App of the Week: iCab -- A Highly Recommended Alternative to Safari
Platform: iPhone, iPad
Website: iCab Mobile
One of the great innovations of cell phone technology is the ability to use the Web on a phone in much the same way you use it on your computer. When the iPhone first emerged, Apple's Safari browser was included and it was a revelation for phone users who had never seen this level of quality when accessing the Internet through a phone. Ask anyone who had an older BlackBerry how boring the Web was and how difficult it was to access.
But like its desktop cousin, Safari has some significant limitations and, under the guise of keeping things simple, Apple's iPhone version of Safari is about as stripped down as you get. As phone users get more sophisticated, their Web browsing needs grow and Safari just isn't enough. Enter iCab mobile, the self-proclaimed "Internet taxi."
I had been using Safari and had been pretty satisfied, but recently there were some things that were bothering me. One of the great benefits browsers on desktop computers have (except Internet Explorer, obviously) is the ability to utilize the expansive memory of a computer to add extended features to your browser. Every kind of extension you can imagine -- from spellcheckers to app add-ons -- is available for Firefox and Chrome, making the browsing experience more interesting and efficient.
The phone has limited resources, so it is tougher to make a more robust experience, but iCab has come pretty damn close.
iCab in full screen "kiosk" mode.
Simply put, there are a TON of features on this compact little browser. First of all, tabbed browsing. Hallelujah! The advent of the tab in browsers was a major upgrade from having to open multiple windows. iCab gives users what Apple decided to omit from its iOS version of Safari.
There's also a bookmark importer that works with any current browser. Trying to sync iOS Safari bookmarks with a browser that isn't Safari on your desktop is a pain. iCab also has a full-screen mode that removes all toolbars, expanding the screen for easier reading.
One of the more interesting features is Modules. Represented by a puzzle piece icon on the bottom toolbar, Modules is a batch of features for simplifying a variety of tasks from scrolling to the bottom of the page, reloading, increasing font size, printing and a number dedicated to specific services like Twitter (clicking its module icon automatically creates a tweet with the URL of the page you are on, for example).
The best part of iCab is the customization. There are ways to easily link your Dropbox, Twitter and Readability accounts to the browser. There are tons of settings that allow for dramatic customizations of the user experience. There are great filters to help block unwanted ads and the like. For all of Safari's simplicity, iCab went the exact opposite direction, offering users more options than they could possibly need.
iCab's only shortcoming also appears to be the thing that sets it apart: its complexity. While it is fantastic to have a million options, not all of them are explained particularly well. When trying to import my bookmarks using my Dropbox account, a process that would appear to be a fairly simple one, I ran into some confusion I eventually identified and fixed, but it's tough to imagine the average iPhone user having the patience or know-how to quickly solve that type of problem.
While there is an extensive help section, some of the features -- the filter, in particular -- assume that you have some basic knowledge of these things already, which may be a leap. The Modules icon, for example, doesn't give any explanation of what each module actually does, so you have to click on it to find out. Some will ask you if you really want to do what you are clicking -- view the source code of the Web page you are on, for example -- but others just do the action, which is confusing.
The thing that sets iCab so far apart from Safari is its tremendous density. While that may represent a bit of a learning curve even for seasoned iPhone users, it is simple enough to use from the start that even beginners will recognize the basic functions and have no problems using it.
For those who want more out of their browsing experience on the iPhone (the iPad version must be killer), there is a seemingly never-ending array of options, something Safari just doesn't offer.
This app is definitely worth the two bucks if you spend even a small amount of time using the browser on your iPhone. I highly recommend it.
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