The iPhone needs a faster better Safari

| Ted Landau's User Friendly View
I've made no secret of my overwhelming enthusiasm for the iPhone, and have sung its glories here and elsewhere many times. That doesn't mean that I never get irritated with the device. I do. And, by far, my most frequent annoyance is with Safari — especially when using it with the EDGE network.

The problem starts with the obvious: The EDGE network can be impossibly slow. Its speed appears to vary from moment to moment, as a function of the current signal strength as well as more mysterious factors that you can neither predict nor control. Its speed range varies from barely tolerable to virtually useless. And the greatest negative impact of these slow speeds occurs when using Safari. There are times when it can take several minutes for a Web page to load; assuming it ever completely loads.

But the problems with Safari on the iPhone extend beyond just the overall slow speed. What often happens is that, after tapping to load a Web page, your hopes are initially raised. You see the progress bar advance (indicating that more and more of the page's elements have loaded) to as much as 80% completion in a relatively short time. Then it all just grinds to a halt. There is no more movement for an indefinite number of minutes.

Even this might be tolerable if, in fact, 80% of the Web page was now loaded and accessible. It might turn out that all you need from the page is within that 80%. However, more likely, your Safari screen will be blank. Absolutely nothing appears until after the bar moves past this 80% barrier. As a result, there are many times when I have given up entirely — until I can get to a Wi-Fi connection.

If you do wait long enough for the Web page to appear, your troubles may still not be over. Suppose there is a link on the page that you want to check out, but you also want to be able to return to the page you are now viewing. For example, suppose after you load the New York Times' home page, you want to click a link to read an editorial; but you also expect to return to the home page to scan the remaining article listings.

On your Mac, you would do this by opening up the editorial in a separate window or tab. Unfortunately, the iPhone's version of Safari does not support any variation of this capability. The best you can do is go to the editorial and then tap the Back arrow to return to the previous page. Ideally, this page should at least load faster than it did initially, because Safari had cached its contents. Don't count on it. Safari does do caching, but it is very ineffective in my experience. Typically, I have to wait almost as long for the page to reload as I did in the first place. Once again, I often wind up just giving up on Safari until I can get to a Wi-Fi connection.

What can be done to improve the situation? Four things, none of which should be a surprise by this point: (1) Improve Safari's caching of Web pages; (2) Improve Safari's ability to display partially loaded pages; (3) Add a tab (or similar) function to Safari; and most-of-all (4) offer a faster network than EDGE.

Happily, the faster network is all-but-certain to arrive with the new iPhones (apparently expected to ship any day now!). These new iPhones are widely reported to support the much-faster-than-EDGE 3G network. As to the Safari-specific upgrades, it's not as promising. The version of Safari included with the latest builds of the iPhone 2.0 SDK appears very much the same as the current version. Of course, Apple could be holding back a revamped version until the public release. I certainly hope so.

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Comments

Chris Newton

Oddly enough, here in St. Louis the edge speed doesn’t seem too bad. I rarely get frustrated with its speed (considering the size of the device and the ubiquity of my access to the network.)

I do agree however, that being able to open a URL in a new page would be a huge benefit. It’s odd that when you hold your finger on a link, the URL pops up, but there’s no way to open it in a new tab. I would think that by holding on a link, a natural UI concept would be to provide some contextual options, 1 of which should be ‘open in new page’ and another ‘email this link’
——-

JoeP

I think these problems are vastly overstated. My experience with iPhone Safari has been much better- not to say that more speed isn’t better.

I also use Google Reader for a lot of my RSS browsing. It reformats pages into text only versions. It’s remarkably good. Makes Edge/Safari not just tolerable, but effective and enjoyable.

Ted
[quote comment=“1034”]I think these problems are vastly overstated…I also use Google Reader for a lot of my RSS browsing.

No doubt that using text-only RSS feeds will improve performance. Beyond that, what I describe here is certainly not overstating my own experience—or that of many others with whom I have checked. I am aware that some people seem to have better luck overall.

Robert

I get frustrated with Safari at the best of times, let alone on the iPhone.  To me it is just not a complete, full-featured browser that I can use both at home and at work. I don’t care so much about how screamingly fast it claims (except on the iPhone) to be - that’s not important for what I need to use browsers for.  I want broad compatibility and extensibility and customization without added cost.

Dogzilla

A better Safari would be nice to have. Regarding the Edge speed, well here in Boston it’s not a problem generally. Besides, issues remain even when I’m on wifi - pages still take longer than they should to render, but the other items in your list would address these issues nicely. However, there are two issue which you have completely left out which I think are pretty important:

1) Bring iPhone Safari to parity with desktop Safari. There’s no reason I can see why the Javascript and rendering engines would be any different from other versions of Safari. Right now, iPhone Safari is somewhere between versions 2 and 3 of desktop Safari. The last thing we need is yet another browser standard to write for. And develop a mechanism where iPhone Safari can be updated separately form the rest of the iPhone system if Apple doesn’t want to push out system software updates every time they rev Safari. But for god’s sake don’t fracture the web even further.

2) Develop some kind of live streaming video capability for the iPhone and embed it in Safari. Limit it to QuickTime or mpeg4 streams or use Flash or whatever, I don’t really care. Make it WiFi-only if you must. But there’s a lot of video content outside of youtube that I want to get at, and a lot of it’s live, and there’s more appearing every day.

Dogzilla
[quote comment=“1036”]I get frustrated with Safari at the best of times, let alone on the iPhone.  To me it is just not a complete, full-featured browser that I can use both at home and at work. I don’t care so much about how screamingly fast it claims (except on the iPhone) to be - that’s not important for what I need to use browsers for.  I want broad compatibility and extensibility and customization without added cost.

I’m curious about this - what is it that makes you feel that Safari isn’t a full-featured browser?

Chuck Amos

Good article, Ted. I am in complete agreement with you. I love the iPhone, but I think the implementation of iPhone’s Safari by Apple is really weak. My experience is similar to yours in that using Safari on the EDGE network is painful. On Wi-Fi almost bearable. I have experienced no evidence that pages are cached on my phone when I use the back button and the absence of a Tab function is a head-scratcher.

I’m hoping Apple hears the complaints and makes what seem to me to be minor improvements that will improve the overall experience of using the iPhone tremendously.

Notting_Hill

I think you should consider that your issues with iPhone Safari’s rendering speed are likely not entirely software related. The microprocessor in the iPhone is far less powerful than even a bottom-of-the-line Mac. Like orders-of-magnitude less powerful. Additionally, the iPhone has far less RAM, cache memory, VRAM and a much slower graphics chip.

I’m not saying that there aren’t software issues with Safari that might be slowing down rendering. But, if you expect Safari on an iPhone to render at speeds similar to a Mac, you need to readjust your expectations. No amount of software optimization is going to make it perform like it does on your Mac.

Ted
[quote comment=“1040”]I think you should consider that your issues with iPhone Safari’s rendering speed are likely not entirely software related…No amount of software optimization is going to make it perform like it does on your Mac.

No argument here. I thought I made it clear that the problem was the EDGE network…and this is indeed a hardware issue that would affect all Internet applications, not just Safari. My suggested solutions were to improve the network speed (which is being done) as well as to improve the mechanisms Safari uses to compensate for slow speeds. The latter mechanisms *are* software related.

P.S. I also understand that, with a 3G or even a Wi-Fi connection, Safari on the iPhone will still not be as fast as Safari running on a Mac. True. But that’s a separate matter from what I covered in the column.

onemoreanimal

Actually, it IS possible to open links in a new tab by using a bookmarklet.  I’ve used this trick since last July and you don’t need a hacked phone.

Simply google “iphone bookmarklet new tab.”  Here’s a good site that shows you how…

http://doctyper.com/archives/200707/fixing-a-small-iphone-annoyance/

JulesLt

As someone who regularly uses a 3G data card with a supposed 7.2Mb download rate, I can say that 3G networks are still prone to the same issues.

There is being bounced down to GPRS, but there also times when it says I have a full-strength HDPSA connection and yet I’m receiving zero data.

Basically, the networks are lagging a LONG way behind what we want.

Char

[quote comment=“1040”]I think you should consider that your issues with iPhone Safari’s rendering speed are likely not entirely software related. The microprocessor in the iPhone is far less powerful than even a bottom-of-the-line Mac. Like orders-of-magnitude less powerful. Additionally, the iPhone has far less RAM, cache memory, VRAM and a much slower graphics chip.

Bingo! I picked up an iPod Touch and tried it for a couple of months. Raced it with my Macbook Pro on my home wifi in tests and got nowhere near the same performance. I could give the Touch a head start on pulling in a page and then hit the Macbook link and beat it almost every time. I used “new” sites that had not been cached in any way. The Touch frequently seemed like dialup speeds. All this while they were on a 7 Mbit WiFi internet connection.

I think it cannot render anywhere near Macbook speeds and that it has to do with the vastly different hardware. I can’t see where you COULD expect a match on complex websites like I tested it with. Simple websites might be OK but most that I visit are annoyingly complex.

People may be in for a BIG disappointment when their G3 iPhone doesn’t perform much better on complex sites.

Ken
[quote comment=“1038”][quote comment=“1036”]I get frustrated with Safari at the best of times, let alone on the iPhone.  To me it is just not a complete, full-featured browser that I can use both at home and at work. I don’t care so much about how screamingly fast it claims (except on the iPhone) to be - that’s not important for what I need to use browsers for.  I want broad compatibility and extensibility and customization without added cost.

I’m curious about this - what is it that makes you feel that Safari isn’t a full-featured browser?

I personally think he is putting the cart before the horse.  Safari is probably the best example of an browser following web standards.  the issue is not with safari, but with websites that do not follow these standards.

Yazi

I agree w/ many of your points, especially being able to open a link in a new page/tab, and the “80% is finished loading but you can’t see it” issue.

I would also like to see the ability to click on an audio link, and have it download and add to the iPod library, to be synced to your computer (maybe as a contextual menu option).

Not related to Safari, internet radio would be nice, too, especially once 3G is implemented.

Dave

I whole heartedly agree the writers assessment. The problem he describes on visiting links and hoping to page back are incredibly frustrating.


And yes, RSS helps, believe me i have a ton of RSS links, but the whole point on the “Internet in your pocket” and the “real Web” is just that, not simply a usable RSS reader.

Jeremy

Good God people.  Safari on the iPhone probably has limitations due to the fact that it must conserve battery power.  It’s not going to load a page as fast as on a desktop Mac and probably never will and to compare them is just stupid.

John

My beef with Safari on iPhone/Touch is not speed it’s that it ISN’T the equivalent of Safari on Mac or PC. While the latter two will contect to my institution’s protected intranet with no hassles, the iPhone/Touch version doesn’t. It prompts for a log in then sits there forever trying to open the page. And this is despite me havingchanged the security settings on the web server because I’m the web master… Very frustrating.

Also, I understand why there is no Flash but I still want it.

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