Wednesday, May 23, 2012

It’s been a while, but Yahoo just made some noise again in the search business. With the release of Axis, a new search app and add-on for both iOS and desktop browsers, Yahoo aims to make browsing the Web a more visual and convenient experience. And it succeeds at least on the iPad.

This is surprising, since on iOS Axis is essentially running a skin over top of Safari similar to what the Atomic browser does. In Yahoo’s case, though, it’s a powerful skin, filled with features you won’t find on Apple’s browser, such as easy toggling between regular and image searches, and instant syncing of bookmarks and tabs between desktop, iPhone and iPad.

At the same time, the app isn’t cluttered. It’s nice and minimalist, combining the search and address bar into a single field similar to how Chrome works (seriously, why don’t all browsers do this?). And your bookmarks conveniently appear in every new tab you open, letting you instantly tap to go somewhere familiar. However, it doesn’t put your most recent bookmarks first, which is a bit annoying.

Searching With Gas

One of the major thrusts of Axis is that it makes search more visual. It delivers pretty well on this promise, displaying a strip of site preview thumbnail images whenever you input a search term.

This is quite handy even if the sites themselves aren’t particularly visual. For example, for most subjects, a Wikipedia entry is one of the first to appear. While Wikipedia pages tend to be mostly text, they’re instantly recognizable, even as a thumbnail. The thumbnails tap out after you swipe through the first 20 or so, though, getting replaced with basic text summaries.

The most powerful feature of Axis, though, could be its near-flawless device syncing. Open a page on your iPad, and you can pick up right from there on your iPad or any major desktop browser (via an add-on or extension). All your bookmarks are synced, too Yahoo even conveniently names one of your folders “Read Later.”

As I said, though, it’s only near-flawless. You can only see the last tab you had open on whatever device you’re picking up from. It also doesn’t sync your search history (though it will pass along the last search you performed on the other device).

Social net-workers will appreciate that Axis integrates Pinterest. Whatever page you’re on, you can tap a virtual button to instantly switch over to the Pinterest iOS app and pin the page, although you’ll need to switch back to Axis manually. It’s a convenient addition that Safari doesn’t have although Axis has no “Print” or “Add to Home Screen” options.

Desktop Blues

In all, though, the Axis experience on iOS is compelling, which is in contrast to the underwhelming desktop integration. To be fair, it would be expecting too much of Yahoo who doesn’t make any kind of desktop browser  to come up with something groundbreaking here, and Axis ends up being not much more than an impressive syncing tool.

There seemed to be technical difficulties with the pre-release Chrome extension, and I never got it to work. It did better on Firefox, though, but I was disappointed that I had to wait for pages to finish loading completely before I could use Axis.

Regaled to a small search box on the bottom of your browser, Axis is more of an unwanted intruder on the desktop, and its abilities didn’t provide much in functionality that I couldn’t get from any of the many add-ons in my browser. It’s also more limited than the iOS version  your Axis search history, for example, is nowhere to be found.

Axis is a worthy experiment, though, and I hope Yahoo quickly iterates its iOS app. It’s quite simply one of the best browsers you can get for your iPad, and if it keeps improving and adding new abilities, it could help define how we consume the web on tablets. Just as long as Apple doesn’t kill it.

What do you think of Axis? Check it out for yourself at the Axis site, and let us know in the comments.