Despite heavy hints from Apple - refusing to let users change the defaults; banning third party rendering engines from the App Store; taking an eternity to approve browser apps - rival browser makers would really like you to use their products on iOS, and the arrival of Chrome means the big guns of Google are taking aim at your iPhone and iPad.
Has Google got it right, or would you be better off with Opera Mini and its cloud-based browsing and acceleration? Is Safari the best iOS browser, or is Apple using dirty tricks to protect its position on your phone? There's only one way to find out. Let's see what the three big-name iOS browsers can do for you.
Safari vs Opera Mini vs Chrome: appearance
To our eyes Chrome is the best-looking browser here, its unified search and address bar freeing up space for other buttons (back, menu/bookmark and tabs) so there's no need for a second toolbar - although it'd be nice if the address box scrolled away when you're viewing content.
Safari's getting on a bit, and it shows: the interface hasn't changed much since the days of iPhone OS, and while it's perfectly functional it's due a bit of a polish (which is coming in iOS 6). Its address and search boxes disappear as you scroll down, but the toolbar at the bottom of the window remains, providing access to bookmarks, sharing, new tabs and navigation buttons.
Opera takes a similar approach - its separate address and search boxes scroll away, with a permanent toolbar at the bottom - but you can enforce single column viewing and text wrapping as well as set the default zoom level, and there's a fullscreen mode that replaces the lower toolbar with just two buttons, a back button and one to bring the toolbar back. It's okay, but the black interface doesn't exactly blend in with the rest of iOS.
Safari has a manually activated Reader mode that strips out page furniture such as ads so that you can concentrate on the content. Chrome doesn't have that, but it does have a Request Desktop Site option for sites that insist on serving up cut-down mobile versions.
Safari vs Opera Mini vs Chrome: features
All three browsers have private browsing modes, although Safari's is the hardest to access - where Chrome and Opera keep the on/off switch in the browser, for Safari it's buried in Home > Settings > Safari - and all three browsers enable you to synchronise bookmarks with your desktop PC or other devices. Chrome has the best such system here: where the others only sync bookmarks, Chrome can sync open tabs from device to device provided you sign in with your Google Account.
Safari has Reading List, which you can use to create a quick "read later" list that syncs between your devices via iCloud, and Opera enables you to save pages locally for offline reading.
There are differences in the way each browser handles tabs. Opera has Visual Tabs, a little drawer that appears with thumbnails of your open tabs, while Safari zooms out to show each open tab as a separate document. Chrome does a bit of both, shrinking and stacking the tabs so you can see their contents easily. Chrome also enables you to switch between open tabs without invoking the tab bar by swiping quickly from the left or right margin of the current page, a feature we soon found ourselves missing in the other browsers.
Opera has Speed Dial, which enables you to store your favourite websites in a simple grid layout for easy access. Chrome has the same, but it's implemented in a nicer way: when you choose the New Tab option you can swipe between your Speed Dial-esque favourites, your bookmarks, or the open tabs on your other Chrome-using devices.
One of Chrome's most interesting features is voice search, which enables you to - yes! - search using your voice. It works very well, and unlike Apple's Siri it's not exclusive to the iPhone 4S.
When it comes to standards compliance, Safari and Chrome scored 324 points (with nine bonus points apiece) out of a possible 500 at html5test.com, with Opera achieving a disappointing 63 with no bonus points. That was reflected in the way websites were displayed: for example some mobile sites, including ours, looked lovely in Safari and Chrome, but a bit odd in Opera.
Safari vs Opera Mini vs Chrome: speed
Opera's big draw is its compression, which promises to reduce both download times and file sizes. That's a boon if you're browsing on a pricey data plan, if you're roaming abroad or if you can't get 3G, but on 3G there was no noticeable difference between browsing speeds in Opera and Chrome. On Wi-Fi Chrome was faster, as its page preloading kicked in; the feature defaults to Wi-Fi only so you don't accidentally burst through any 3G monthly data limit.
The big problem for Chrome and Opera is Apple's refusal to let anybody change their default browser. That quickly becomes an enormous pain in the backside, with every link in an email, Tweet or RSS feed launching Safari. The "swear / select URL / copy URL / close Safari / open other browser / paste URL / go" routine gets old and annoying extremely quickly, and while Google has published code for third party developers to offer an "Open with Chrome" option that's not going to appear in core iOS apps such as Mail.
Safari vs Opera Mini vs Chrome: verdict
Safari is the fastest browser here, as the benchmarks prove. However, in everyday use Chrome often feels quicker, especially when you're tab switching or searching, and it's hard to shake the feeling that if Apple didn't deliberately limit other browsers' performance and iOS integration, Safari would have a real fight on its hands.
Opera is a nice enough browser, but it feels old in this company, and unless you spend a lot of time travelling and/or using crappy mobile connections the data compression isn't enough of a draw here. It doesn't feel as fast as its rivals, and it suffers from the same (Apple-enforced) lack of OS integration as Chrome does.
Unless you jailbreak your device that means it's an easy win for Safari, especially if like us you get a lot of your URLs by clicking in other apps such as email and Twitter clients, or by saving links as home page icons. Apple's insistence on Safari as everybody's default browser means that, fairly or unfairly, it's still the most convenient browser on iOS.