Opera Mini for iPhone review: first look

Opera Mini speeddialOpera Mini has somehow given Apple’s iPhone gatekeepers the slip and popped up in the App Store. But is it worth sidelining Safari and making Opera Mini your default iPhone browser?

Opera Mini for iPhone review: first look

The first thing to state here is, technically, you can’t. If you click on a link in another app – a Twitter client, say – it will still open in Safari. I’ve taken a fairly extensive look through the iPhone settings, and can find no way to set Opera as the default browser, so you’re going to be saddled with Safari no matter how much you like Opera Mini.

The main reason for defecting to Opera Mini is speed – at least, that’s what Opera would have you believe. Opera Mini’s party trick has long been the way it compresses web pages on Opera’s servers, watering down images and other graphical elements so that the total data payload delivered to your mobile is only a fraction of the page’s full size.

Opera Mini BBCThe compression made a noticeable difference on Symbian smartphones, delivering web pages in less than half the time it would take using the shoddy default browser on my old Nokia E71. The difference on the iPhone is less clear cut.  Sites such as BBC News and PCPro.co.uk rendered in roughly the same time as they did in Safari, in our brief tests over a patchy 3G connection this morning. Interestingly, Opera Mini seemed to dither for a few seconds while it fetched the data from the server, before almost instantly drawing the page, suggesting that demand on Opera’s servers is the biggest bottleneck and may improve with time.

Even if the pages do eventually load faster, Opera Mini doesn’t necessarily improve the speed of your browsing. You can get a good feel for the lead story and elements on the page when your first load the BBC News homepage in Safari, but in Opera Mini it’s zoomed out just too far, meaning you have to dive in and out to get a grasp of what’s on display.

Lazy port?

The biggest criticism of Opera Mini is that it just doesn’t look, feel or behave like an iPhone app. Pinch and zoom is patchy and ridiculously over-zealous. Instead of the smooth zoom you get by pinching your fingers together in Safari, Opera Mini whooshes in like a cameraman on Dragons’ Den. Double-tapping is the only way to zoom without invoking nausea. Scrolling down pages is equally jerky, with none of the nice window-bouncing effects you get when you hit the foot of a page in Safari. Given that Opera flouts so many of the iPhone UI guidelines, it’s a wonder this ever got through the App Store approval process.

Opera Mini thumbsThat’s not to say Opera Mini doesn’t have some impressive interface touches. The way it handles multiple tabs is very pleasing, with a row of thumbnails appearing at the foot of the screen that shuffle and slide behind one another.  They become a little tricky to select when you have more than half a dozen tabs open, but you’d have to be some kind of browsing sadist to keep many more tabs cooking on a smartphone anyway.

The familiar Speed-dial screen is also a step up from Safari’s rather tame bookmarks, offering nine chunky thumbnails of your favourite sites to choose from. If you’re one of the piddling minority that runs Opera on  the desktop, the mobile browser will also synchronise your Speed-dial, bookmarks and web history.

Offline viewing

Opera Mini also offers the opportunity to save pages for later offline viewing, which could prove handy on long train journeys.  Also worthy of mention is the Find In Page search tool, which swiftly hones in on the part of the page containing your search terms. Another neat trick is the contextual menus that appear when you hold down your finger in the browser, allowing you to open links in new tabs or use selected text as search terms.

Yet, Opera Mini also shares many of Safari’s frustrations. Flash content is obviously persona non grata, meaning BBC video and YouTube are rendered useless. And given that Opera Mini’s schtick is to make full web pages usable on a mobile, its tendency to reach for the mobile – rather than full version – of sites such as Twitter.com and Amazon.co.uk is bewildering.

Is there enough here to tempt most iPhone owners away from Safari? At first glance, I doubt it. Unless you’re an Opera desktop user the advantages are slight and the promised speed boost is currently negligible to non-existent.  On the other hand, it’s free of charge and Apple’s seeming willingness to let rival browsers on to its patch brings hope that Chrome, Firefox or (whisper it) Internet Explorer could also make an appearance on the iPhone soon. And then we’ll have an all-new browser war to look forward to…

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