In other words, you won’t be seeing Firefox for iPad anytime soon, but browsers that—to appropriate the ever-relevant car metaphor—use the same engine as MobileSafari with a different chassis and paint job—are now available for iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad.
Apple insists that browsing the web on an iPad is already pretty magical, but there’s always someone ready to step up and demonstrate stronger magic. Atomic Web Browser is one such contestant.
A Potential Safari Replacement
As a simple replacement for MobileSafari, Atomic is pretty full-featured. While it’s not possible to save pages to your iPad’s homescreen as webclips (independent webapps), Atomic otherwise matches MobileSafari feature for feature.
In fact, Atomic made me realise just how simple MobileSafari is: beyond opening webpages, handling tabs (er, pages) and managing bookmarks, MobileSafari really doesn’t do all that much. It lacks a lot of features we’ve come to expect from desktop browsers, like a private browsing mode, the ability to view the source code of the pages you visit, and being able to choose between a gaggle of search engines.
Unlike Safari, Atomic was clearly created to bring the features of a desktop browser to the iPad. It offers all those feature plus a whole lot of customizability.
Something Seems Familiar
On first run, Atomic doesn’t look very much like MobileSafari. Not only is the toolbar a custom gradient-y black, but the tabs are a grey that make them stand out from the rest of the toolbar area and the progress bar (which appears in the bottom left corner of the screen when a page is loading) looks like something straight out of Windows, with its transparent glassiness. Everything about Atomic’s appearance shouts that, unlike MobileSafari, this application wasn’t “Designed by Apple in California”.
The tabs that are so obvious in their grey-ness are one of Atomic’s selling points. Unlike MobileSafari’s ‘pages’ metaphor, Atomic uses tabs that at first blush would seem right at home in a desktop browser like Firefox or Chrome.
The plus sign to the right of the right-most tab opens a new tab, and each tab has a close button. Atomic can somehow handle at least ten tabs without running into the memory issues that so often afflict MobileSafari with just a few pages open; unless you’re running several complex HTML5 webapps or games, you’re unlikely to have to wait while a tab reloads, which is a major point in Atomic’s favour.
Atomic’s tabs don’t act exactly like desktop tabs, though; for one thing, they aren’t automatically resized to fit in the iPad’s limited amount of screen space. Instead, the entire tab bar scrolls when you press and drag on a tab.
This has two undesirable effects. First, the ‘new tab’ button can easily get hidden out of sight to the right of the screen when you have seven or more tabs open, which can be especially troubling if you’re working in the left-most tab and need to open a new tab quickly.
The second undesirable effect is that since tapping and dragging on the tab bar is a method of scrolling through your potentially endless list of tabs, you can’t tap and drag on tabs to reorder them. In fact, you can’t reorder your tabs at all.
Toolbar Buttons & Features
The other main features of Atomic are all accessed through toolbar buttons. The simplest toolbar button (not counting Back and Forward) is the one furthest left; the Bookmarks button behaves pretty much exactly as you’d expect, providing access to your history and previously bookmarked pages. It also, however, offers the ability to load pages saved to disk using the Action button (on which more in a moment).
The Action button—which is what I’m calling the plus sign in the toolbar, for lack of a better term—hides a number of actions you can take on the current page. You can add it as a bookmark, set it as your home page, open it in MobileSafari, email its URL, or post it to Facebook or Twitter. All fairly standard options, although the social network tools aren’t available in MobileSafari, so there are some advantages there.
The real treats, though, are the last two items. The second to last is “Save Webpage”, a feature that actually lets you save a webpage in its current state for opening in the future. This is similar to the “Save as web archive” feature in desktop Safari, and it goes so far as to save images and other files necessary for completely reproducing the page even if the website it was part of is completely deleted. Since you can’t yet print from an iPad, that might come in very handy.
The very last feature in the Action menu is “View Source”, which is exciting primarily to the very geeky; being able to check out what makes websites tick while on the go could be very useful. You can even search the source, although it will only find the first result, and email it to someone (if you have an equally geeky friend likely to ooh and ah over some piece of webfacing code).
The last thing I have to note about the Action popover, before I move on, is that it comes up with its pointer off-center on the Action button. Strange little imperfections like this abound throughout Atomic, and I find them increasingly distracting the more I use the app.
Viewing Page Source
Full Screen Browsing
Before we get to the Settings menu, where Atomic’s heart lives, let’s take a detour to the other end of the toolbar and notice that there’s a fullscreen button. It does pretty much what you’d guess, complete with more Windows-like glossy, translucent icons.
Full Screen Browsing
“Settings” Is Where the Heart Is
The Options menu (which is what I’m calling the popover that belongs to the gear button) has seven options: Enable/Disable Private Mode; Lock Rotation; Increase Font Size; Decrease Font Size; Save Font for Site, which allows you to save a custom font size so it will be used next time you open that website (there’s no way to jettison a saved font size other than setting a new one); Hide/Display Tab Bar, which allows you to gain back some valuable pixels if you plan to be on one page for a while; and finally Settings.
If you like to control every aspect of your web browsing experience and your main complaint about the iPad is that it doesn’t offer enough customisation opportunities, you’ll love Atomic’s Settings. If you like the simplicity and “just works” nature of MobileSafari, you should probably stay away.
The Settings section of Atomic is quite frankly byzantine, and I’m not going to go over every possible point of customisation. As a taste, though, you can decide on Atomic’s startup behaviour (load your homepage? certain bookmarks? the last page viewed? all of the tabs from the last session?), set a passcode for the app, clear your history, cookies, and cache, turn ad blocking features on and off and set what buttons appear in full screen mode (and how translucent they are).
Still looking for more? You can also add translucent buttons to regular browsing mode, add and customize multitouch gestures, pick the search engine you want to use in Atomic’s search box, turn the browser pink (or other horrifying colours, or make it imitate Safari, colour-wise), set a user string (so you can claim to be running Internet Explorer 6, if that seems like fun to you), turn off images, hide or show the bookmark bar, turn on a list view for tabs if you love everything else about Atomic but hate the tabs, and, and, and… the list goes on.
You can even control whether you want to receive a low memory warning when you start to run low. It’s a control freak’s paradise!
This shows slightly more than half of the different sections of Settings. Atomic gives you lots of options. The following probably isn’t one you want to explore…!
What Do You Get the Browser That Has Everything?
Atomic is gleefully complicated, and takes pride in using user interface metaphors that feel extremely out of place on the iPad. It allows users to make lots of choices, at the cost of providing the potential for them to make bad ones.
Overall, it’s pretty good at doing many of the things a traditional web browser is supposed to do, but as with most Swiss Army knives, it’s not excellent at any of them.
Nevertheless, if you’re looking for an iPad web browser with desktop-like features and customizability, and you don’t mind a very custom appearance, you shouldn’t still be reading this; you should be paying your $0.99 on the App Store and downloading Atomic right now.
If you’re looking for the simplest, most consistent and most attractive experience, Atomic probably won’t do for you (and you might want to stick with MobileSafari). There are a few other browsers in the App Store, but most of them (like iCab Mobile, which allows you to download large files and import them to a computer later, and Perfect, which offers a few of the same features in an unbelievably ugly, Windows-like app) either cost more or have less features—or both.
If $0.99 is too much for you without a test drive, it’s worth trying out Atomic’s free Lite version.