Getting your App approved by Apple for release on the App Store sometimes requires a slice of luck, because they have been known to decline stuff without ever having to give the reason for doing so. Some people may think this is odd given the range of useless stuff which litter the store but it’s usually done by Apple to maintain their competitive advantage. So it surprised everybody when Opera announced that their Opera Mini for iPhone browser had been approved for distribution on the App Store.
Web browsers on the App Store have previously always been limited to using Apple’s open sourced WebKit browser engine, the same engine that powers Safari, and therefore haven’t been able to gain an advantage over the default Safari iPhone browser – in fact it would be fair to say that that competing Apps have fallen short because they don’t have the usability or slickness of Apple’s own products.
One of the reasons behind Opera Mini’s surprise approval may be the fact it doesn’t download or execute scripts (a big no-no in Apple’s approval process for obvious reasons) but instead the browser connects to Opera’s servers which retrieves the webpage and does all the necessary processing of the page and then in effect ‘streams’ the webpage to the browser. The reason for this is simple, speed all of the processing work needed to render a webpage is done on the server, so all the mobile device has to do render the nicely packaged and optimised data it receives from those servers.
Although the browser is fast, lets not forget that the iPhone’s Safari browser raised the bar on what was possible on a mobile device and the WebKit engine underpinning it also features in Symbian, Android and WebOS and it is in this engine that Safari has a huge advantage over Opera Mini because it renders pages beautifully. As you can see in the comparison pics below Safari displays pages far more elegantly than Opera Mini and text is almost always readable even when you’re in full page view full zoomed out, unfortunately the same can’t be said for Opera Mini. You can see in the image below the iPhone’s native Safari browser on the left and Opera Mini on the right.
Of course most browsing on the iPhone is done whilst zoomed in to a particular part of the page, this can be done in two ways either by double tapping an area of text and the browser perfectly zooms in to the correct column or by pinch to zoom any area of the screen at all. Opera doesn’t feature pinch to zoom, whether it’s tied up in various patents or will appear in the future isn’t known, instead Opera zooms in by tapping an area of the screen. Even this seems hit and miss with the browser randomly zooming different amount leaving some of the text column occasionally off the screen as shown below. You can see in the image below the iPhone’s native Safari browser on the left and Opera Mini on the right.
Once zoomed in there is the minor usability problem of Apple’s directional scroll lock not featuring this means as you’re scrolling the page it is easy to move the column off the screen unless you swipe the screen in a perfectly straight line, whereas the standard iPhone browser has the subtle but useful feature of locking the scroll either vertically or horizontally depending on what direction you first start to swipe the screen.
It’s not all bad news for Opera however, as the browser has some great features, the first thing you notice is Speed Dial, the useful homepage featuring icons of your favourite sites, there are some sites pre-populated when you first boot up Opera but you can edit those or add your own as you see fit. There is a context sensitive popup menu which you enter by touching an area of text, image or link and holding your finger down, a fullscreen mode which gets rid of the real-estate hogging title bar, and despite the apparent speed increase options to display a mobile version, which basically strips all the CSS and display the page in a simple format – great for those times when you’re away from WiFi or a good 3g signal.
There is also a choice of search engines with the default options being Google, Amazon, Wikipedia and eBay and it’s possible to manage these. One of the biggest enhancements is the addition of tabbed browsing, with each tab maintaining its separate back and forward page cache and it is hear that Opera outperforms Safari because with a press of the back button the page neatly slides in to view and displays from cache without needing to reload which happens all to often on Safari. It is well worth getting to grips with the quirks of Opera Mini for iPhone because the wealth of options and settings may mean it offers you something not found in the default browser.
- It’s fast, very fast!
- Number of great features and enhancements to the mobile browsing experience
- It’s free
- Sometimes feels clunky and inelegant
- Once you’ve experienced pinch to zoom and scroll lock, going without feels substandard by comparison
- Unpredictable zoom behaviour
When first powering up the Opera Mini browser it is easy to feel disappointed, the UI quirks and the annoyances are quick to reveal themselves and it feels out of place on the iPhone where we have been spoilt by Apple’s slick and minimalist design and subtle but useful features. However get under the hood tinker with the settings and personalise the browser to suit your needs and Opera starts to feel like a real viable alternative, and you can see why in the promo vid below.