Android Smartphone Web Browser Is 52 Percent Faster than iPhone Browser, Study Finds

As if the smartphone wars weren’t fierce enough already, now comes an additional piece of ammunition for defenders of Google’s Android mobile operating system. On average, the Web browser pre-installed on Android phones loads Web pages 52 percent faster than the Safari browser on Apple’s iPhone, according to a study released today.

In other words, a Web page that takes 2 seconds to show up on an Android phone will take roughly 3 seconds on an iPhone. That may not sound like a big difference, but it’s a potentially embarrassing performance for Cupertino, CA-based Apple, which claims that improvements in the JavaScript engine built into Safari iOS 4.3, the new version of the iPhone/iPad/iPod touch operating system released last week, make the browser significantly faster.

The purported Safari speedup has “no material impact on real-world sites,” according to Guy Podjarny, chief technology officer at Blaze Software, the Ottawa, Ontario-based startup that carried out the tests.

Blaze specializes in technology that makes Web pages load faster in multiple browsers. The company collected the data in its own test laboratory, where it has racks of Samsung Nexus S and Galaxy S phones running Android 2.2 and 2.3, along with Apple iPhone 4 devices running iOS 4.2 and 4.3. In what Blaze claims is the largest study to date of smartphone browser performance, the company timed the Android and Apple phones on 45,000 visits to the public websites of all of the Fortune 1000 companies. About 84 percent of the time, the Android phones finished loading the visited page first, while the iPhones won only 16 percent of the time.

The Samsung and Apple devices all have similar amounts of processing power and memory, so the differences Blaze detected are likely rooted in software design issues in the browsers themselves. Google has said it designed the desktop version of its Chrome browser in part because it felt that older browsers deal with JavaScript and other rich Web content inefficiently, and the improvements it made supposedly carried over to the Android browser—which is why it’s not entirely surprising that Android came out ahead in Blaze’s tests. But the extent of the difference is surprising, especially given that Apple has been working on its own speed improvements.

“I was betting on Android to be a little faster. But 50 percent faster—that is a much more major difference than what I was anticipating,” Padjorny says.

Padjorny argues that smartphone software makers don’t test their browsers under realistic conditions, and wind up with data that exaggerates their actual speed. Apple’s statement that the improved mobile version of Safari performs 2.5 times as fast as the previous version is based on tests using a JavaScript benchmark called SunSpider. While the test includes a variety of challenges ranging from 3D raytracing to text manipulation and cryptographic calculations, it doesn’t necessarily predict how well a browser will perform when rendering randomly selected Web pages, Padjorny argues. (It’s not hard to see, though, why Apple’s engineers would favor the test: it was created by the same Apple team that built WebKit, the open-source layout engine at the core of both Chrome and Safari.)

“There are a lot of small details involved in browser performance, and Google coming with Chrome and designing for speed from the get-go, probably gets more of the small details right—that is the primary conclusion from the speed test,” says Padjorny. “But the secondary conclusion is that if you just focus on JavaScript benchmarking, all you are going to do is improve on that indicator. It’s like taking a test that you know all the answers to.”

Blaze provides a free service called “Mobitest” that allows website owners to test the performance of their sites on actual phones in Blaze’s labs. Once it had built the Mobitest facility, the company realized that it could also be used to compare smartphone browsers, Podjarny says. “We said, ‘What interesting insights can we harvest,’ and one of the ones we were most curious about was who is actually faster—is iPhone faster than Android? Now that we have over 45,000 measurements, we definitively know the answer.”

The lesson for Apple in the study results, Podjarny says, is “you should measure your assumptions. We have this tool now. Go ahead and use whatever internal tools you have too, but then test it [on Mobitest] and see if it fares as expected.” And there’s a larger lesson for Web developers: they shouldn’t assume that their sites will perform identically on Android phones and iPhones. “Site owners need to take care to measure performance and understand what their site looks like when viewed through the lens of an iOS device and an Android device,” Podjarny says.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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