Opera on iPhone: Prestissimo, but Just a Little Flat
Opera made an unexpected appearance at the App Store this week. Submitting its Mini browser to Apple for approval seemed like a long shot, yet here it is. Opera certainly feels faster on its feet than Safari when it comes to loading pages. It also has a few features you won't find on the iPhone's built-in browser. Zoom control, however, just isn't the same.
04/15/10 5:00 AM PT
Opera Software can be quite the prima donna when it wants to, and apparently it knows how to use that attitude to get the results it wants. This company was a main player in the recent effort to require Microsoft to offer a full menu of Web browsers each time Windows is installed in Europe. Not only must Windows ask the user which browser he or she wants to set as default (Internet Explorer or one of several rivals, including Opera), but the options must be listed in random order. Enough people picked Opera that the company considered the effort a success.
Then the company announced to the world that it had floated a version of Opera Mini to the iPhone App Store for approval. The world's response: "Yeah, good luck with that." Opera even put a timer on its site to mark the seconds/minutes/hours/days as Cupertino made up its mind. It looked mostly like an attention-grabbing stunt at the time, just because it seemed so unlikely that Apple would let a competing browser into the App Store.
Yes, Apple has allowed alternatives to the iPhone's built-in Safari browser in the past. But each of those browser apps had to use the same underlying engine; basically, they were Safari with different window dressing.
Unexpectedly, though, Apple gave Opera the thumbs up this week, and its iPhone browser is now available.
Various versions of Opera Mini have been available on other smartphone platforms for several years, and its claim to fame has usually been speed. It requests Web pages through the company's own servers, where they're compressed and redirected to the phone. That process is supposed to smooth out the act of browsing on a smaller (presumably less powerful) device.
So I had to try out the speed for myself.
Disclaimer: This is not a scientific test. I didn't have my iPhone hooked up to some virtual EKG machine that precisely measured all sorts of RAM and processor stats as I called up Web pages. In fact, this is about as quick-and-dirty a test as they come -- I was sitting there with a stopwatch in one hand and the phone in the other, and my all-too-human reaction time was in full swing. I was just doing this for the sake of assigning some kind of number to what I already knew after aimlessly browsing on Opera for 10 minutes: Opera just feels like it loads faster than Safari.
I connected via WiFi, then looked up a dozen sites on Safari and the same dozen on Opera, timing how long it took between the moment I hit "go" and the moment the page was finished loading. Some sites were simple, clean pages like Google's; some were busy with tons of ads. Opera averaged 5.82 seconds to finish loading a given page; Safari's average was nearly 14 seconds (closer to 10 seconds if you don't count the two worst-performing pages).
Like I said, this was a dirty, filthy test, calculated using at least one unreliable piece of equipment (my brain and its reaction time), and conducted in a room that probably hadn't been sterilized to laboratory standards. But it did convince me that I'm not crazy to have the impression that Opera loads faster -- it really did outrun Safari, as far as these 12 pages were concerned.
Still, speed isn't everything in a browser, particularly a mobile one, so let's look at what else Opera has to offer.
Garden of Options
Opening the browser for the first time will take you to your Start Page. It's a grid of nine favorite sites, five of which are filled in for you (you can edit all listings to suit your tastes). Below are your standard back, forward, reload, show open pages and options buttons. Above is the URL bar and a search bar. Google is the default search choice, but you can also set it to Wikipedia, eBay or Amazon. It wasn't clear how other search engines could be added, even after going into the "Manage Search Engines" options, so loyal Yahooers or Bingers might be turned off by this.
Mobile browsers usually do tabbed browsing a little differently than desktops do, just for the sake of saving valuable real estate. Safari lets you keep eight pages open at a time, and flipping through them means thumbing through a series of screens. Opera does things a little differently -- tapping the open pages icon gives you a small pop-up with a pile of screens you can sort through like a deck of cards. I kept 15 screens open at a time, and I could have gone for more, though having that many pages running caused the rest of the browser's performance to take a big turn for the worse. When I exited Opera and re-opened it, it failed to reload all my screens, and when I tried a third time, it had dumped them all. Things were much more stable when keeping a set of four or five screens open simultaneously.
The Options menu offers a wide variety of options. Bookmarks can be sorted into file folders. The start page and your saved pages can be edited from the options menu, and there's a "Find in Page" feature, which often comes in handy.
From the Settings menu (inside the wrench-iconed Options menu), you can opt not to load images, which may make the browser work faster if you're connecting under under less-than-ideal conditions. Or you can just dial down image quality rather than ditching them altogether. You can adjust font size, turn on a full-screen option (the navigation icons will hide at the edges while you read a page), or turn on "Mobile View," a feature that tends to make most of the sites I visit look like they did when I used a BlackBerry in 2006. I recommend leaving Mobile View off. Through the Privacy option, you can set it to remember your passwords (careful -- it's on by default), accept cookies (ditto) or clear all cached cookies, passwords and history.
Copy and paste is possible in Opera, though it handles it a little differently than the standard iPhone OS method. Touch and hold the screen for a second or two, and a box with the option "Select Text" appears. Click that, select your text, and you're given the option to copy or search the term.
Despite Opera's speed and its abundance of features, there's one small thing about the browser that may convince me to evict it from my bottom row and give the seat back to Safari.
Zooming just isn't the same.
Opera may load a given page faster, but unless that page is entirely written in huge font, most of the text will be pretty much illegible. Safari will make smallish type at least somewhat legible; with Opera, even when you set the font size on large, a fully zoomed-out page will often be mostly unreadable.
Granted, this sometimes happens in Safari, too, but it's not a big problem in that browser. Just spread out the page a little bit using multitouch, and suddenly you're zoomed in far enough to read the print but you still also have a wide view of the page.
That's apparently not possible with Opera. Even a slight multitouch spread of the fingers will zoom you into a particular column of text. You're either zoomed all the way out or all the way in; no in-between. Granted, Opera does a great job of discerning the width of the column and sizing it to your screen. I never had to scroll side to side just to complete a line of text when in close-up mode. And once zoomed in, you can scroll any direct for any distance you wish. But after using an iPhone for almost two years, I've grown pretty used to adjustable zooming, not just all-the-way-in or all-the-way-out. It's a bit jarring, but I'll give it a few more days to see whether I can get used to it.
I was among the doubters when Opera announced it was shooting for the App Store. I didn't doubt their app would be good -- I've used and liked Opera Mini on other handsets. I just doubted I'd ever get to see it. Yet here it is: a browser that's noticeably faster at loading pages and more feature-rich than the iPhone's baked-in browser.
For now, it appears that the trade-off involved in switching from Safari to Opera goes like this: Give up some degree of zoom control, gain some loading speed and a few features like page search and full-screen. Remember, though, that it's been a while since Apple delivered a big set of new features to Safari, so Opera might not hold these advantages for long.