Updated: December 23, 2023
As I've told you countless times before, my mobile browsing combo is Firefox + UBlock Origin (UBO). That seems to be the only truly complete solution that matches my taste and needs. Occasionally, though I go about testing alternative browsers, just to see whether there is anything that could potentially offer similar results. Reasonable choice is not a bad thing.
So far in my search, I only briefly had exposure to Safari + Adblock Plus (ABP), and Firefox Focus, also as an extension for said browser. I don't have enough experience to say more. Then, I did a proper test of the lightweight Firefox Focus browser, and the results were okay, but not stellar. The tracking protection was decent, but the ad blocking was not. This brings me to DuckDuckGo. 'Tis a search engine, and I reviewed it several times in the past. Seems quite alright. And there's also a mobile browser. So let's see if perhaps this one can be a solid option for those not keen on the stupidities of the modern Internet.
First steps, lots of chatter
I installed the DuckDuckGo (DDG) browser on my Samsung A54 and started exploring. Right from the start, the browser tries to "give you a hand", that is you're sort of "forced" to undergo a tour-tutorial kind of thing, whereby the browser tells you about the Web, its dangers, and what DDG does to prevent those.
The idea is noble, but the execution is ... too hyperactive for my taste. It seems to cater to the new generation of users, who might like cutesy animations and inspirational text. For me, it's a distraction. I didn't figure out how to stop this tour. So I had to endure it. Not a positive contribution to the overall experience.
Wait, before we go on, why not use just the search engine?
This question has probably come up in your head. After all, if search engine = browser, then technically, that's Chrome, or Edge. And that's not something nerds and privacy-savvy people tend to like. Why would, then, DDG be any different in this regard? Now, the search engine does a good job at reducing tracking and such, so is there really a need for a wrapper shell, ergo a whole browser?
The answer is, on paper, maybe. DuckDuckGo advertises itself as a privacy browser. It's meant to stop tracking, upgrade insecure Web links (HTTP to HTTPS), and give you a clean, fresh Internet experience. Now, it uses the WebView engine in Android (similar to what the operating system uses to display its settings and alike), so in a way, you could say, it's Chromium-based. There are other browsers of this ilk that aim to give the end user true privacy and block trackers and ads, but by and large, Firefox stands out as a separate project, with its own engine, implementation and mission. Keep that in mind for now. Now, let's go back to the review.
DDG also asked if I wanted to set it as my default browser. I chose no. And then I went into the settings to see what the browser does. There are some clever tricks under the hood. You can set it as a proxy so it filters and blocks tracking for your other apps. App VPN, if you will. You can also instruct it to try to automatically detect cookie banners and dismiss them. But that also depends on how the banners are designed, because I assume some may have an aggressive opt-out rather than opt-in defaults.
You also have the Fire button, complete with fire animation, which is sort of quick-action clear browsing data button. But you can "fireproof" sites so their data (like cookies or logins) are not deleted when you purge everything else. Selective cleanup, not bad overall.
A somewhat confusing part of the experience is that you can separately configure your DuckDuckGo search engine, with all its different options and settings. Navigating these was a little bit tedious, as there's so much, and you sort of expect all of that to be an integral part of the browser experience. And then, you also wonder is it possible to use other search engines if you like? And if so, what's the point then? In the search settings, I also noticed that Advertisements is set to On. Not sure how these align with the whole privacy thing.
Using the browser
Things were generally fine. But there were some clunky elements. And too many annoyances from the browser's "Clippy" telling me how and what to do. Really unnecessary. After a while, this gets quite repetitive and rather annoying.
By and large, the browser behaved. It was pretty fast and responsive. But its protection mechanism is not always useful. For instance, on my own site, it informed me that it blocked Google Ads from running and tracking me. This is incorrect, because I have NO more ads on my site (definitely at the time I wrote and tested the browser). What DDG detected was Google Analytics code. Even then, had it not "popped" up before my cookies banner notice, the defaults are set to off, so there would be no cookies, nor any tracking as my Google Analytics code is set to use session cookies and collect page views only. This makes the message unnecessarily alarmist, and also technically inaccurate in terms of its actions.
The popups continued unabated. I also went to the Play Store, through the browser, and DDG told me that it can't stop Google from seeing activity on their store. I mean, isn't this true for pretty much any server? Again, in my mind, this creates an unnecessary sense of "panic", because there really isn't much the browser can do to stop server side functions.
Then, I went onto Youtube to watch some clips. The ads were there all right. Perhaps the tracking content was blocked, but the general odiousness of the modern Internet was not. Similar to Firefox Focus, the emphasis seems to be on tracking, but the pointless ads are still there - maybe not all of them, and not everywhere, but my current browsing experience with Firefox is zero ads, so more protection and peace than with DDG at the moment. I don't mind if people want to see ads, even with all of the trackers blockers active, but if you don't want to see them, you don't really have an option. And that creates a usability problem for the privacy-conscious.
Lastly, I received a phone notification, a good few hours after I've finished using DDG. A summary of my browsing session, and the statistics on how many trackers were blocked. This is also quite annoying. I really don't need to know that number. Nice intention, but misplaced when it comes to simple, quiet usage. Over the next week, I received several of these (and similar), enough to prompt me to turn all notifications off for this app.
My impression is that DuckDuckGo works much better as a search engine than as a browser. Yes, it does what it says, and it has some nice tricks and features. But at the end of the day, it does not block (all) ads, there are many different ways you can stop or block trackers, and the notifications and popups and interaction messages are simply too distracting. I really don't need my browser to be cute and cuddly.
DuckDuckGo has come a long way in the past few years. Really has. But there's a lot more work on the browser front. I would suggest an optional total adblocker, too. It could be in the untoggled state, and the tour guide could expose it for those who want or need that. Speaking of the guide, that's a big no-no for me. I might be an old dinosaur, but those messages and popups don't add anything useful to the experience. In fact, they break the workflow, they alarm the user (and sometimes inaccurately, too), and in the end, they create a sense of hecticness that prevents one from appreciating the true privacy benefits of DDG. If this thing kicked in after a week or two, or maybe there was one tiny nudge here or there, that would give people time to get accustomed to the browser before exploring, well, everything. The over-enthusiasm is simply over-whelming [sic].
Finally, there's the question of simple and pure effectiveness. My expectations of a browser are security, privacy flexibility, and stupidity prevention, not necessarily in that order. DuckDuckGo delivers on most of these aspects, but not the last one, I'm afraid. In this regard, Firefox + UBO remains the simplest, most elegant browsing solution. Could DDG be a solid secondary browser for me? Yes, that it could do. But in general, I'd rather not use the Web if I cannot block the modern pointlessness. Let's face it, ads have been known as a naughty vector of all sorts of problems, including tracking, occasional malware, waste of resources, annoyances, and then some. You can't really have a privacy-focused browser that does not have a mechanism to handle these, whether integrally or through an extension. I heard there's something called Duck Player, essentially a DuckDuckGo-filtered mode for Youtube sans ads and such, but I wasn't able to activate anything like this in this mobile app. And that's only one small aspect of the entire ecosystem picture. There's more to the Internet than streaming Youtube clips. Well, there you go. For now, DDG mobile browser, sort of recommended, but there's work to be done, and you need patience to get through the first-time use tour. See you.