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Summary:

Finding good apps for the iPad can be a daunting task, and when a jewel is spotted it can be a delightful experience. That’s the case with iCab Mobile, an alternative web browser for the iPad that has earned a place on my iPad’s dock.

iCab thumb

One of the draws of using the iPad is having a new device to try new software on to find those gems out there. Having hundreds of thousands of apps to choose from makes this a daunting task, and when a jewel is spotted it can be a delightful experience. That’s the case with iCab Mobile, an alternative web browser for the iPad that has earned a place on my iPad’s dock.

I didn’t set out looking for another browser on the iPad; I’ve been quite happy with Mobile Safari. It’s worked well for me and I didn’t think it lacked any features that would be helpful. I stumbled upon iCab Mobile and quickly found a few features that have improved my browsing experience.

There has been a desktop version of iCab for the Mac for years, and I confess I’ve never looked at it. There are no shortage of fine browsers for the Mac desktop, and I have seen no need to try iCab. The mobile version of iCab is a different story as it adds some usability features to the browser that are nice.

Mobile Safari handles tabbed browsing in a decent way — it lets you open multiple web pages at the same time but it hides them in the background. I often pop open the separate tab window in Safari to find I have a lot of pages open I’m no longer using. What Safari is missing is a tab bar that shows all open tabs just like the desktop version, and this is the primary feature I use in iCab Mobile.

The tab bar in iCab works just like the desktop version of Safari, but is even more configurable than that. You can set new page links to open in the current web page, always open in a new tab or my favorite — open links in domains other than the current page in a new tab. Click a link, and the page opens in a new tab. You can configure iCab to have newly opened tabs take the focus or not. The key is how iCab lets you set things up the way you prefer to work, and when you get it customized the whole browsing experience becomes more enjoyable.

If you don’t like the tab bar taking up space on the screen then you can turn it off. You still have an advantage over Safari in that iCab has a tab button that shows all open pages in a popup window when pushed. There’s no switching to a separate tab window like Safari — the popup is visible as is the current web page and this is a much better solution.

If you really want to take advantage of as much screen as possible, the full screen mode in iCab is wonderful. Just hit the button and the web page fills the entire iPad screen. There are tiny buttons around the edge of the display so you can still access needed functions. This is a wonderful way to browse on the iPad and worth the price of admission for me.

Another big feature in iCab is the ability to use modules. These are like the extensions in Firefox that add simple functionality if desired. There are not a lot of modules available, but a few of them are really useful. There’s the “Translation by Google” module, “Increase text size”, “Add page to Instapaper”, “Twitter”, among others. There’s even a “Black & White” module that makes any web page display white text on a black background, which is more useful than you might think.

The filter function in iCab makes it possible to block ads and other content in any web page. The program has over a hundred filters predefined for use, and it’s simple to add new ones as desired.

The attention to detail in iCab Mobile is evident at every level; take bringing in my bookmarks from the desktop. In the iCab Mobile settings there is an Export/Import option. When that is invoked it opens a window with detailed instructions to get the desktop browser bookmarks into iCab Mobile. It starts a server on the iPad and wirelessly connects it to the desktop, where the bookmark file is copied into iCab with the push of a button. It couldn’t be easier and in a few seconds all my desktop bookmarks were available on the iPad. There’s no way to sync them, but this process can be invoked as desired to update the bookmarks.

The iCab Mobile app makes the browsing experience on the iPad better, and that is saying a lot. I find it well worth the $1.99 price and it has replaced Mobile Safari in the iPad dock. That’s the highest compliment I can give an app.

 

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  1. I’m using Atomic Web on the iPad. It has completely replaced mobile Safari. It also has tabbed browsing and a ton of other features. It’s universal so you get a copy for the iPhone / iPod Touch at no additional charge.

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    1. I too use Atomic Web browser on the iPad. The main things I like about it are (1) I can set it to go into full screen mode whenever a page finishes loading, (2) I can choose which controls appear in full screen mode, and (3) I can control the translucency of the controls in full screen mode. As I have gotten used to it over the past week, I have slightly changed which controls appear to better suit my habits, and have made the controls less intrusive as I’ve gotten used to their location.

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  2. I’m sorry, but I’m in the camp that thinks it’s completely inappropriate to have to pay for the addition of basic features to what is still really just the built in browser.

    I know it’s only $2, but the more time I spend with the ipad and ipod, the more I feel that this mentality has caused a shift in the developer world that is decreasing the quality of the products, not improving them. My past experience with portable apps has typically shown that the best apps were either free – developed because of genuine interest and care for the product or solution it provides – or cost a true perceived-value-based amount.

    The iphone/ipad craze has instead created a hybrid that has exploded – thousands of independent developers who find something like this – a failing in the basic OS that many users complain about – then developing a one-off fix for $1-2 and hoping 10,000+ users will buy it and make them some quick money. I’m not blaming them, if I could I would be hard-pressed not to do the same. However, as an end user I just see it continuing to lead to a lot of poorly thought out quick-fixes made for money and then quickly left to rot once the initial sales bump passes. That makes me less comfortable in supporting this model.

    It’s made worse by the fact that most of these apps in the iphone world you can’t get your money back like you can on android. Buy enough of these barely-useful apps, and it adds up.

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    1. Just as an addendum, iCab itself may be really worth it to a lot of people (I don’t have a pressing need for it, yet), and I’m not saying you shouldn’t buy it if you like it. I personally just don’t like the general model of these type of patchwork apps, and don’t think they are ultimately helping provide a stable robust platform in the long term.

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    2. Hey DEV, where can we find your free browser replacement?

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      1. Part of my point (largely implied) was that this isn’t a browser replacement, it’s an enhancement to the built in browser packaged into an app. That’s part of why I don’t like the types of fixes – if the core browser changes a year from now and the app is not longer supported, You start over.

        The cost isn’t much, but part of the reason I say any of this, is that I do support, and I may even be tasked with supporting multiple ipads in a business/healthcare environment soon (as mobile thin clients). That’s where these types of pseudo-replacement apps can become a pain in the long term. Hopefully that better explains where my thought pattern comes from.

        And I said, if I was doing my own app like this, I would be hard pressed not to charge the same. My problem is with the culture the app store has bred (and what that means if it trickles into the business world) more than the developers.

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      2. On the contrary, iCab is a complete browser, not an enhancement. There is even a full desktop version of this browser which is a self-contained browser too.

        I understand your point but it’s based on a flawed premise, that iCab can become unsupported which it can’t. It is based on WebKit like mobile Safari, but is a full browser.

        Cheap prices for mobile apps have changed the business model as you stated so well. There are some developers using that to make a great deal of money, though, so it’s a balance for devs to create the right product.

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      3. The webkit component of iCab Mobile isn’t standalone, it’s calls the webkit engine built into iPhone OS, and uses a combination of native app components and javascript to simulate the look of a completely different browser. This is supported by the documentation on iCab’s site. Opera Mini is the only browser I’m aware of with it’s own rendering engine that has been approved for use on the iphoneOS, and it’s rendering engine is partly server side, as it can’t render true html locally due to the way it works.

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    3. I don’t know if it’s possible for me to disagree more. I would’ve paid five times the price for this browser over Safari for four reasons: tabbed browsing, modules (extensions), fullscreen mode, and most importantly, the ability to compose and editing directly in the WordPress admin panel — something that’s only theoretically possible in Safari.

      As a blogger, I can’t emphasize just how much the latter feature matters. The mobile WordPress app lacks the rich editing capabilities of the web based editor. For some reason, Safari will only accept the cursor the edit form of the HTML editor, not the WYSIWYG window.

      Until I discovered iCab, the only way I could draft on the iPad was by composing in a text editor, uploading to Dropbox, then completing the final formatting at the desktop. Another option for completing the formatting would have been via remote desktop, but both strategies are kludges compared to just writing directly in WordPress.

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      1. I know my comments are generally a rambling mess, but just to be clear, I wasn’t attacking iCab’s benefits specifically. It’s great that it helps you work around Safari’s shortcomings. It was more about concept, supportability, and the way these “browsers” work on iPhoneOS. Basically, I’m just saying “you shouldn’t have to”.

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  3. Nice find James. Love it! All except the bookmarks, that is :( I havent set up wireless syncing yet, and am not clear how it works yet. WOuld have been nice if they would have baked in an option to sign in to your XMarks account.

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  4. I use icab as well. It has replaced safari as my default browser on my ipad. I think it is worth mentioning that icab also has a download manager, which is the single best feature by far. Also there is a module that let’s you download YouTube videos for offline viewing. These two features alone make this the best browser for the ipad in my opinion.

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  5. James,

    Downloaded this today per your recommendation. I like it, and the tabs are definitely implemented better than in Safari. However, I’m finding page load and refresh times to be a good bit slower than with the stock Safari browser. Have you noticed this?

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    1. It seems as fast to me. I’m not using any of the filters to block ads, perhaps that affects speed?

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  6. I love the way it works. I just wish it worked better.

    I like to open a link rich page, then choose 5 or 6 links to each start loading in their own tabs. iCab will do this.

    The problem is that it brings any one tab to a complete standstill. What you want is for the background tabs to load in the background.

    Instead iCab won’t become responsive for me until all of the background tabs have finished loaded.

    Close, but not quite there.

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    1. I suspect you can blame Apple’s lack of multitasking for that.

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      1. What Mark describes would likely require multi-threading, not multi-tasking.

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  7. I just got iCab based on the comment that it works for WYSIWYG editing in WordPress. But it behaves the same as Safari for me – i.e. you can only edit in WordPress in the HTML mode. Is there a trick to make it work?

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  8. You might also like Twowser, another iPad tabbed browser. It’s not nearly as feature-packed as iCab (which is a great app) because it’s not supposed to be. It does provide real tabs as well as Twitter support. If you like browsing the web with tabs and Twitter nearby, you might like Twowser.
    Please check it out… http://mowglii.com/twowser

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  9. iCab was set to be my favorite browser. ‘Thinking i’d have access to all those instant modules was amazing. Until icab ‘refused’ to recognize my username/password for most of the modules, including Instapaper (necessity for someone who travels allot, without the 3G iPad)!
    ‘Drives me nuts! At least Atomic Web worked with Instapaper.
    Back to the drawing (app) board iCab!!!

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