iCab Mobile: A Worthy Safari Alternative

In 2008 Apple opened the iOS gates to third-party developers, but its strict App Store policies severely limited app creativity. App Store submissions were rejected if the app duplicated core functionality of iOS native apps. This meant that the quality of the web browsing and emailing experience was solely controlled by Apple. Web browsers were some of the first applications to slide past Apple’s restrictive policies, and several excellent notables clawed their way above the rest.

Phillip reviewed Grazing a few months ago, and reading the review left me hungry to try it. Unfortunately, I found myself less concerned with flexibility of browsing and sharing and more concerned with download management, something that both Mobile Safari and Grazing lack. This led me to iCab Mobile, a powerful browser by Alexander Clauss.

How does iCab hold up to the competition? Can it counter Mobile Safari’s native advantage?


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Appearance

iCab isn’t ugly by any standards, but it hardly deviates from the traditional chrome design common to iOS browsers. The app has been updated to take advantage of the iPad’s Retina Display, except for a few overlooked module icons. iCab’s traditional browser experience comes with the same finger-friendly tabs as Safari, but also the annoying omnipresent tab bar, even when there’s only one tab opened.

It's hard to tell iCab apart from other browsers, but this traditional design works well.

It's hard to tell iCab apart from other browsers, but this traditional design works well.

iCab uses separate search and address bars, which makes me long for the omnibar present in apps like Grazing. This is a minor annoyance because iCab’s search bar provides easy search engine switching that makes up for the lack of a combined bar.

It’s hard to review iCab without comparing it to visual beauties like Grazing, and Grazing’s creative gestures that show or hide certain elements of the browser outshine iCab’s clunkier full-screen mode and customization settings. Fortunately, iCab holds up well to Grazing’s minimal amount of buttons and clutter-free interface.

Full-screen mode maximizes viewing space without sacrificing access to core functions.

Full-screen mode maximizes viewing space without sacrificing access to core functions.

Browsing

Bells and whistles are nice, but a browser is useless if it can’t perform the function after which it’s named. To put it simply, iCab is a robust browser. Page scrolling is smooth, even with ten tabs of loaded content. Switching tabs requires a single finger swipe to the left or right in the browser window, and the tab-tile menu makes it easy to navigate through multiple tabs.

Tab tiles make closing multiple tabs a snap, but the lack of the ability to rearrange tabs is a bit of a bummer.

Tab tiles make closing multiple tabs a snap, but the lack of the ability to rearrange tabs is a bit of a bummer.

iCab tabs can’t be rearrange by dragging, but long pressing a tab brings up an alternate tab menu, where tabs can be rearranged. This menu provides quick access to current tabs and recently closed tabs.

Most web searches in the U.S. begin with Google, but this leviathan’s search results are increasingly tainted with social network fluff and advertisements. Alternative search engines like DuckDuckGo can provide better results, but Mobile Safari limits users to Bing, Yahoo, or Google. iCab includes these traditional search engines as well as many alternatives and the ability to add a custom search engine via url. iCab’s search implementation is excellent, and switching between search engines takes about the same amount of time as tapping the empty search field.

Yahoo and Google search suggestions will work, even if you’re using an alternative browser like DuckDuckGo.

iCab makes it easy to search the current page or various sources with a few taps.

iCab makes it easy to search the current page or various sources with a few taps.

Now that the search is over, it’s time to process, capture, or share an awesome website. The action menu contains every action imaginable, from tweeting a page to taking a chrome-less screenshot that automatically uploads to Dropbox. The action menu is sprawling and users will want to take the time to parse out any unnecessary actions.

iCab's action menu offers a handful of powerful sharing features.

iCab's action menu offers a handful of powerful sharing features.

Downloads

Safari has major incompetencies in the downloads department, and its flaky open-in performance is an unpleasant compliment to its nonexistent download manager. Fortunately, iCab alleviates these download woes and has one of the best download managers that I’ve seen in an iPad browser.

iCab can preview downloads, rename them, or ship them off to Dropbox for later use.

iCab can preview downloads, rename them, or ship them off to Dropbox for later use.

Long press a file link and tap “Download File” and the file is added to the download manager. Users can rename files, and iCab previews downloaded documents as well as video and audio. While preview is an awesome addition, my favorite feature is easily Dropbox upload. Downloaded files can be uploaded to Dropbox with two taps, and this serves as a fast way to send lecture presentations or shared documents to Dropbox.

The Dropbox file path can be changed in the app settings.

Modules

iCab comes with several preinstalled modules, similar to plugins. These modules perform a range of features from simple Instapaper sharing to providing an onscreen calculator. At one point it was possible to install modules from the internet, but a phone call from Apple led to this feature’s removal. Most of the modules can be replaced with a simple bookmark bar entry, and some of the more advanced features, such as print to PDF, are quite hit or miss. The modules feel unnecessary, but at least iCab’s customization options make it easy to remove the module icon from the toolbar.

Access iCab modules by pressing the module icon in the toolbar or two-finger tapping the screen.

Access iCab modules by pressing the module icon in the toolbar or two-finger tapping the screen.

Privacy

iCab doesn’t save form data automatically, but users can tell the browser to save specific form data manually. Once the data is saved it can be used to automatically or manually fill out the form in the future. Unfortunately, unsecured saved forms give snoops easy access to user logins. Fear not, because iCab makes it possible to password protect form data. Assign a password to the form data, and iCab requires the password before it will fill in a web form. The password also keeps prying eyes out of the saved forms list in the settings menu. This isn’t as secure as 1Password but any step to thwart data thieves is a step in the right direction.

iCab’s web filters prevent certain JavaScript and CSS from running. Customize these filters in the app settings.

Aside from form passwords, users can also set a browser password. This password is necessary to access most of the app settings and user data. iCab has a guest mode, just in case users want to allow guests access to the internet but want to keep guests away from private data. As with other iCab features, guest mode is highly customizable.

Use guest mode to share you iPad without fear of snooping evildoers.

Use guest mode to share you iPad without fear of snooping evildoers.

If all of these preventative measures are not enough, set iCab to nuke history, cookies, databases, and local storage upon quitting, or activate private browsing to prevent iCab from storing web data.

Customization

Open the settings menu in iCab and it becomes clear that this app is not designed for simplicity. iCab allows the user to customize almost every aspect of their browsing experience, except for browser theme oddly enough. Toolbars are completely customizable and can be turned off completely. There’s also a comprehensive and customizable gestures list that makes nearly anything possible with a tap and swish.

Spending some time exploring iCab's settings will pay off with a highly customized experience.

Spending some time exploring iCab's settings will pay off with a highly customized experience.

Conclusion

The developers of iCab have created a solid browsing experience, and it’s surprising that a browser with so many features runs so smoothly. Even though the modules are a miss and don’t truly add to the overall experience, most of the app’s features are useful and well implemented.

Due to Safari’s native integration with the iPad, it’s impossible to truly replace it with an alternative browser, but iCab is a worthy supplement for anyone looking to fill the functional holes in the native browsing experience. It’s certainly not the best browser for sharing, Grazing has it beat here, but iCab truly shines with its download and privacy features.


Summary

iCab Mobile is a universal iOS browser that offers deep customization, useful privacy options, and a versatile download manager.

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