Opera Mini: The New Browser on the Block

Since the original iPhone launched in 2007, users have been browsing the Web with Mobile Safari, Apple’s built-in browser. Now, for the first time iPhone users have the option to choose another browser: Opera Mini.

Opera brings a different browsing perspective to the iPhone with more emphasis on tabbed browsing and, not surprisingly, placing more importance on Web content with features such as Saved Pages.

Opening Opera

Opening Opera

Opera Mini is the first browser approved by Apple on the App Store, in a move that came as something of a surprise. Apple has been known to prohibit applications that duplicate the functionality of the built-in applications, and browser developers have struggled to get around limitations surrounding executing third party code.

Features

The new browser differs from what you are familiar with in several ways, with the addition of a few interesting features such as a quick dial page that appears when you first enter the application

Quick Dial

Quick Dial

The quick dial page comes with four sites pre-loaded: My Opera, Facebook, BBC News and CNN. You can add up to nine of your favorite sites, and replace the ones that are pre-loaded. This offers quick access to sites you use frequently in a manner that is easy to use and well designed.

The images displayed in the quick dial page are created when you add a new site and, in a couple of tests, it seemed to magically find the selected website’s logo regardless of which side of the page it was displayed on.

Tabbed Interface

Tabbed Interface

Opera Mini implements an interesting version of tabbed browsing which is less distracting than Mobile Safari’s view of the open pages. When you tap the pages/tabs icon on the small toolbar at the bottom of the display, you see a strip of thumbnails emerge from below. The thumbnails, though small, are quite easy to recognize and use.

In order to select a tab or thumbnail that is not the one on top, you just slide your finger over them and they re-shuffle so that you always have a big, clear target. When you lift your finger from the display the thumbnail that is topmost will become the active page.

I found that using the thumbnails strip was quite natural and provided a quick way of alternating between pages.

One of the most interesting features of Opera Mini is the Save Page option. This allows you to save any page you load in the browser for later reading. You can then read the page later, whether or not you currently have a connection to the internet.

Speed and Zoom

Opera made a big point about page load times in Opera Mini being faster than those on Mobile Safari – a claim that has been mostly confirmed. Unfortunately, the page rendering speed comes at a cost. Below you can see two pictures of the New York Times home page. The first one captured with the page loaded in Opera Mini and the second captured in Mobile Safari.

New York Times in Opera

New York Times in Opera

New York Times in Safari

New York Times in Safari

You will notice that it is impossible to read the headlines in Opera, while they are clearly readable on Safari. While the speed advantage in loading the pages in Opera is enjoyable, the annoyance factor of not being able to read anything without going through the whole page in zoom mode can quickly offset it.

Having to use zoom all the time is especially annoying, because pinch-zooming in Opera is not as smooth as in Safari. You will get far more satisfying results by just tapping the place you want to zoom to, as the gesture based zoom seems to work on a discrete basis. There are a few clunky steps of the page quickly becoming large or small, instead of the fine grained zoom that iPhone users are used to.

Compatibility

While most of the pages accessed while testing the browser displayed without issue, a few did have some issues that broke the page design. One of the most notable cases was that of the administration pages for WordPress, a widely used blogging platform. When viewed in Opera, all the panel headers displayed wider than their respective panels.

Conclusion

For a first release, Opera Mini is quite capable and offers a few features not found in Safari. It has a well designed interface and, while it won’t displace Safari as my browser of choice just yet, I am certainly going to keep it.

I’d be interested to know what you think. Have you tried it out and, if so, will it become your browser of choice?


Summary

Opera Mini is a web browser for your iPhone, offering an alternative to the in-built Safari. Though it offers a few unique features, the overall experience leaves quite a bit to be desired.

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