April 10, 2012
- Packs in many features
- Packs in too many features to be useful
- Poor user interface design
- Hard-to-use bookmarking system
The Safari browser that comes pre-installed with all iOS devices is a very good mobile browser. It’s not perfect, though, and lacks some advanced features that users clamor for, so a robust selection of third-party browser apps have arisen to offer iPhone users some choice. Some of them add a few features, but don’t stray too far from the path set by Safari, while others make big changes. Knowtilus Pro is one of the latter.
Not only is Knowtilus a browser, it also packs in a number of other features, such as a text editor, RSS reader, QR code and barcode scanner, and text-to-speech. While additional features can be useful, and it loads pages a bit quicker than Safari, Knowtilus Pro is too rough, too inefficient to merit a recommendation.
Slightly Faster than Safari
One crucial test of a browser is how quickly it loads your favorite websites. You’re not likely to use a slower browser for very long. On this front, Knowtilus Pro is in good shape: it’s as fast, and often slightly faster, than Safari. I tested both browsers using 3G and Wi-Fi connections on an iPhone 4S by loading the full (non-mobile) versions of five websites on them. Here’s how they fared:
On 3G, Knowtilus listed first, time is in seconds:
Apple.com: 4 vs. 3
CNN.com: 4 vs. 7
ESPN.com: 8 vs. 7
Hoopshype.com/rumors.html: 5 vs. 6
iPod.About.com: 4 vs. 4
On Wi-Fi, Knowtilus listed first, time is in seconds:
Apple.com: 3 vs. 3
CNN.com: 6 vs. 4
ESPN.com: 5 vs. 5
Hoopshype.com/rumors.html: 4 vs. 4
iPod.About.com: 3 vs. 4
As you can see, while Knowtilus wasn’t uniformly faster than Safari, it was usually as fast, and sometimes faster. In other comparisons to Safari, though, it fares poorly.
An Ill-Fitting Interface
Safari may not be the fastest browser, or offer all the features that third-party competitors do, but one thing it can surely claim to be is well designed. Like many Apple apps, Safari is sleek, refined, well thought-out, and includes no extraneous elements. Knowtilus is virtually the diametric opposite.
Knowtilus bills its use of tabs as one of its chief features. While they may be a feature, they're not a benefit. The tabs are large, taking up a disproportionate amount of the screen given their functionality, which is limited. Each tab is a fixed size, which means you can only have three open at a time. The tabs also aren’t terribly good looking. Tabbed browsing can be difficult on such a small screen, but that doesn’t mean it has to involve the rough graphics on display here.
Other elements of the interface, such as the bottom toolbar, make using the app less than smooth. The bottom toolbar includes back/forward buttons, a place to enter URLs, bookmarks, and other tools. These options, which are likely to be used regularly, are set to disappear after periods of disuse. This isn’t terrible—it frees up screen space—but there’s no obvious way to get them to reappear. Many apps use a center-screen tap or double tap somewhere to hide and reveal buttons. Not Knowtilus. I’m actually not sure what brings them back on the screen. Something does, but it’s a mystery to me.
There are a number of other small elements that you don’t notice in Safari until you find them missing in Knowtilus: a .com button on the keyboard where you enter URLs, auto-complete suggestions from your history and bookmarks when you begin typing in URLs.
Knowtilus also works in fullscreen mode on the iPad. There’s a chance that its interface makes more sense on the iPad’s larger screen (a chance, but not a certainty: it’s still going to be saddled with poor user interface design), but on the iPhone, using Knowtilus feels like hard work.
A good encapsulation of the interface problems with Knowtilus comes in its bookmarking tool, which is surprisingly unhelpful.
Knowtilus takes its basic bookmarking idea from the desktop version of Safari, which shows 12 recently used sites as thumbnails. Applying that idea to the iPhone is misguided; its screen is just too small. Instead of seeing an array of sites to choose from, you have to swipe back and forth to see your bookmarked sites. This might be OK if you only have a few sites, but navigating through hundreds of bookmarks presents an unappealing chore, especially since in Knowtilus bookmarks can’t be stored in folders to make organization easier.
A Rare Error
The Bottom Line
There’s a trend among some apps that automatically makes me suspicious of their quality: packing in a huge number of features, even features that aren’t directly related to their main purpose. Knowtilus is a good example of this. For instance, it offers a text editor built into its browser app. This doesn’t make a lot of sense—I’d rather have an app dedicated to each task, rather than one that combines them.
The apps that display this tendency to over-add features are most often mediocre, using the add-ons to try to distract the user from noticing that the app’s core functionality isn’t that great. This is the case with Knowtilus. It’s speedy, and it has a lot of features, but it’s not terribly good.
There are some nice ideas in it—the QR code/barcode scanning, for instance—but overall, the app is not refined enough. It’s simply too hard to use, feels too much like a challenge, rather than the smooth experience that the best mobile apps offer. As it stands, Knowtilus simply isn’t a good enough app, not well enough designed, to consider using on a regular basis or to recommend that you buy.