Opera for iPhone: The review
It's speedy, but is that enough?
At last. Apple approved Opera's Mini browser for the iPhone overnight, and in in a few hours it's already attracted over 150 reviews. They're not all positive, and not all accurate, but it's an indication of how much interest there is in a better browser. While Safari was the jewel in the crown of the iPhone user interface, it hasn't changed in three years. There are now 80 million iPhone and iPod Touches out in the wild, so some choice is long overdue.
What's it like, then?
They said it was impossible...
Mini is fast, and Opera has sprung no surprises in the look and feel department. The font rendering and touch navigation - the mechanics of scrolling and zooming - aren't quite as slick as we get with Safari, but they're not far off. Mini also boasts also some very nice user-friendly features absent in Safari, such as saving web pages, searching inside a page, custom searches, and bookmark sync. And so it should...
Performance is the big draw, here. It's always been the Mini's signature feature: it was designed around speed and overcoming the obstacles to a good user experience on a mobile. Unlike the native version of Opera, Mini is really a lightweight document viewer, with the web page rendered on a proxy server, compressed, and sent down to the phone as a compact binary stream. The page is sent in large chunks, because TCP/IP's chatty, bitty nature exacerbates the latencies that are a feature of 3G networks.
Opera Mini 5's page overview
And for reference, here's Safari. Safari wins for legibility.
The speed-up is striking. My guesstimate puts it somewhere between a fifth and a third faster on a Wi-Fi connection, but dramatically faster over a slower 2G or 3G connection. That's with images on, and set to high quality. If you turn images off then it really bombs along. If I had just one wish that could be granted for the iPhone's Safari, it would be the ability turn images off. If Mini takes off, then perhaps Apple will consider it. Mini's 2G/3G performance alone should ensure its popularity, as O2 here is still largely a 2G network with 3G in patches - or feels like it, most of the time.
Mini also reloads from a standing start much faster than Safari - presenting you with the page you left in about three seconds. This will be less of an issue for owners of 3GS iPhones, 3G touches and future devices, when multitasking (sort of) arrives in the summer, but since 3G and older iPhones won't be so lucky, they'll need the rapid restarts.
Look and feel
This version looks and feels like Opera Mini 5 on any other device: there aren't any Apple-specific tweaks here. There may be in the future, for one or two would be welcome. It's a nice minimal interface that makes the essentials easy to access. Running full-screen reduces the bottom navigation bar to a tab.
Given the high standard set by Safari, the 'feel' of the browser is more important than the look - well, provided you can see the page. It's the 'feel' that lets down rivals such as Android's browser (bad) and Nokia's Web (worse) - panning and zooming around a page are relatively clunky. It all adds up to the sense that it isn't a deterministic system. On the rivals, you never know if the next page you want to browse will be the one that chokes the device for five minutes.
Opera comes out quite well, but falls a little short. Double-tap to zoom is present, but it tends to be over sensitive. It's like a mouse with its acceleration set too high. In addition, Mini isn't quite as accurate as on Safari, and its column selection leaves some words shunted off screen, requiring horizontal scrolling. Safari makes better use of the iPhone's graphics to render those zooms. (From the start, the iPhone's graphics chips have rendered the animations at 60 frames per second, fact fans.)
Make things even faster by turning off images
Pinch-to-zoom isn't implemented, and after a while you start to miss it.
Scrolling is less problematic, but it highlights one of Safari's great subtleties. One of the aspects that made this browser so usable was Safari's uncanny ability to scroll pages at high speed - even when the gesture was oblique, it would guess that you were scrolling, and had a high tolerance.
But in this respect, Safari and Mini are close enough, and much better than the native browsers on the aforementioned rivals. I found it strange that when loading a link, Mini performs a 'pan right' transition (the existing page appears to be shunted offscreen to the left). That might confuse experienced iPhone users, because it's the same UI gimmick Apple's Safari uses to open a new tab.
What you won't find in Safari
Mini has several features that rivals should have but don't. Mini can capture pages to be viewed later. This ought to be a standard feature across the board. How many people use the web to grab a short piece of information - directions or a recipe - that they need to refer to two or three times, then never again? There may be more 'Apple-ish' ways of giving the data some persistence on the iPhone - a Mac OS X Dashboard 'clipping', for example - but saved pages is good enough, and better than nothing.
Saving web pages is very useful
Opera's Mobile View is here, and remains the fastest way of absorbing a dense, multi-column web page on a small screen. Mobile View pipes everything into one column. It copes with sites that insist on putting long lists of links in the left hand column by 'folding' these out of sight.
I've always found Speed Dial features of dubious benefits - I don't necessarily want to load a lot of pages that I don't need right away, particularly not on a Pay As You Go dongle. Nor is it clear what's loading and what's being dredged out of cache. I'd opt for a better-presented list of bookmarks every time. Well, if you like Speed Dial it's here. Go off and start Speed Dialling. Note that it won't let you move shortcuts from one slot to another.
tap and hold to create a site search
Custom searches are a real time-saver on Opera desktop: with one click you can set up, say, a search for The Register (or any site with an externally-accessible search field) and give it a shortcut letter from the address bar, so "r loompa" brings up all stories containing the word loompa. And you can do that here too. Here's what it looks like in action. Find the site's search field, and tap and hold your finger over the text box.
And knitting it all altogether is Opera Link, which puts your Bookmarks, Saved Searches, Notes, Speed Dial and typed history in the cloud, sychronising them across your Opera configurations. The trick is to remember to delete the default local bookmarks first - low grade junk like Wikipedia and shopping sites.
Unlike the desktop browser, there's no visual progress indicator, I found, so I left Mini open and found that it populated the Saved Searches from the cloud, but not the Bookmarks list. Where did the Bookmarks go? Notes aren't preserved in Mini, which is a shame.
One feature I missed from Safari is the email URL - you must use select, copy and paste manually. Email is the one guaranteed escape from Roach Motel on the iPhone. Pretty much every app supports it.
How about rendering? In this first look, there isn't time to give it an exhaustive compatibility work out. Here's a simple example of a page in Safari, and one in Mini, with all the default settings. First Safari:
(Safari renders a page)
(Mini renders a page)
El Reg works well. Reading Slashdot, with its CSS-ified horizontal sprawl, isn't so nice.
Reading nested comments is no fun.
I'll update this part of the review with more observations.
I've found glitches with page rendering, some annoyances with panning and zooming, and was frustrated by the very partial sync on offer with this version of Mini. I'd give the implementation in those departments between four and six out of 10. But the speed advantage alone is the killer feature, and that alone will make Mini a welcome addition for many iPhone users. Especially at the price: it's free.
And what's a web browser supposed to do, other than get you to some web pages fast? (Er... web and Flash developers: please post your thoughtful essays in the bin.) ®