We're lucky to have capable mobile browsers on Android these days, but the experience of poking around on the web is still flawed in a number of ways. You're often stuck bouncing between two or three redirects because of apps, mobile sites, and link shorteners. Then there's the fundamentally modal experience of only having one thing up on the screen at a time. The result is lots of wasted seconds waiting for links to actually resolve at the final destination. Link Bubble from Chris Lacy changes that by loading links in the background with an awesome floating browser. This app has finally launched, and here's what you can expect.
How It Works
Here's the scenario: you open a link from your Twitter client and it bounces you through the Twitter URL shortener, which adds a few seconds. Then you get to the page, but maybe that redirects again to a mobile version. Why stare at the loading screen while all that happens? With Link Bubble, the page starts loading in the background and you continue scrolling through the timeline until the content is ready. It simply pops up in a separate browser panel when all that junk is done. If a website is being sluggish, Link Bubble can save you even more time.
You can leave the page minimized and the bubble docks itself to the edge of the screen like a Facebook chat head. It can be dragged to any location that's convenient and left until you want to open it up. With the full version of Link Bubble, this works from any app and with as many simultaneous bubbles as you want. Simply tap or slide between the bubbles to switch pages. Tap one of the bubbles again to go back to minimized mode. With the free trial you have to specify a single app that will trigger Link Bubble and you only get one bubble at a time. One other nifty thing about the browser is that Link Bubble detects YouTube videos in pages and provides a quick link to the app in the action bar.
Link Bubble does more that just run a floating browser. Each time you drag the bubble around, a trio of drop points show up on the screen. The bottom location will close all open bubbles if you drop the stack on it, but the two appearing in the top corners are configurable. The default is Pocket reader (or Facebook if you don't have Pocket) on the left and the Android sharing menu on the right, but you can set them to any individual item from the system sharing menu.
As you're using Link Bubble, it keeps track of the amount of time you save on average, as well as how much has been saved overall. Those seconds really do start to add up. Link Bubble does all this without ANY special permissions, which is awesome. For the especially paranoid, there's an incognito mode that prevents Link Bubble from saving history.
But Does It Work?
There are a few different ways you can use Link Bubble. With the pro version you are able to stack up multiple links and essentially triage your content. The app has a small numeral next to the bubble to remind you how many pages are in the stack. When maximized, each individual tab can be closed with the back button, or dragged to one of the share links at the top. I really like that each page can be managed individually – it's only the specific bubble (maximized) or top of the stack (minimized) that is affected when you drop the bubble on the top two sweet spots. If you only want it for the time saving capabilities, that's cool too.
The default setting in this app maximizes the browser automatically when the link is done loading, but I actually think it might be better with that option disabled. If you're loading a fast page with minimal redirects, you might only have a second or two before the browser takes over your screen. You're not going to accomplish anything in the current app in that time, so why not stop the clock? You can just load up a few links in the bubble, then maximize it when you're ready. This is the way I've taken to using it, but everyone has different preferences.
The physics of a browser app are not usually top of mind for me, but the flick interaction and momentum of the bubbles is kind of fun to just play around with. I'm finding myself tossing them around the home screen when I have a moment of indecision. It's like a stress ball.
Link Bubble is also clever about when to assert itself and when to back off. The settings include some default app settings that will handle certain links rather than passing everything through Link Bubble. For example, Maps, Google+, and YouTube links will go straight to their respective apps. Full browsers will also load links opened in there normally. For example, if you are in Chrome, the links you open from Chrome will load without triggering Link Bubble.
I don't have many problems with Link Bubble, but there are a few things that might need some tweaking. On larger screen devices, Link Bubble seems a little more awkward to use. The bubbles are way up at the top when maximized, so they're not as easy to reach. Some sort of alternative layout for phablets might be nice.
The transparency effect around the bubbles is also somewhat odd – seeing another app behind the bubbles is distracting. The dimming effect when dragging bubbles around also could use some attention. It doesn't blend over the navigation/status bars of apps using transparency in KitKat, which is a limitation of Android, but a different approach could avoid that UI quirk altogether.
Let's be clear, though – Link Bubble has been nearly flawless in the week or so I've been using it. The issues I mention are only in the interest of thoroughness, not to imply it's got problems. This app may very well change the way I browse the web on Android, and you should definitely consider picking it up – at least give the free version a try. The pro upgrade is selling for $4.99 right now, but that's just an introductory price. It will be more expensive later.
Note: The app has just been published, so give it a little time to propagate if it's not showing up yet.