Baidu: The lightweight browser for low-end Android

I went looking for a resource-friendly browser that would run well on a 1 GHz-ish Android tablet. Everything I read said that Baidu was the lightest browser on resources. Since Baidu is a Chinese company and very low-end Android tablets are common in China, this makes sense.

I’ve never been one to shy away from alternative browsers on low-end systems on other platforms. Usually I sacrifice some rendering quality, but I frequently found that preferable to waiting around for minutes for bloatware to load and pages to render at glacial speed.

So I tried out Baidu, in spite of criticisms of its user interface and annoying defaults. The annoying defaults, it turns out, are easy enough to turn off, and I found the user interface, though out of style, makes it easier to use. It has forward and back buttons, unlike most other browsers on Android, and tapping those buttons is far more responsive than gestures on high-end browsers. I’m willing to give up 8 pixels of vertical space for that.

About those defaults: Tap the icon in the bottom that looks like three vertical lines with dots in front of them. Then tap “Others,” then “Settings.” Scroll all the way to the end to “Other Settings.” I deselected all six of them.

With that out of the way, I don’t find Baidu annoying at all. I do install its T5 rendering engine, which does seem to speed it up. Not to desktop speeds, but that’s OK. Nothing’s going to make a single-core, 1 GHz tablet run with my quad-core 3.5 GHz desktop. But it’s usable. Unlike other browsers at 1 GHz, if I scroll around on a web page I don’t have to wait for that portion of the page to render. It may stutter for a fraction of a second and it might even flicker, but then the text is there. With the major western browsers, it can take a second or two for the page to render.

And alternative browser engines tend to fare better now than they did a decade ago, when I was messing with alternative browsers for low-end desktop computers. Most sites these days are reasonably standards compliant so they’ll work across all of the common browser engines (three or four, depending on how you count Webkit and Blink), so I haven’t had much trouble with Baidu and T5.

Baidu’s font rendering isn’t as nice as other Android browsers, but I noticed the difference between them is less pronounced on lower-resolution screens. So on a device that’s more likely to benefit from Baidu like my 1024×600-toting tablet, you’re less likely to notice the difference anyway.

And if you’re really in a hurry, or need to save data, or both, Baidu has a text-only option. Tap the icon in the bottom that looks like three vertical lines with dots in front of them. Then tap “Tools,” then “Text only.” Modern pages render surprisingly well in text only, and this option is really a boon if you’re out somewhere, can only get a 2G connection (or worse) and need to look something up and don’t want to wait 15 minutes for a bunch of graphics to load.

Does running a Chinese browser make me nervous? Less nervous than six months ago, unfortunately. The browser certainly is tracking where I go and profiling me as I use it, trying to guess where I might be going next. Is that data being sent back to China? It looks like it. Is it being anonymized? I don’t know. Is the company sharing it with anyone? Again, I don’t know. Then again, on a tablet, let’s think about what I’m reading: I’m checking baseball scores, reading links off Google News, maybe pulling up Slashdot and a blog or two. It’s noise. We have to assume, in this day and age, that at least one government is spying on private citizens, and in a world like that, adding that kind of noise is a good thing. Adding that noise to multiple spying efforts certainly isn’t any worse. I won’t use it to conduct financial transactions. But I see no particular issue with using it for casual web browsing.

Enough politics. This browser was clearly designed to make low-end tablets useful in a place that has a lot of low-end tablets. For whatever reason they decided to localize it in other languages too, so I can use it in English in the United States and, well, those low-end tablets are pretty common here too. Putting Baidu on those low-end tablets makes them a lot nicer to use.

Those single-core tablets with 7-inch 800×480 displays that were so common last year seem to be common again this year, and since they cost $20 or $30 less than they did last year, I’m sure a lot of people will be buying them. With those specs, they’re really more of a media player than a tablet. As glorified media players, they’re fine. Putting Baidu on them will extend their usefulness a bit more.

Baidu really breathes new life into something a little better like my Nook Color, which is running Android 4.3 thanks to the efforts of a small band of very generous hobbyists, with a 1.1 GHz CPU and a 1024×600 screen. I kept the device around to tinker with more than anything because we have better tablets, but the other evening I found myself stretching out on the floor with it and reading news sites with it comfortably. I appreciate being able to use the device for more than just tinkering.

I like it enough that I run it on my faster tablet too, and may make it my default browser even on that.

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