The Mobile Web Goes Widescreen with Opera’s Beta Browser

Posted by Matthew Murphy on Thursday, October 4th, 2007. Filed under: eHub Features

I’ve been using Opera’s Java-based mobile browser for what seems like eternity. I don’t even remember how it ended up on my phone to begin with. What I do remember is that it has outperformed every other mobile browser I’ve tested on my handset. You can bet that I went straight to the Opera Mini website as soon as I found out that a new version, version 3.1, was ready for download. When I got there, I almost missed the link to the new beta version of Opera Mini 4.

There hasn’t been a lot of shouting lately about this new version of their already successful software. Short posts appeared on many popular blogs, but they were quickly drowned out by other news. (iPod Touch, anyone?) The relative quiet is a bit surprising, however, considering the amount of innovation found in the new beta. Frankly, if I were on the Opera development team, I’d be dancing around the office furniture right now.

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You can tell already that this review is going to be a little biased, since I’ve already mentioned that I’m a long time user of previous versions. At least, if you stopped here, you’d already know it’s a good product. Despite my bias, there are a few annoyances that I want to get out of the way before we really get going with things.

First, I’m getting tired of having to manually transfer my Opera Mini bookmarks from version to version. It’s sort of a nice way of weeding out the bookmarks I’m no longer using, but there should be some way of importing and exporting your Opera Mini bookmarks. With their My Opera service already in place and optimized for their Mini browser, what are we waiting for? My second gripe is actually rather similar. There’s no way for me to send the pages I’m viewing on my mobile handset anywhere else. They’re stuck inside my handset. Scenario: I’m reading something on Emily Chang’s eHub. It’s a great article that I want to blog about later. Even my crummy native browser allows me to forward the web address of the page I’m viewing to another phone or email address. For all the kudos I give browser, I really feel that this is a handicap.

Now that my griping is done, let’s look at a few reasons why I’m such a fan. I’ll start with the number one reason I’ll never go back to my phone’s native browser. Widescreen viewing on a two inch screen rocks! Seriously, you can switch back and forth between landscape and traditional viewing. Landscape view lets you see more of the page without having to scroll side to side or crunch everything into one ugly column. There’s a keypad shortcut that switches your view, (“*” + “#”) and when the view switches, your keypad navigation translates as well. Meaning that no matter which way you like your screen orientation, down is always down.

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The navigation is heads above previous versions as well. While your directional keypad controls an onscreen cursor and precision scrolling, you can use your number pad for turbo scrolling. Pressing “8” (or “4” if you’re in landscape mode) moves you down a full screen at a time. This is excellent for scanning content or viewing search results. Another new navigation feature, pressing “5” allows you to zoom in/zoom out on a page. Zoom out, scan the page for the content that you want, and zoom in to view it. No more scrolling around trying to find where the actual article begins on a blog page full of advertising and affiliate links! Check out the demo video on the Opera Mini site to get the full effect.

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Apart from being able to move through your content quicker that before, this new version claims to render pages quicker as well. Honestly, I can’t say I’ve seen a marked difference. After all, it depends on your connection, signal strength, bandwidth, etc. That is, I don’t see much of a difference between this beta version of Opera Mini and the latest stable version. Both version kick sand in the face of my phone’s native browser when it comes to rendering.

The one technical item I’ve noticed since my upgrade is that the beta is inconsistent about which `page is pulls if the site is set up to auto-detect a mobile browser. In some instances I’ll see Lifehacker’s mobile format, and other times I’ll see the full html version. There are some instances where the m.* prefix, commonly used for mobile-friendly versions of existing sites, has been overridden or ignored. The WordPress mobile-friendly site has been subject to this on more than one occasion. While this could be due in part to how the site is coded, I have yet experience this in the latest stable release.

As I mentioned early on, I’m a long time fan of the Opera Mini browser, and I think that this beta version just completely outstrips their previous versions and puts my native browser to shame. I love the landscape viewing and the turbo navigation. Between the fast rendering and the navigation enhancements, I can get through content in about half the time. (Which, as Opera’s site points out, saves you money if you pay for data transfer.) Admittedly, I’d really like to not have to manually transfer my bookmarks each time we do an upgrade, but this time it was worth it the effort. And if all this isn’t enough to convince you, they’ve put together an Opera Mini vs. iPhone comparison that will make even an iPhone user laugh.