When surfing the Net on the go, fast load times are paramount, which is why Opera Mobile is so intriguing. This mobile browser loads full desktop web pages in less than half the time it takes competitors, making it highly compelling for those with short attention spans or weak 3G signals. But is Opera Mobile's sheer speed enough to make up for its lack of features compared to other mobile browsers?
Opera Mini's interface does a decent job of balancing simplicity and functionality. When not in full-screen mode, the basic interface includes a title bar at the top, an address bar and multi-search field below, and a toolbar at the bottom. The title bar and toolbar are persistent, though Address/Search disappears as you scroll down a web page, giving a little more screen space. In full-screen mode the title and toolbars disappear along with Android's notification bar.
We like the dedicated search field next to the address bar; just a tap expands it to the full screen width, revealing a dropdown of search choices. Similar to Firefox, users can search multiple sources--including Google, Amazon, and Wikipedia--and add their own favorites.
The toolbar at the bottom has the basics: Back/Zoom Out, Forward, Refresh, Windows/Tabs, Tools. Access to other oft-used features, such as bookmarks, full screen toggle, and mobile view toggle, is two to three taps away; we prefer to have these options in a more readily accessible location. However, this issue is mitigated somewhat by the browser's robust keyboard shortcuts. Though these shortcuts are not as elegant a solution as Dolphin HD's gestures, and they're not useful for touchscreen-only phones, we appreciated the extra functionality.
There's also the Start Page, another feature we're used to from desktop browsers. Available from the Tools menu or whenever the user creates a new tab, this page contains up to nine user-defined bookmarks, making it easy to go to your favorite websites right away.
Opera Mini's multitouch capabilities aren't as smooth or intuitive as those of Dolphin HD, Skyfire, or the native Android browser. There is only one level of zoom; users can pinch to zoom out or double-tap, but the pinching motion doesn't move through several successive levels of zoom as we're used to. The lack of fine control over zoom levels was annoying, but not a deal-breaker. In Settings we were able to control how big the text would be when zoomed in (small, medium, or large), and long pages were easy to scroll when zoomed out.
Though Opera Mini is supposed to intelligently snap to columns to make reading and vertical scrolling easier, we didn't find this to be the case most of the time. When zooming in or scrolling either horizontally or vertically, the browser didn't make staying in one column easier nor did it consistently snap to large blocks of text. Even when there was a single column of text on the page, scrolling up and down required far more precision on our part as the browser responded to every little movement of our thumb; most other browsers kept us on track unless we very deliberately moved our thumb left or right.
Users can choose whether the browser loads the full or mobile versions of sites by default under Settings, something that Dolphin HD doesn't offer. And if you change this setting during a browsing session, Opera offers to reload all open pages with the new setting. However, when switching from the full to the mobile version of NYTimes.com, Opera didn't switch from NYTimes.com to Mobile.NYTimes.com; instead, the browser loaded a version of NYTimes.com with all the styling stripped out.
Opera Mini allows users to have more than a dozen windows open at once. The Tabs button on the toolbar shows how many are currently open, and tapping the button displays thumbnails of each open site. Switching between tabs is fairly easy and shuffling between thumbnails is fun, but once we got beyond five or six tabs, finding the right thumbnail--even on a screen as large as the Evo 4G--became tough.
On Android 2.1 phones, Flash 10.1 plays as well with Opera Mini as it does in the stock browser. Sites where Flash elements or videos were available didn't load at first, but tapping one would activate them all. On pages with too many instances (e.g., seven videos in a row) the browser slowed down considerably.
Features and Settings
Opera Mini's setting and customization offerings are slim, which isn't surprising given the developer's emphasis on a lean, fast app. While Dolphin HD's themes aren't necessary for a great browsing experience, Opera Mini could do with a similar bevy of customization options and settings. For instance, Opera Mini's privacy settings let users save or clear passwords, cookies, and history; but there's no way to clear the cache, or save or delete form data. Also, there's no private browsing option like Dolphin offers.
One of the included functions we do like is Opera Link, which synchronizes Speed Dial settings, bookmarks, and the search engines between Opera Mini and Opera on the desktop. Just as with Dolphin HD, users can save pages for later reading, but Opera Mini handles the task better. Instead of saving the page as an HTML download, Opera Mini keeps it sequestered in the Saved Pages area so users won't have to hunt through all the other downloads to find it again.
One feature conspicuously missing from Opera Mini is the ability to share web pages or links using social networks. Dolphin HD, Skyfire, and even the default Android browser all have this capability either right on the main screen or just a tap or two away.
Opera Mini's "streamlined rendering engine and server-side compression" promise to speed up load times on web pages and use much less bandwidth than other browsers. To test the former claim, we loaded several websites heavy with images plus Java and/or Flash elements using the Motorola Droid X and a 3G connection.
Compared to Dolphin Browser HD, Skyfire, and the stock Android browser, Opera Mini is lightning fast. The full/desktop version of Laptopmag.com loaded in 5.7 seconds on average, and NYTimes.com loaded in an average of 6.3 seconds; both of these times were more than two and three times faster, respectively, than Dolphin HD, Skyfire, and the Android Browser. When it came to the mobile version of ESPN's site, the time difference was much less; while Skyfire was still the fastest, at 4 seconds, it took Dolphin just 5 seconds, and the stock browser 5.7 seconds to load the same page.
If these speeds are still too slow for you or if your phone's connection isn't the best, users can choose not to load images by default and toggle image quality between low, medium, and high (under Settings) to speed up download times.
Opera Mini's lightning-fast load times and conservative bandwidth usage are great for users with high-cost data plans, slow connections, or little patience. However, the browsing experience and the skimpy suite of settings bring this browser's rating down. Though you might not want it as your default, Opera Mini is an excellent backup choice for speedy browsing in low-bar areas.