Review: How is the DuckDuckGo Mobile Browser?
DuckDuckGo is a company that has been strongly associated with privacy since it's been around.
Their search engine doesn't track you. They have browser extensions (for the likes of Firefox and Google Chrome) for increased privacy.
One of DuckDuckGo's most recent privacy offerings is its mobile browser, available for both iOS and Android.
Today, we will look at how DuckDuckGo's mobile privacy browser stacks up. We'll be examining what it brings to the table in terms of privacy, security, and notable features.
This is the DuckDuckGo Mobile browser at a glance...
- HTTPS everywhere
- Fast, streamlined interface
- Good site whitelisting capability ()
- Detailed tracker information ()
- Limited search options
- Unable to block all scripts ()
- Inconsistent tracker blocking ()
What is DuckDuckGo?
You've probably heard of DuckDuckGo.
If you have, you probably also know that it's a search engine that is focused on user privacy ; it doesn't track your data when you use it.
And if you haven't heard of DuckDuckGo, well there you go - it's a search engine that doesn't track your data.
While DuckDuckGo originally started as a search engine, the company has also developed privacy extensions for the likes of Firefox and Google Chrome.
Now, they've also created their own mobile privacy browser.
DuckDuckGo's mobile browser is synonymous with the company's mission: "Privacy, simplified."
Before the download
Let's look at some of the barebones basics of the app before we commit to a download.
DuckDuckGo's privacy browser is only available for mobile platforms, which includes iOS and Android.
Since it has an extension widely available for other browsers such as Firefox and Google Chrome, it's up in the air if the company plans on launching a standalone browser for desktops.
My guess is that we shouldn't look for the desktop version any time soon.
In this review, we will only be evaluating DuckDuckGo's Privacy Browser for mobile devices - not the extension.
iOS device requirements
Running this browser requires iOS 10.0 or later.
Android device requirements
Running this browser requires Android 5.0 (Lollipop) and up.
The download size for this privacy browser is a little more than 35MB.
That's pretty lightweight and super easy on the storage capacity of your device(s).
Initial launch and set up
Now we download the browser from the app store, evaluate the app's initial launch process, and note our first impressions in this section.
Download and install was a zip. Zero complaints from me there.
After launching the app for the first time, I was surprised that there was literally no setup involved.
Granted, there are two screens presented at first launch. But they're hardly set up screens; they just have a bit of info on what the DuckDuckGo browser can do for you.
The first screen tells you a little about its privacy features and functionality.
The second shows a short video of adding DuckDuckGo to your device's homescreen dock, essentially suggesting you replace Safari.
Here are the 2 screens in order:
Right after you press "Start Browsing" on the second welcome screen, you do just that - you just start browsing!
I will admit that being thrown straight to the browser's start page was a little jarring, even for someone experienced in setting these kinds of things up.
I could understand how someone with less experience could be a little intimidated.
It could be beneficial if the developers added another screen. Perhaps one that identifies some of the unique privacy and security features that DuckDuckGo has to offer.
How else are we supposed to know what we're getting from the jump without doing legwork on, um, Google?
We'll take an in depth look at the privacy, security, and any other unique features of this browser.
Tracker blocking and "Privacy Upgrades"
Naturally, DuckDuckGo provides protection against ad, analytics, and social trackers.
It also forces HTTPS on most, if not all, websites you visit. There doesn't appear to be a way to disable this function at all (which isn't a bad thing per se.)
What's strangely interesting is that you can disable the tracker blocking. You just can't disable any of the tracker blocking mechanisms directly.
Don't worry, I'll explain everything in detail here.
As I said, you can't pick and choose which type of trackers you want to block.
This is because most of the privacy features, including the tracker blockers, are lumped into a single setting called "Site Privacy Protection."
Again, the only privacy feature excluded from this overarching toggle appears to be the forced HTTPS encryption.
You can't find this Site Privacy Protection setting under the general settings screen either. Instead, it's located immediately next to the URL address bar.
Tapping the letter - which is actually a grade assigned by DuckDuckGo - takes you to this screen:
DuckDuckGo gives sites a rating (read: grade) based on known privacy practices, how many trackers found, and what types of trackers they are. It also shows a site's rating with and without Site Privacy Protection enabled.
In addition to the rating information, you can access even more information about a site from this Privacy Protection screen.
You can see an overview of the site's rating, which shows you how many trackers were blocked:
You can see all kinds of detailed information about the SSL/TLS certificate the site uses:
You can view details about what types of trackers are found and blocked on most websites:
You can see the privacy practices of websites. In my experience, I found that even for well-known websites this was "unknown."
It appears DuckDuckGo aggregates this set of information from TOSDR, a user rights initiative.
You can even view the frequency of tracker networks on the websites you've visited since you last reset your tracker stats.
You'll find that I ran into a lot of Google and Facebook trackers while using this browser:
DuckDuckGo boasts a whitelisting feature for specific websites.
Sites that you whitelist will not be affected by Site Privacy Protection. This means that these sites' trackers won't be blocked, and therefore allowed to track you.
However, from my personal tests, it still seems that forced HTTPS encryption works on whitelisted sites.
You should only whitelist websites that you trust.
You can place a site on your whitelist from the general settings screen OR by accessing the Privacy Protection screen, which is again found next to the URL address bar.
DuckDuckGo has a "fire button." The fire button closes all open tabs and purges browser data such as stored cookies in one tap.
This is a neat and convenient feature for clearing all your browsing history on the fly with minimal effort.
With the "fireproof" function, you can exclude websites from the fire button's data purge. Otherwise, the fire button will delete everything.
If you didn't know cookies are what keep you signed into websites; if you delete the cookies, then you have to sign in again. "Fireproofing" a site keeps its cookies, avoiding this.
From my experience, it doesn't seem that you can add websites manually. It also seems you can only "fireproof" websites that you login to with this setting enabled (it's disabled by default).
I found that the only way to "fireproof" a site is to enable it, and then signing into the site you want to fireproof. After you sign in, DuckDuckGo will ask whether you want to fireproof the website or not.
When enabled, this forces DuckDuckGo to wipe all browsing data and open tabs when you're done with a browsing session every time.
It's essentially full time "private browsing."
For this to kick into effect, you must completely exit DuckDuckGo - not just keep it in the background!
This setting is disabled by default.
DuckDuckGo in Safari
With this browser installed, you automatically have the option of using DuckDuckGo as the default search option in Safari.
However, it's not the same type of tracker blocking integration that is provided by Firefox Focus.
You can lock DuckDuckGo with TouchID, FaceID, or a system passcode.
This stops someone who has possession of your device from opening the browser to snoop on what you've been doing or searching.
Be careful when using biometrics, though. Fingerprints can easily be lifted and facial recognition isn't even close to 100% accurate.
Additionally, if the device is shared then any stored biometric data can be used to open the app.
Opening links in apps
DuckDuckGo lets you set whether links can open apps installed.
When disabled this setting prevents links from automatically opening in other installed apps on your device.
Naturally, this is a setting that gives you slightly enhanced security of your device.
For example, imagine if you tapped on a random link.
Now, we have all accidentally tapped links before; it seems to come with the territory of using a smaller touchscreen.
Let's also imagine that this random link is a not-so-nice link. Would you want this not-so-nice link initializing the opening of installed apps on your device?
I wouldn't, personally. My number one concern is that it would be snooping for information in whatever app it opens. No thanks.
The DuckDuckGo mobile browser is updated regularly.
The devs seem committed to fixing bugs, improving existing features, and patching known security vulnerabilities as they come up.
"Standard" browser features
While DuckDuckGo is a streamlined browser, I wouldn't go as far as to label it a minimalist browser.
DuckDuckGo features tab management, favorites, and bookmarks. You can also easily search within a page, which can be super helpful and convenient.
DuckDuckGo allows you some customizability with its theme and icon.
You can set the theme to be light or dark. The default setting pulls from your system theme.
So if you're running the dark theme of iOS on your iPhone (like me), DuckDuckGo automatically applies its dark theme.
Additionally, you can customize the app icon. You have 6 different colors to choose from. It's a surprisingly refreshing touch.
Fire button + Fireproofing
The Fire button is amazing!
The fact that you can wipe everything with literally just a single tap is overwhelmingly convenient.
The ability to fireproof specific websites, exempting them from the one-tap data purge is just the icing on the cake.
Wiping browser data periodically is good for your browser; it's like cleaning out the lint trap of your dryer. It makes everything a little bit faster and more efficient. It also frees up space on your device's hard drive (yes, all that data has to get stored somewhere.
But I also know firsthand that wiping data such as browsing history and stored cookies can be a bit of a pain for some people who have many logins they're signed into all at once.
So, the fact that you can easily wipe this data and exclude websites from that wipe is really neat.
I really appreciate and enjoy the fact that DuckDuckGo forces HTTPS encryption on just about every website your visit.
HTTPS encryption keeps the connection between your browser and the server secure. Most importantly, this encryption standard maintains the integrity of the information you send to the web server.
DuckDuckGo's forced encryption means you don't have to do anything extra for an added layer of protection while browsing different websites.
Some might say that it's annoying that you can't turn it off and I can sympathize with that. We always want options.
But the truth is, HTTPS should be the standard for every website out there!
Privacy Protection screen
I covered the Privacy Protection screen in depth earlier in this post.
I want to reiterate that amount of information available on this screen is fantastic.
Just as a reminder, you can view detailed SSL/TLS certificate data for websites, view exactly what trackers a website has, and see what tracker networks you've been running into the most.
You get all this information for every website you visit by just tapping the letter grade next to the URL address bar.
Mostly a full featured browser
This browser retains a lot of commonly used browser features such as favorites and bookmarks, while remaining streamlined and fast.
Inconsistent tracker blocking reports
My biggest gripe with the DuckDuckGo browser is the apparent inconsistent tracker blocking.
For example, when we visit MSNBC we get two different reports:
When I visit msnbc.com, DuckDuckGo says it blocked 17 trackers. That's good.
But when Site Privacy Protection is disabled, the browser finds 41 trackers!
That's a hell of a difference!
Based on those numbers alone, DuckDuckGo only blocked 41% of the trackers found on msnbc.com.
That makes me wonder just how robust the tracker blocking features of this browser really are.
Now, I understand that not every browser with tracker blocking blocks everything.
The truth is if you block every single tracker there is, then some things break. Knowing what to allow is of course crucial for a good browsing experience. Else websites not functioning as they should gets frustrating for the user.
But this still draws into question what else manages to slip through the cracks.
DuckDuckGo is reputable so it would help if they explained their browser's limitations a little better.
No option to block all scripts
Some privacy browsers available allow you to block all web scripts. Unfortunately, DuckDuckGo isn't one of them.
There are many reasons why someone might want to block all scripts from websites, even if the blocking is only temporary.
The fact that the option isn't available at all leaves another thing on the table.
Lack of search options
Other privacy browsers give you options for which default search engine you want to use.
Your only option for search engines with DuckDuckGo is DuckDuckGo.
There's no way to change this in the settings either. If you want to use a different search engine, you'll have to visit that engine like you would any other website and go from there.
It goes without saying that DuckDuckGo has a lot of competition out there. In fact, it goes up against the likes of Google and Bing
most all the time.
So naturally, it makes sense that DuckDuckGo uses its own search engine in its browser.
However, it would be nice to use other search engines directly in the browser too. These alternative search engines don't have to explicitly be Google, or anything specific.
If DuckDuckGo just gave us the option to customize the search engine to anything we wanted, such as privacy-focused one such as Qwant, it would be a plus in my book.
Overall, the DuckDuckGo mobile browser is a solid pick.
Even though it’s not a full featured browser, it certainly has the capability to replace the standard Safari.
The DuckDuckGo mobile browser offers enough of those features like tab management that are common across most browsers. Without being a minimalist browser, it still manages to remain streamlined and quick.
It offers decent tracker protection, though not the best that I have seen. All the information about the website you're visiting that DuckDuckGo makes available is convenient.
Additionally, you'll never have to worry whether you're using the secure version (HTTPS) of the website you're visiting.
The browser lives up to the company's promise of making privacy simple. Though I wished that there were more options such as fingerprinting protection and script blocking, this browser does have a good amount to offer.
There's not a ton of settings to run through, and its main Site Privacy Protection makes enabling privacy protection super easy.
The DuckDuckGo browser is a solid pick for those looking for some tracking protection and a safer browsing alternative.
As always, stay safe out there!