Hell Freezes Over: Opera Mini on the iPhone

It seemed like they'd be ice skating in Hades before Apple would bless a real competitor to Safari on the iPhone, but Opera Mini has made its way into the App Store. Now that Opera has sailed past the gatekeepers, what's the verdict?

You’ve got to give Opera some credit. When Apple was rejecting iPhone apps right and left, they took a shot and ported Opera Mini to the iPhone OS anyway. While many said it couldn’t be done, or at least wouldn’t be approved, Opera gambled and won. Let’s take a look at Opera’s iPhone browser and see how it stacks up against Safari.

Opera Mini isn’t the first third-party browser that Apple has approved for the App Store, but it’s the first one that isn’t using Safari as a backend. The other browsers only modify Safari a bit, but Opera Mini is a whole new ballgame on the iPhone OS.

Why it Matters

Even if you’re not an iPhone fan or Opera enthusiast, Opera’s ability to land in the App store is pretty important to the mobile browser market overall. While the iPhone may not dominate the smartphone market, it has a pretty good share of the smartphone market plus you have all the iPod touch devices on the market plus the iPad. Opera hasn’t put out a native version for the iPad yet, but I’m going to guess that the Opera folks will push forward with a iPad version too.

If you look at mobile browser share according to Stat Counter it looks like Opera is well in the lead at first glance. But then you realize that they’re breaking out the iPhone and iPod touch separately. When you combine the two — which really only makes sense, as they’re the same thing, Opera is actually trailing Mobile Safari.

That situation is only going to get worse with the iPad. Though some of the studies show that iPad usage replaces iPhone/iPod touch usage — indicating that those folks have just traded up for the biggie-sized screen — at least some percentage of those users are going to be new to iPhone OS. And that will grow even more with the release of the iPad with 3G service.

In short, it’s not a great thing for Opera to be shut out of a platform with as many users as the iPhone OS. The question is, now that Opera is on the iPhone, it compelling enough to get users to switch from Safari? It’s certainly enough to move Opera’s numbers. The company put out a press release saying that the iPhone is the number three device of choice for Mini users worldwide, and number one in the United States.

Using Opera Mini

As soon as Opera announced that Opera Mini was available in the App Store, I went ahead and grabbed it and started surfing. The first thing users see is the famous Opera Speed Dial. It’s pre-populated with a few bookmarks to Twitter, Facebook, etc. Hold down on one of the bookmarks and you can swap it out for something you’re more likely to visit.

Default Opera View
Default Opera View

Opera is supposed to be known for its speed, but in my experience Opera’s Mini seems a bit slower than Safari on the iPhone. Opera is probably at a bit of a disadvantage on the iPhone OS, though. It’s not extremely slow, just not as fast as Safari. Note that most of my testing was over WiFi and not 3G or Edge. When testing over 3G and after changing some of the settings (changing Image Quality to Low), Safari improved somewhat.

The primary reason I choose the iPhone is because mobile Safari beat the pants off of all other mobile browsers, hands down. I picked one up long before the App Store and all the other nifty toys that have become available since — but my most compelling use for a smart phone is the ability to get on the Web from almost anywhere. And that’s only become more important as time has gone on.

Does Opera measure up? In a word… no. Not even close. Where most pages render on Mobile Safari more or less identically to Safari or other desktop browsers, Opera Mini looks like any other smartphone browser. That is to say, it renders pages acceptably well to get information you might need on the go — but it’s not a pleasure to look at.

Safari Displaying Linux Magazine's site
Safari Displaying Linux Magazine’s site

At least, not until you turn off Mobile View in Opera Mini’s settings. Then things get interesting. When Mobile View is off, then you see pages rendered approximately as they would be in the Opera Desktop browser. Literally. Pages are rendered as they were meant to be seen, but the fonts are reduced to tiny squiggles that are entirely unreadable. Once you zoom in, the text is quite readable and the page is still rendered quite well, but it requires a lot of scrolling. Opera neglects one of Mobile Safari’s tricks here: In Safari you can tap the top of the screen and scroll up to the top of the page. Doesn’t work in Opera Mini.

I quite like the way that Opera Mini deals with tabs. Rather than thumbnail the pages and make you leave the page you’re on immediately, Opera has a nice Tab bar at the bottom with a page preview.

And Opera Mini has one killer feature you don’t find in Safari: Saved pages. Have a page with directions you need to save for later? Opera will hold the entire page for later browsing.

Opera Mini with Mobile View Off
Opera Mini with Mobile View Off

Feature for feature, on paper, Opera Mini clobbers Safari. However, Opera needs to speed it up a bit and make Mini a bit more native before it’s likely to catch on. I’m really curious to see the result when Opera Mini is ported to the iPad. On a larger device with some room to breath and more system resources, Opera could be a killer mobile app.

Needs Work

I’m thrilled to see Opera Mini on the iPhone. It’s good that there’s a bit of competition in the browser space, even on the hermetically sealed iPhone. But novelty only gets you so far.

Some things are, at least in my opinion, much better in Opera. The way that it handles tabs, being able to configure the browser while you’re in the application (as opposed to having to exit and go to the main settings), and the speed dial all rock. But the actual rendering of pages, speed, and general clunkiness of the interface leave something to be desired.

But, one hopes Opera will continue development and take off some of the rough edges on Opera Mini. The Opera team definitely deserves credit for taking the risk to port to the iPhone and providing an alternative browser for those users.

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