Yesterday the Opera Mini browser was approved and made available for download on the App Store. I was hoping Apple would approve it, as I wanted to try a different browser than Safari on my iPhone. Opera Mini is not the first third-party browser available for the iPhone: another major product of this kind is iCab Mobile [iTunes link]. I admit I haven’t tried iCab, not because I think it isn’t a valid app or because it isn’t free, but simply because — judging by the screenshots — I thought it would give me a rather similar experience compared to MobileSafari, and I’m quite pleased with MobileSafari.
Opera Mini, however, sparked my curiosity because of its reputation on other mobile platforms and I wanted to see how it would look and behave on the iPhone. I’ll say it right away: so far I’m rather underwhelmed. I’ve been using it intermittently for a few hours, and I wanted to share my first impressions with this quick review. Emphasis on ‘quick’: what I’m showing here are things that instantly caught my eye when using Opera Mini. No extensive tests, no side-by-side rendering speeds or benchmarks. Just an overview especially focussed on looks and user interface.
Opera Mini doesn’t look like an iPhone application at all. No UI element looks or is positioned like the familiar CocoaTouch UI. Buttons are different, menus are different, switches are different. I’m not saying that Opera Mini looks particularly awful or anything. The interface is internally consistent and not entirely displeasing, but if you’re accustomed to using iPhone apps which follow Apple’s UI guidelines, you’ll have to adjust to Opera Mini’s button placement a little.
This is what appears when you launch Opera Mini (well, the very first time you’ll be presented with a quick summary of the browser’s features). Like its Mac/PC counterpart, its first window displays the ‘speed dial’ for quick access to a set of favourite websites (I have removed Facebook and put Apple’s homepage, ahem). This is actually a nice feature: the nine sites are placed like a phone keypad for quick access, and it’s handy if you have a small set of websites you visit often. The address bar and search field have the same look and placement as in MobileSafari. I don’t particularly like the default www. Opera puts in the address bar, though. The search field is more versatile than Safari’s: if you tap on the triangle on the right, a drop-down menu lets you select from a few places you can search in: Google, Amazon, Dictionary.com, eBay, IMDb, Wikipedia. If you tap on the last menu item, Manage Search Engines, you can delete some or all these choices, except Google.
Tapping on the bottom right icon (the wrench), triggers a popup menu with seven buttons:
As you can see, the menu is not bad in and of itself. If Opera Mini had used the standard CocoaTouch UI elements, though, this menu would have looked better, as the seven buttons would have displayed neatly stacked on a 1-column, 7-row grid, instead of leaving the ‘Help’ item alone like that.
Let’s tap on Settings and have a look at another big difference between the Opera Mini interface and the classic iPhone interface:
Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong in designing a different UI, but I don’t think the choice of placing the Back button always on the top right is a particularly good one. In most iPhone apps (especially those which closely adhere to the standard CocoaTouch UI), when you’re navigating screens of menus, the Back button is usually placed on the left. It’s just natural that way. So my muscle memory made me tap on the untappable label (‘Settings’, or ‘Privacy’ or other submenus) more than once.
I’m not fond of this ‘Cancel’ button when you tap on the search field, either:
It looks too big for the space it occupies, too two-dimensional, too close to the search field area to the point of looking slightly vertically misaligned.
Opera Mini has also a ‘fullscreen’ mode, but you don’t actually gain much screen estate by activating it:
Yes, you can view some more pixels, as the fullscreen mode shaves the red strip on top and hides the toolbar on the bottom, but putting those two big buttons on the bottom corners doesn’t look like a good idea, usability-wise. I expected a real fullscreen mode with toolbars and buttons completely out of the way and appearing by tapping, double-tapping or holding the finger in certain parts of the screen, for example. This ‘fullscreen’ mode looks a bit useless this way.
On the Opera Mini / Opera Mobile features page you can read that Opera’s streamlined rendering engine and server-side compression allows Opera to load Web pages much more quickly than other mobile phone browsers. Which is true. Without having to use a stopwatch, many sites I visited loaded faster than on Safari. This, I guess, is because Opera fast servers act as a middle-man between us and the Web. Too bad that the ‘server-side compression’ causes pages to render more crudely than in Safari. Fonts are jagged, aliased, and small text is even less legible, often reduced to lines. Zooming in with a pinch solves that, but I found that zooming and panning in Safari is smoother and more responsive.
Here are some examples:
In some cases, pages aren’t even rendered correctly:
The poorly-rendered small text issue is evident in sites like BBC News and the New York Times. MobileSafari simply does a better job at displaying them:
It gets worse: when you turn the iPhone in landscape orientation, Opera Mini doesn’t adjust the page to the new window width. MobileSafari does, and in doing so makes the text a little bigger and more readable. In Opera Mini, it remains messy. Here are the same BBC News and New York Times pages in landscape orientation:
When you navigate to a website that provides a mobile version, Opera Mini renders it differently than MobileSafari:
Opera Mini is more focussed on text. It loads the mobile theme completely stripped of images, and has a bare-bones overall feel. MobileSafari’s rendition is more elegant without sacrificing usability.
Opera Mini is not a bad browser, all in all. It’s a free app and does its job. When you need to take a quick look to a website, you’ll appreciate Opera Mini’s faster speeds, especially when you’re on slower connections (EDGE, GPRS). The interface is consistent and you can easily find your way around — buttons and settings are rather intuitive. However, the downside of faster rendering is less accuracy: some websites are definitely uglier in Opera Mini than in MobileSafari and, as you’ve seen above, shifting to horizontal view doesn’t make things better. Small text in Opera Mini is often undecipherable and I found myself wanting to zoom more, and more frequently, on Opera Mini. MobileSafari handles text better.
The fact that you can sync your Opera bookmarks, speed dial and search engines between Opera Mini on the iPhone and the Opera browser on your computer via Opera Link is a nice feature. It would also be nice to have the possibility to access MobileSafari’s bookmarks from inside Opera Mini, but I suppose it’s just not possible technically.
As a matter of personal preference, I very much like the CocoaTouch user interface, so I’m not really thrilled by Opera Mini’s UI and controls. It just doesn’t feel like using an iPhone app, more like a Windows Mobile app. Here the design choice has been to develop a mobile browser that looks more or less the same on all platforms, rather than adapting it to the various user experiences on each platform. It might be okay on a BlackBerry, on a Windows Mobile or Android phone. On the iPhone it simply lacks luster.
These are just some initial observations. I’ll keep using Opera Mini and exploring all its features and we’ll see how it goes in the long run. But it surely won’t replace MobileSafari as my primary iPhone browser.