THERE WAS A LITTLE BIT of surprise when Apple allowed the Opera Mini web browser on the Iphone, because it is competition to the Safari browser. But we have had a little bit of a test drive and might have gathered the reason. In spite of noticeable speed benefits, about which Opera has made a lot of noise, the Opera Mini browser doesn't work well in terms of being a good Iphone experience.
First up the good bits, and an examination of the speed increases which Opera believes are a good reason to defect. We tested an Iphone 3GS on an O2 3G connection, and we did see a difference when it came to rendering a full INQUIRER webpage. It took 14 seconds for the Safari browser to do it, while Opera did it in 8 seconds, almost twice as fast.
That's impressive, and if you're looking for some web sites quickly - for instance updating the football scores or checking travel times on TFL - it might be worth converting to Opera Mini. But on sites like the BBC and Facebook, which offer dedicated mobile versions, Safari and Opera matched each other for speed.
Judging by our initial experiences, browsing speed alone is not worth the download of Opera Mini. Although the browser is fast, the user experience is not up to par for an Iphone app.
You can tell with your fingertips the difference between using an Iphone and using older touchscreen devices - it's a joy rather than a challenge in swiping, moving and pressing. But with Opera Mini, it feels like they've simply ported it over from a cheaper touchscreen phone. Using Safari, touchscreen browsing feels natural, with the Opera Mini it just feels clunky, bolted on, and like they've made very little effort to get it to work like an Apple user would expect it.
It's not just the way it feels but also the way you view content that is a problem. There only appear to be two types of zoom: so far that you can't see any words, and a close zoom to see the words. And that's it. It's like one view of the earth, and one view where you've plummeted a fair distance. This is far inferior to the smooth Safari browsing, where pinch and zoom is continuous and you can see the writing as big or small as you want.
Opera Mini has no Flash capability, a fairly big annoyance but one you would have expected, so no BBC video watching or YouTube without being transferred to another app. Also there is no way to make it the default browser - if you're clicking on an email or Twitter link, you'll be sent to Safari, not Opera. There doesn't seem to be any way to import bookmarks from other browsers unless you run Opera on the desktop.
But the lack of usability is the killer problem, and unless Opera remembers what an Iphone user expects from browsing the web, this app doesn't have much hope of being regularly used by people with reasonably decent connections, even if it is free.
It's not as if the Iphone Opera Mini app hasn't got some good parts to it. The multiple tabs feature is a bit nifty, and allows you to swap through different web pages with a row of thumbnails at the bottom of the screen. There's also the speed-dial screen which gives you a choice of nine thumbnails of your favourite sites, and lets you save pages for offline viewing when you have no connection.
There is another saving grace though, which means it could be very useful if you are caught in an area with very low connectivity, or in an area where you are forced to undergo roaming charges. As well as the speed benefits mentioned, there are also options to turn off images as well as always go for the mobile version of a web site, which will speed up the experience even more as well as keep your bandwidth use low.
It's free, so you haven't got much to lose. And updates could always improve the user experience, while it could also open the floodgates for competitors like Microsoft, Mozilla and Google to try and get their own mobile browsing apps approved for the Iphone. µ