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Yahoo Axis browser hands-on: Good for iOS, pointless for desktop

Yahoo Axis 1

In a surprise move, aging Internet giant Yahoo released one of its first products in quite some time. Axis, which Yahoo calls a “search browser,” is both a plug-in for a number of popular full browsers, as well as an app for iOS devices, like iPhone and iPad. In other words: Axis will not replace Firefox or Chrome; it is simply meant to enhance it with a more visual search and browsing experience. So far, the tech media’s reception to Axis has been amazingly positive. But are reviewers simply giving Yahoo the benefit of the doubt, given its recent stagnation? I go hands-on with Axis to find out.

Yahoo Axis for desktop

Yahoo Axis 2

Axis is available as a plug-in for recent versions of Firefox, Chrome, and Safari. For this test, I tried out both the Firefox and Chrome versions, which function identically.  I could literally find no difference between the two, so don’t worry about getting more out of one than the other.

Getting started

The first step is to visit the Axis website (axis.yahoo.com). From there, you can click a single button to install the plug-in into your browser. It takes less than a minute for the whole transaction to go through, and there’s no need to restart your browser for Axis to start working. All quite straightforward if you’ve ever added a plug-in to your browser before. And even if you haven’t, the process takes fairly little technical savvy to complete successfully.

Browsing/searching with Axis

Once installed, Axis will appear constantly as a small black search widget on the bottom-left corner of your browser window. As soon as you place your cursor into the search entry field, the Axis bar expands about a third of the way up your browser window. Type your search query (or URL), and Axis immediately brings up results.

Along the left side of the Axis bar are a variety of alternative search terms, which you can scroll through using your up/down arrows. Next to that is the Axis magic: Tiled thumbnails of the Web pages brought up through your search query. Axis also tells you what each result is by giving you the headline of the page, as well as the URL. Right/left scroll arrows appear, allowing you to skim through the results.

Yahoo Axis 3An icon in the very bottom corner, beneath the search query suggestions list, also allows you to toggle between “Web” searches and “image” searches. The image search functionality is easily the best feature of Axis. When you click on an image, a larger version pops up over top of the current Web page. From there, you can easily scroll through other image results. You can also visit the website from which the image appears.

Click one of the results, and it automatically loads in the browser window you are currently on. From my tests, the Axis bar disappears while the page you selected loads, and reappears once the loading is complete. The delay, while not a big deal if you’re casually browsing, was a bit annoying while I was trying to do research for other articles, as I tend to jump from page to page rather quickly if the page I’ve landed on is clearly not what I’m looking for.

Which brings me to my real feelings about Axis on desktop: The visual element of Axis — which is really the only thing that differentiates itself from standard search — was a nifty, pleasant, polished way to search and browse, but not once did I feel that it helped me find what I was looking for more than standard text search. And given Google’s recent Knowledge Graph upgrade, it was actually less helpful in many ways.

Bookmarking

To take full advantage of bookmarking with Axis, you’ll need to first sign into your Yahoo account. (Or create one, then sign in, as the case may be.) Doing so will allow you to access your bookmarks across multiple computers, and through the iOS app — similar to functionalities available in mobile Chrome and Safari.

To add a new bookmark, simply click the “star” icon, then the folder you’d like to add the page you are currently visiting. The Web page will placed in that folder. To access those bookmarks, click the gray bookmark “banner” icon that appears on the far right side of the Axis bar. You can click “home” icon that appears next to the “star” icon, which takes you to your Axis homepage, where your bookmarks are organized by folder.

Yahoo smartly has included two default bookmark folders: Read Later, and My Favorites. Because you can access your bookmarks saved on your desktop from your iOS device, this gives Axis a bit of Instapaper’s functionality, which is always nice. Of course, you can also create custom folders.

Conclusion

As mentioned, the image search functionality is by far the most useful aspect of Axis for desktop. The rest of the plug-in works fine; the bookmarking and tiled search results are pleasant to look at and use. But aside from the superior image search functionality, I felt like the whole thing was entirely unnecessary and forgettable. And, in some case, a bit of a drag, at least if you’re a heavy user like I am. Furthermore, it is a misnomer to call Axis a “browser” in the desktop version, since it’s really just a search plug-in. Yes, you can type URL’s into the Axis entry field, but why would you? Overall, Axis is slick, but fairly forgettable for the desktop.

Yahoo Axis for iOS

Yahoo Axis iOS

Axis is available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad. Unfortunately, I didn’t have an iPad at my disposal today, so this test is limited entirely to the iPhone version. As far as I know, the only real difference in the experience is the size, which I would guess makes Axis an even better app for the iPad than for iPhone or iPod.

Getting started

Again, installing the app is exactly the same as installing any other app. Once it’s downloaded, fire it up, and you’ll be asked to approve a few permissions, like whether or not you want Push Notifications from Axis, or if you allow it to access your location. The choice is yours. I enabled both, simply for test purposes. But my mild paranoia about privacy would ordinarily prevent me from allowing the location services. You will also have to login to your Yahoo account before you can take advantage of the bookmark syncing.

Browsing/searching with Axis

The iOS version of Axis is, more or less, identical to that of the desktop version — aside from the fact that it is a full Web browser app, rather than just a plug-in. Actually, it’s the other way around; the desktop version is basically the same as the touch-centric iOS version of Axis. I make that distinction because Axis was clearly meant to be used on a touchscreen device. While the tiled visual search element of Axis felt entirely superfluous on the desktop version, it makes for a great way to browse on the iPhone.

As with the desktop version, you can type a search query or URL into the entry field at the top of the app’s screen. Alternative search terms, as well as your search results will appear below that. You can then scroll through the results by flicking from right to left. And like I said, this is a much better way to search than a simple text search. Not only are the tiled thumbnail snapshots attractive, but because they are large, it makes choosing the page you want to visit much easier — no zooming needed! You can also swipe to the left to access the image search functionality, which is neither better nor worse than the standard Web search in the iOS version; it’s exactly the same.

While the search functionality is always available in a background window of the app, you can pull up new browser windows by hitting the “page” icon at the bottom of the app’s screen, which pops up a scroll window. From there, you can also scroll through the open browser windows. You can also simply swipe up from the bottom of the screen, which will pull up a browser window. Or flick it back down to access the search queries window.  

Yahoo Axis iOSBookmarking

Again, bookmarking is just a matter of hitting the “star” icon, which appears next to the entry field. You can access your bookmarks via the “banner” icon, where you’ll find all of your bookmarks stored from either the desktop version, or another iOS device. All of this is quite straightforward, and worked as promised.

Mobile odds & ends

In addition to bookmarking, the iOS version of Axis also allows you to share Web pages either via email, Pinterest, or Twitter. Given the massive popularity of Pinterest, I’m sure many people will be pleased with the “Pin it!” function. Aside from that, this part of Axis is fairly similar to mobile Safari, and works just as well.

Conclusion

Axis is obviously meant to be a mobile app, not a desktop app. The visual element that takes center stage is far more useful on a touchscreen device than it is on a desktop or laptop PC. That said, Axis on the iPhone is a bit too cluttered for my liking. There’s just a lot going on, with windows sliding this way and that, and pop-up windows appearing from every angle. Of course, this is likely far less of an issue on the 9.7-inch screen of the iPad than it is on the 3.5-inch screen of the iPhone. But this is by far the primary reason I would avoid using Axis on a regular basis.

Still, the app is pretty slick, and worked well and loaded fast. If you regularly browse the Web on your Apple phone or tablet (as opposed to using other dedicated apps, like Flipboard or Twitter, to get your Web fix), then I would definitely recommend Axis as a solid option. Whether or not your actually use the desktop version, well, that’s up to you — but it might be more trouble than it’s worth.