This is the second in a series of posts comparing free add-on full-web mobile browsers. If you missed the first one, covering TeaShark vs. Opera Mini it’s here.
Here’s a look at UCWEB, Version 6. This browser comes from Guangzhou Ucfly Company in Guangzhou, China. I couldn’t find out much about this company other than what’s on their web page. Ucfly has partnerships with China Mobile and Chinese search engine Baidu. According to the company, UCWEB has been downloaded 11 million times and averages 400 thousand daily users.
To be honest I wasn’t expecting much from this browser. The UCWEB website, at least the English version, is full of typos, not very well organized and the download instructions and online help (a short FAQ) are confusing and vague.
Once I actually installed the browser, I was pleasantly surprised. UCWEB is fast, stable and full of features. It’s a much better browser than TeaShark and represents serious competition for Opera Mini, something I never expected.
UCWEB6 has native versions for all three editions of Symbian S60, for Windows Mobile Standard and Professional 2003 and later and also two Java ME MIDP 2.0 versions; a standard 208 KB version and a 128 KB “lite” one for Nokia S40s and other phones with a low allowable jar file size. I tested the S60 3rd Edition native version on a N95-3 and the full Java version on both the N95 and a Motorola Z8
UCWEB, TeaShark and Opera Mini are all proxy based browsers. All traffic to and from the Web passes through a proxy server that parses and renders the page before compressing it for display by the thin client browser. Proxy based browsers have both advantages and disadvantages compared with direct browsers like Netfont, Opera Mobile and the embedded mobile browsers of most phones.
The main disadvantage of the proxy based approach is that it’s a potential security risk; all traffic passes through the proxy where an unscrupulous employee or hacker might be able to read it and harvest passwords, credit card numbers, etc. The risk is slight but real and I advise against using any proxy based browser to access sites that expose your financial information.
As I did in the Teashark vs Opera Mini comparison, I’m going to compare the three browsers in seven areas, features, performance, rendering accuracy, usability, compatibility with a variety of sites, compatibility with various phones and security.
Like Teashark, UCWEB has tabbed browsing. TeaShark is limited to just two tabs, but UCWEB allows up to 10. You can open any link on the current page in a new window, and switch instantly between windows with the ‘3’ key. You can also open an empty window and then launch a new url or bookmark in it.
The S60 Version of UCWEB has two view modes. “Zoom Mode” is like TeaShark’s only mode or Opera mini’s “Desktop Mode”, it displays a tiny map of the full web page as it would appear in a PC prowser and allows you to zoom in on any area. UCWEB’s other mode is called “Adaptive Mode” and is the equivalent of Opera Mini’s fit-to-width “Mobile View” – pages are reformatted to a single column and neither zooming or horizontal scrolling is required. The Java editions of UCWEB have only Adaptive Mode, there is no Zoom Mode.
The S60 3rd native edition can save the current page for later retrieval and offline browsing. Pages can be saved as a plain text file or in a proprietary UHTML format which preserves formatting. The Java versions don’t have the save page option.
UCWEB supports file downloads, including file types like .jar and .jad, that Opera Mini doesn’t allow you to download. You can also download any image from the current page. I initially had some problems with the download feature. On the N95 using the unsigned Java version, I was able to download only after answering a barrage of security prompts. Commenter jbpseudo pointed me to a signed Java Version. If you don’t see it on the download page, try overriding the browser detection by selecting a Sony Ericsson phone like the P900. With the signed version, I was able to turn off all the security prompts using the N95’s Application Manager. The signed version wouldn’t install on the Motorola Z8, however.
Using the native version every download initially failed with an “Error -18”. Fortunately, UCWEB has a useful File manager which shows the history of all download attempts and allows you to resume and restart downloads and rename downloaded files. By choosing “Restart” I was able to successfully complete all the failed downloads.
Bookmark management in UCWEB is more sophisticated than Opera Mini’s. Folders are supported and bookmarks can be imported and exported. The import/export file is a simple delimited text file. It should be pretty easy to write a small program to synchronize the bookmarks with a desktop browser. Bookmark import/export is not available in the Java Version.
One of the best features of UCWEB is copy and paste support. Text can be copied from a web page, something no other mobile browser I’ve seen can do. You don’t get to select the text, the entire text contents of the page is placed in the phone’s system clipboard. But UCWEB lets you open and edit the contents of the clipboard to extract just the snippet of text you want. You can also copy the page’s URL or the URL of the selected image or link to the clipboard.
Features Winner: UCWEB, Opera Mini has a few features that UCWEB doesn’t, including an RSS reader and bookmarklet support. I never use Mini’s RSS reader as it doesn’t synchronize with anything and tends to lose track of feeds. I do use bookmarklets a lot, mainly to save pages to social bookmarking sites like delicious.com. With UCWEB I found a partial workaround for the lack of bookmarklet support. I copy the page I want to bokmark’s URL, open delicious.com in a second tab, switch tabs and paste the URL into Delicious’ “Save a Bookmark” form. Copy/Paste and Tabs and the ability to download all file types makes UCWEB the features winner.
Performance I ran a speed test on all three browsers. Teashark again loaded the test page the fastest, averaging 12 seconds. Opera Mini took 18 seconds and UCWEB 22 seconds. If you pay for data by the kilobyte, Opera Mini does the best job of compressing pages when using the highest quality image setting. But UCWEB uses the least data when the browsers are configured for the lowest quality images or images turned off completely.
|Image Quality||Opera Mini||Teashark||UCWEB Java||UCWEB native|
As I mentioned in the first post, TeaShark is quite unreliable intermittently loading pages very slowly or not at all. Opera Mini and UCWEB didn’t experience any significant slowdowns or outages during my testing.
Performance Winner: Opera Mini, runner up: UCWEB. Although TeaShark was the fastest when it’s working right, its unreliability relegates it to last place.
Rendering Accuracy This is UCWEB’s weakest area. Zoom Mode was especially poor with missing background images and miss-aligned and horizontally overlapping text (see the 2nd image). UCWEB’s defult text size when zoomed in is quite small making text hard to read. There’s a setting to increase the size of text but it doesn’t seem to increase the spacing between lines which overlap vertically when a larger font is selected. There is a “Line Spacing” option in the settings dialogue but it seems to be ignored in Zoom mode. Although body text is too small, button labels and text entered in input fields are much larger, generally too large to fit the buttons and fields (3rd Image).
The native version of UCWEB’s “Adaptive Mode” (4rth image) is much better although spacing between words seems irregular and transparent gif images often render badly.
The Java version of UCWEB’s rendering is generally OK except that wraps text very crudely. Some lines wrap too soon leaving half the line blank while other lines are wrapped in the middle of words which looks terrible and makes the text hard to read (5th Image). The Java version doesn’t support italic, bold or multiple font sizes. All text is rendered in the same size and weight font. The native version does handle italic fonts but renders regular italic as bold italic
Rendering Accuracy Winner: Opera Mini and Teashark (tie).
Usability: I like shortcuts, Opera Mini has 33, UCWEB 24 (or 70 if you count the numbered items in the native versions menus as shortcuts) and TeaShark only 9. While their are many useful shortcuts in UCWEB, there is no equivalent to Opera Mini’s handy “Speed Dial” feature which offers two-key shortcuts to your nine favorite bookmarks.
One thing that hurts UCWEB’s usability is the dearth of documentation. On the web there’s just a barebones FAQ and a forum where users are asking questions but no one from UCWEB answering them. The built in help system is limited to a list of shortcuts. There are items in the settings menu that aren’t documented and don’t seem to do anything like Browser Type (WAP Browser | WEB Browser) and Transcode Via Server(W… (On | Off).
Usability Winner: Opera Mini and UCWEB (tie), both are highly usable but with different strengths and weaknesses. I find myself using UCWEB more than Mini lately for the tabs, copy and paste and lack of mobile view bugs, but sometimes I miss Mini’s bookmarklets, Speed Dial and Opera’s great support via the Opera Mini Forum.
Site Compatibility: UCWEB has trouble with many of the same sites as Opera Mini; like the “Classic” and Beta versions of Bloglines are unusable in both. It isn’t possible to move messages between folders in the full version of Yahoo Web Mail using any of these three browsers. Logging into 1and1 WebMail hangs on the intial splash screen just like it does in Opera Mini but with UCWEB it is possible to get past the hang by pressing “*” to refresh the page. But, unlike Opera Mini, UCWEB can’t connect to sites that use HTML Basic authentication.
One problem I expected to find with UCWEB and did not was state censorship by China’s “Great Firewall”. I had no trouble visiting sites that are blocked in China including the Falun Gong‘s Epoch Times site, my.opera.com and www.vox.com. When I tested the same sites using WebSitePulse‘s free Website Test behind the Great Firewall of China they were blocked. Either the UCWEB servers aren’t located in China or the Chinese government is allowing UCWEB to bypass the Great Firewall for requests originating from outside of China.
Site Compatibility Results: I’ll call this a three way tie, none of the browsers can handle every site but all of them can handle sites the others can’t.
UCWEB has native support for all Symbian and most Windows Mobile phones and a Java version with a reduced feature set that works on hundreds of phones. Opera Mini supports even more devices. On my Motorola i855, which runs Opera Mini 4.1 very well, both the regular and 128 KB versions of UCWEB’s Java app failed to launch with a “VM Class Loading Error”.
Opera’s developers really seem to try to fix all reported device incompatibilities. The Motorola iDEN phones, Blackberries and many of the Sprint CDMA Samsung and LG phones all couldn’t run on Opera Mini at one time. Within a month or two of users reporting problems with these phones on the Opera Mini forums, Opera released a fix. I don’t see this level of support and compatibility from UCWEB.
Device Compatibility Winner: Opera Mini, Teashark and UCWEB tied for second place.
Security: Any proxy based browser presents a potential security risk as all traffic passes through the third party proxy and HTTPS packets have to be de-crypted, parsed and re-encrypted for the proxy to do it’s job.
Proxy based browsing can still be reasonably secure if the browser and proxy vendor has implemented proper safeguards. It boils down to who you trust. If you do not trust Opera, Guangzhou Ucfly Company or the anonymous organization behind TeaShark you should not use their respective browsers to access sites where sensitive information like credit card or bank account numbers are exposed.
Winner: Opera Mini, As a twelve year old public company in Norway I trust Opera more than I trust Chinese startup UcFly and I trust UcFly more than the people behind TeaShark, whoever they are.
Conclusions UCWEB really impressed me. It is very stable and has some great features not found in Opera Mini, like tabbed browsing and the ability to copy text from web pages. UCWEB’s biggest weaknesses are in rendering and support. If UCWEB is typical of the quality and innovation we can expect from the Chinese mobile software industry, the incumbent players need to look out.
Since I installed UCWEB, I’ve been using as much or more than Opera Mini. I can’t really decide which I perfer. I really enjoy UCWEB’s features especially tabs and copy/paste but pages do look nicer in Opera Mini and bookmarklets are hard to give up.
To download UC Web directly to your phone go to http://wap.ucweb.com click the “English Version” link at the bottom of the page then choose your phone make and model
Updated 4-Sept-2008: Added more information about the Java ME version of UCWEB.