapping the Bookmark button. The Reading List is the first option. That's no accident: Reading List is simply Bookmarks with a better public relations budget. You can also sync the feature with other iOS devices via iCloud.
Reader is another desktop Safari feature that's made its way over to mobile in iOS 5. It streamlines articles, cutting out extraneous ads and page-jumps so you can easily scroll through the story without getting distracted.
Safari's in-page text copy is also extremely slick. Long-tap on the screen, and a magnifying glass appears to make single-word reading and selection easier. Release to get handles for dragging the highlighted area beyond a single word, or for searching for a definition of that word. It may sound awkward, but it's clever and intuitive.
Safari also has a recognizable name. It wouldn't be out of the realm of possibility for Android to eventually brand its Browser as Chrome, since they're both built on WebKit, but Google has said that's not going to happen in the near future. This is a miscalculation on Google's part. With Chrome growth still stratospheric more than three years after it debuted, the Android browser could well benefit from some of Chrome's better features, such as sync and add-ons.
As an aside, this has led to an interesting problem for Android. There are some serious platform restrictions on iOS that affect your ability to look beyond the default browser. Apple severely restricts your ability to change the default app for core services, so third-party browsers must be built on the same WebKit engine that powers Safari, and those browsers aren't allowed to take over link launching from text messages or other apps. If that happened on Windows, the practices would be quickly labeled anti-competitive and immolated with lawsuits and fire-breathing attorneys.
So on Android, the competition has far outstripped the default browser. Firefox for Android, with its syncing, tabs, and add-on gallery, does an impressive job of replicating the desktop experience in the mobile space. Dolphin does, too, and supports Flash and gestures as well. Opera Mobile offers a similar feature set, plus page compression to accelerate page-load times. And those are just three off the top of my head. Next week's Ice Cream Sandwich announcement could change things quickly for Android, but right now the default browser looks anemic against the home turf competition.
Against Safari, though, it holds up well. It doesn't have analogs for Reader or Reading List, but it does other things better. Safari doesn't have location bar searching enabled, which means that it's got a secondary search box crammed into the top of the interface. The Android browser uses the extra space for a dedicated Share button and one-tap Bookmark button, things that Safari lacks.
Android doesn't offer an instant, single-word definition search or on-board dictionary as a second option to copying highlighted text. It does let you instantly share the text, though, through the standard Android "share" interface. The Android browser also comes with a download manager, it lets you download a page to your SD card for offline reading and lets you view page info such as the full page name and full URL.
In simplest terms, the browsers are a reflection of the operating systems themselves. The enhanced reading options for Safari reflect iOS's "it-just-works" populist approach, while the best of Android's browser set it apart with a bit more in-depth control.
There used to be two major differences when comparing the default versions of the browsers on tablets: tabbed browsing, and Incognito, a privacy mode that prevented site data from being recorded as you browsed. Not only has Safari on the iPad just gotten tabbed browsing with iOS 5, but Private Browsing has been ported from desktop Safari to both phones and tablets running iOS 5. One major drawback to the iOS version of the feature is that you must go through the Settings app to initiate it. While the Gingerbread 2.3.4 browser lacks Incognito, Honeycomb 3.1 has it, and it can be used on a per-tab basis. A big-picture look at the browser features shows that there's not one single feature that makes either one of these browsers impressively better than the other. Where one slacks off, the other picks up.
When it comes to performance, one major recent study showed that the Android 2.3.0 browser was shockingly better on almost all counts than the iOS 4.3 Safari. In testing the browsers and phone models for this story, they were impressively similar in page load times. In informal tests, Android averaged about two to three seconds faster on some sites, like Apple.com, YouTube.com, and NYTimes.com, but on other sites such as Download.com and Amazon.com, they averaged nearly the same render time. Of course, performance depends heavily on hardware, so if you've got an older Android phone running the latest OS, or an iPhone 4 running iOS 5, you're not as likely to see similar results.
The bottom line is while the browsing experiences remain different, that has more to do with their host operating systems, and less to do with the browsers themselves.
Correction: This story originally stated that iOS 5 Safari did not support a private browsing mode. That has been amended.