Many of the alternative browsers have passed by my iPhone home screen at least once before being summarily dismissed, but there is one that has actually been getting some use lately; bitStorm's VanillaSurf. The free browser, which is now at version 2.1, offers features that seem more at home on a laptop or desktop machine than on a smartphone.
Launching VanillaSurf for the first time brings up a blank screen with the familiar address bar at the top and an unfamiliar toolbar at the bottom. The toolbar sports eight icons -- back, forward, settings, downloads, actions, bookmarks, tabs, and full-screen. The back and forward (or previous and next) icons provide their usual functionality, while the settings icon is a portal into some more useful items.
The settings are packed into two tabs. The first, General, allows toggling of image loading, blocking of ads, and private surfing. There are also two "themes": I'm using quotes since the only difference between the two is that one uses a gray background and the other is black. To apply one of the themes, you tap on the appropriate button and then restart VanillaSurf. The General tab also provides two large red buttons, one for clearing history, the other for clearing cookies.
The "Tabs" tab is all about tabbed browsing. Four toggles let you turn on or off saving tabs between sessions, doing offline browsing of pages, switching to a new tab, or loading a tab in the background while viewing another. There are also controls for how to open new windows, open links in the same domain, and open links to another domain.
My favorite VanillaSurf feature is the ability to download items and then transfer them to another computer. This is an extremely powerful tool, and it's accessible from the download button on the toolbar. For example, I found it easy to download several small .dmg files (Perian being one of them), and then use the built-in transfer function to move those files to a Mac. The transfer function uses the standard web browser interface that is used by many iPhone apps for moving data to and from the mobile device.
The bookmark button actually does more than just create bookmarks. It can also be used to send a URL to another person via email, take a screenshot of the current web page, open a URL in Safari (why you'd want to do this if you're a VanillaSurf user is beyond me...), or lock the rotation of the screen in either portrait or landscape mode.
Bookmarks are powerfully supported in VanillaSurf. You can look at a complete browsing history, add and organize your own bookmarks, or actually import or export bookmarks. The import/export capability is incredibly useful when you want to bring your complete set of bookmarks in from a Mac or PC.
The tabs button brings up a tab browser that is actually a list of all of the currently available tabs. Switching to a different tab is as simple as tapping on the tabs button and then tapping on the tab you want to view. The last available version of a page is loaded, so capturing a number of web pages for offline reading is very useful in VanillaSurf.
The full-screen button is the last button on the lower right side of the display, and it's quite useful. Tapping on the button clears both the address bar and toolbar from the screen, leaving only a tiny "plus sign" button. Tapping that button a second time temporarily displays a subset of toolbar buttons -- forward and back, create a bookmark, or view tabs -- and tapping a third time brings back the full toolbar and address bar.
Speed-wise, VanillaSurf seems just as fast as Safari, which is logical since both browsers share the same underlying engine. During my testing, I found VanillaSurf to be very stable and it has now found a permanent place on my iPhone. Be sure to check out the gallery below for some screen shots of this free and useful iPhone browser in action.