iCab Mobile is the browser for the iPad I’ve been waiting for. Using the same WebKit rendering engine as Mobile Safari, iCab brings a true “desktop” class browser to the iPad. Where Mobile Safari scales up from the iPhone, iCab Mobile has scaled down from the desktop version of iCab, one of the oldest Mac browsers still around.
The first noticeable thing about iCab is that it actually uses real tabs. The UI borrows heavily from Mobile Safari; the URL bar looks almost identical. However, underneath the URL bar is a bookmarks bar, and underneath that is the tab bar, which seems to function just like the tab bar in any desktop browser.
The tab bar does two things to the interface: one, it adds what some might consider “clutter” to the window. When compared to Safari, iCab has more of the “chrome” around the web page because of the additional buttons. The second thing the tab bar does is far more important: it reduces friction. Hiding tabs as Mobile Safari does puts them out of the thought process, it creates an independent experience for each tab. In iCab, when all the tabs are grouped together in the tab bar, I can see immediately what I have open, what I still have to read, and what I need to close. I can’t count how many times I’ve opened up the tab window in Mobile Safari and found eight tabs that are already open in the background of sites I forgot to read. Keeping all of the tabs visible means that I have one less step to go through to get to the tab that I want. In iCab, it’s simple; just look and touch. In Mobile Safari, I first have to remember which icon is the tab icon, then find the tab I’m looking for from the collection of website screenshots. It’s pretty, but adds friction.
iCab has many more settings than Mobile Safari, allowing your browsing experience to be customized to your liking. My favorite setting is the ability to open links to other domains in a background tab. This is by far the best browsing experience on any platform. Have a list of Google search results to check? Just tap each one and it opens in a background tab automatically. Reading through Daring Fireball’s Linked List? It’s as simple as scanning Gruber’s summary and tapping the link to open the tab in the background and on to the next one. This is how I’ve browsed for years on the desktop.
Another favorite setting are the filters. iCab comes out of the box with 142 filters to help block annoying ads. The filters are not enabled by default, but can be easily. Customizing filters is also very easy, assuming you know some basic wildcards.
Instapaper and Twitter are supported via modules. Modules are similar to Firefox’s extensions, but much simpler. They are more like bookmarklets on steroids. iCab does not have a very large collection of modules right now, but it does have a fairly simple tutorial on how to develop them. The repository has modules for jumping to the bottom of the page or the top of the page, and a handful of others, but if someone whips up a Readability module, I think that will have all the important stuff covered.
iCab may not be for everyone, since not everyone is going to need all of the features. I’ve just touched on some of the features that I’ve found useful, I didn’t even mention ScrollPad (place three fingers on the screen to scroll super fast!), the multiple privacy options, support for downloading files and opening them in another installed app, import and export of bookmarks, or full screen and kiosk mode. iCab is $1.99 in the App Store for a universal iPad/iPhone app. If you care about your browsing experience on the iPad, go get it.