Ad-blocking is becoming common on mobile devices, especially in Asia.
Photograph by Justin Sullivan—Getty Images
By Kif Leswing
September 22, 2015

Mobile ad blocking has suddenly become a hot topic, and prompted a great deal of handwringing over what it could mean for web-based businesses.

Ad blockers, aside from potentially robbing content providers of advertising revenue, do provide a lot of benefits to end users. Users who install the software (which zaps advertisements, popups and autoplay videos) can benefit from faster browsers. Additionally, ad blockers could also save users data by reducing the number of network calls and improve battery life by reducing load on your phone’s CPU.

Most ad blocking headlines these days have focused on Apple’s (AAPL) iOS, which recently added an easy way to install an ad blocker for Safari, the company’s default web browser.

But what if you’re an Android user? Google’s (GOOGL) nominally open mobile operating system does have its own options for removing annoying ads, although in the past Google has banned ad blocking software in its app store over concerns it could “interfere” with services provided by third parties.

If you’re serious about zapping third-party tracking scripts and ads here’s a rundown of the pros and cons of both operating systems.

Ad blocking options

There are a plethora of ad blocking options in the App Store for you to choose from, even though some developers have recently pulled theirs over moral concerns.

Currently the number one paid app on the American App Store is Crystal, a $0.99 ad blocker. Another affordable option is Blockr, which also costs $0.99. At number four on the App Store paid apps list is Purify Blocker, which costs $3.99. There are also free ad-blocking options, like 1Blocker, although those often have in-app purchases to unlock full functionality.

There are also ad-blocking apps on iOS that are full browsers like Adblock Plus for people who don’t use Safari. However, it’s important to note that you can’t currently make a third-party browser your default on iOS.

On Android it’s a different story. Chrome, the default Android browser, doesn’t accept ad-blocking plugins like mobile Safari does. Instead, the most popular options for blocking ads on Android are full browsers, like Adblock Browser or Ghostery Privacy Browser. Both are free. On the plus side, it’s possible to set one of these as your default browser, so it opens links from other apps.

It’s also possible to install Firefox on Android, which can use extensions. After installing Firefox, you can navigate to the Firefox Android Add-ons site and install an extension like Adblock Plus or Ublock Origin.

Finally, there are system-wide options if you’ve “rooted” your Android device, which means you’ve unlocked certain lower-level system permissions (as well as likely nullified your device’s warranty.) There are also ad blocking apps that work by routing your traffic through a third-party server. These are clunky approaches, and are unlikely to be widely adopted.

In the end iOS’s ad blocking plugin options leaves Apple users with better choices. Winner: iOS

Installation

All of the iOS ad blockers generally follow the same installation procedure. It’s a pain, but relatively straightforward.

After installing the ad blocker, it will ask you to go into Safari’s settings and enable the software under Content Blockers. Updating preferences as well as lists of sites to be blocked is done in the app, which isn’t easily accessed from a Safari window.

It’s not too much harder in Android, especially if you’ve chosen to use one of the full browsers available on Google Play. Simply download your browser of choice — like Ghostery—and follow configuration options.

Then, to set the browser as the default, open a link from an app like Facebook or Twitter. Choose the option to open it in a browser. Android will give you a few choices, hopefully including your ad-zapping browser of choice. Choose “always” open in this browser to make it the default.

If you’re using a Firefox plugin or another ad-blocking approach on Android, installation will be trickier.

The ability to choose your browser of choice gives Android an advantage. Winner: Android

Practical usage

An ad blocker is only as good as its blacklist, or the list of sites and servers it won’t load. The good news is that most of the apps currently available for iOS and Android use lists based on high-quality publicly available block lists like EasyList.

Crystal takes a “set it and forget it” approach to its block list—you can’t customize the blacklist beyond reporting sites to the app’s developer, although it does appear to get regular updates. On the other hand, apps like 1Blocker will let you pick individual rules to turn on or off, and gives you granular options like “block Twitter widgets.”

If you’re on a page that won’t work without ads, you’ll need to leave Safari and go into your ad blocking app to disable it. Still, on iOS, there are enough different choices for ad blockers at the moment that users can pick the blacklist and customization options they want.

On Android, your out-of-the-box blacklist options are more limited. Adblock Browser uses Adblock Plus’ blacklist by default, which has been criticized in the past for allowing “acceptable ads,” or ads that certain companies have paid to whitelist. However, you can add custom block lists inside the app, although few likely will.

Ghostery on Android uses the excellent (and consistently updated) Ghostery blacklist, which is what popular iOS blocker Peace used before it was pulled from the app store. Ghostery allows users inside the browser to whitelist certain sites, as well as monitor which scripts are tracking you at the moment. Ghostery even allows you to turn off blocking if you’re on a page that won’t work without it.

In general, ad blocking performance is comparable between the major mobile apps available today, and the main differences in usage surround functions like how the browser handles whitespace where an ad used to be. Winner: Tie

iOS vs. Android

Apple might be gaining a ton of attention for allowing content blocking plugins to interface with Safari, but Google’s open ecosystem means that Android users can avoid ads just as well.

The key difference between the two is that Google is an ad company, whereas Apple sells hardware—developers don’t need to worry about being unceremoniously booted from iOS the way some ad blockers have been from Google in the past.

Considering the simplicity of many available ad blocking solutions (as well as its friendly app ecosystem that will encourage future ad blocking innovation), iOS is, at least for now, the overall winner.

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