Bolt mobile browser deals a competitive jolt

The newest addition to the mobile browser tussle sidles up to the arena hoisting two big guns: rendering speed and video streaming for standard-feature phones.

Bolt browser logo

Bitstream launched the public beta of its Bolt mobile browser about a month ago at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain. Since then, the browser for Java-enabled phones, like BlackBerry and Nokia handsets, has attracted almost 300,000 beta users and rendered over 15 million pages.

Bolt's browser doesn't look like a game-changer, at least not compared with Skyfire when it first emerged to hungrily eye Opera's established market share. Bolt's basic interface tends toward the spare, with an address bar up top, three tabs to reach your history, favorites (which include presets to get you started), and feeds. After that, most navigation takes place from the menu key pop-up. Navigating with the soft key isn't a bad method for quickly jumping to favorites or clearing cookies, and there are currently no submenus in Bolt to delay you, though there is some scrolling.

Bolt browser's split screen is a unique way to magnify text without zooming in.

Despite being the youngster in a fast-developing mobile-browsing field with some very strong players, Bolt browser has some highlights, and a couple of unique features going for it. For one thing, Bolt is very fast. The browser takes a long gulp as it renders the page, but after that, scrolling is smooth and relatively unbroken. After rendering speeds, video streaming is Bolt's biggest win. For the most part, the browser will stream transcoded videos from eight sites, like YouTube, ESPN, Google, and MySpace, on a range of Java phones, and standard-feature phones like the ubiquitous Motorola RAZR--not just on higher-end smartphones.

For some phones, like the BlackBerry, Bolt will download the video to the phone's native media player. This workaround is clearly less than ideal, but with it Bolt has combined Skyfire's in-app browsing with Opera Mini's video-routing to the media player.

Some of Bolt's other highlights include a "find in page" feature that highlights in-line text, and options to download images, clear cookies, and switch to and from mobile and desktop views. The split-screen feature is a unique way to magnify the page demarcated by a view box, as an alternative to zooming in or increasing the overall font size.

As for negatives, navigation was frequently sticky with BlackBerry's Pearl. Though you can type a search term and select "search," to initiate a default Google search, a single, integrated smart bar is absent here in Bolt--in Opera Mini, Opera Mobile, and Skyfire, the URL bar doubles as a search bar. A Home screen shortcut link would also be welcome in the Options menu, along with a conspicuous way to abort a page as it's loading. Bolt's Favorites list also behaved obstinately, with missing commands to reorder your faves and a bumpy editing process. These are areas that the nascent mobile browser will likely attend to throughout the beta period, and some we'll keep our eye on as Bolt develops and as Opera and Skyfire respond.

The open beta of Bolt browser is free to download after registering your e-mail address. Give it a try, and tell us your two cents--what do you think of Bolt compared with Opera Mini and Skyfire?

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.