A new version of Opera for Mobile just came out, which is a version of the Opera desktop web browser, but for cellular phones and other hand-held devices (unlike the previous versions, the new one has support for PDAs: Qtopia Linux based, Nokia Symbian based, Psion based, but curiosly no PocketPC version, although a Windows “smart phone” version is available for Windows CE cellular handsets).
Its about time that a new version came out – the previous version of Opera that I had installed on my Nokia 6600 was 6.20, which is an oldie. It is very good compared to other offerings (almost none of them) and beats the crap, two hands down, out of the Nokia built-in WAP/XHTML browser, but I was missing a lot of features that I find important – for example, BiDi support – and it tended to crash often, especially when viewing relativly large pages.
All in all, the Opera Mobile 6.20 was a good product – their “Small Screen Rendering” (SSR) feature makes web sites that were designed and tested for desktop viewing, usable on the tiny screens of cellular handsets. Its navigation interface was very usable and when I had to use the built-in Nokia WAP browser instead of Opera, I often mistakingly tried to use the Opera key bindings – which except for an innovative use of the joystick (up/down pages while left/right skips links) also bind often used functions to the numeric keypad, mainly I guess because I got used to it so fast that its impossible to imagine that other browsers don’t work that way.
Opera released a version 6.31, but only for UIQ devices (Symbian OS for SonyEricsson devices) so I couldn’t upgrade to it – while SonyEricsson UIQ and Nokia Series 60 are both based on almost identical versions of the Symbian OS, they use a different GUI API and so applications compiled for one will not work on the other. Really stupid of them, if you ask me – just causes more work to application developers and segments the market, causing both platforms to have less applications available to each of them, though Nokia’s Series 60 currently has the better market and thus they probably have no reason to interoperate.
So out comes Opera Mobile 8 and I of course download and install it. After playing around with it for a while, I can say this – they got BiDi in. Which was no great surprise, as Opera desktop supported Bidi properly since about version 6, and the mobile version probably reuses much, if not all, of the renderer code from the desktop release (some version of it anyway – I’m under the impression that Opera Mobile 6.20 uses pre-6 release renderer).
Another small improvement, is that movement between tags recognizes the end of the page (another great feature from Opera 6.20 – you can set tags on the page and jump quickly between them by pressing 3. Opera would automatically set up a tag where the real document starts, allowing you to quickly skip all the navbar and side pannels that people like to use). Previously, on a new page, invoking tag movement would transport you between the top and the start of the page. Now it also will get you to the bottom – which is great if you are looking for something at the bottom of the page and don’t want to page down a very long text.
But that’s the gist of it – the rest is down hill:
- Its huge! 6.20 weighted in at under 800k, the new 8 is 1.4MB before installation, which is almost twice as much.
- They haven’t solved the crashing problem – possibly its worse now: I get crashes in sites that I never (or rarely) had crashes before, such as slashdot.org.
- Downloads still cannot be resumed – if the browser crashes or is otherwise stopped while a download is in progress, the only option is to delete the download and hope that you can remember how to get to the page where it was initiated.
- The “small screen rendering” which was a boon in the previous versions now makes browsing even more anoying then in other browsers – text is packed incorrectly, and worse: images – when in “cached images only” mode – used to take only the required space to fit the “alt” text inside a border, now images keep their original size even when not loaded. If a web site features a small, 200×200 pixels or so, image it fills the entire screen and I have to scroll a full screen down to get to the important text. The older version was instead either displaying a small box or not at all, so one could get right to the text of the matter.
- Upgrading from an earlier version will remove all your bookmarks. You have been wardned
- Navigation is a mess ! They threw out the old and usable navigation mode, and instead they have this convulated “feature”: moving around with the joystick in short steps (press, release, press, release, press, release…) will select links in sequence in the direction you are pushing. This is incredibly anoying:
- When you are browsing in a single line of links that has ward warped into a few lines on the narrow handset display, when you get to the last link on the right, pressing ‘right’ again will do nothing – you effectivly bumped into the the physical edge of the screen. You need to go left all the way and then down.
- And no – you can’t do it the other way around (down and then left) – if the next line is not full, and there is no link under you, the cursor will jump to the next link directly under – which might be on the next screen
- Basically – if the links on the page are not ordered in some vertical or horizontal manner, its a guessing game where the next joystick movement would put the cursor.
Now, in order to page down/up, you either have to cursor in the required direction through all the links on the page (press, release, press, release, press, release…) until you get to the last visible link, then another push will scroll the display a bit (about 10% of the screen height) and move you to the next link. Alternativly you can press and hold the joystick, in which case you will be reworded with no cursor movement but a fast scroll up or down (no left or right, as we use SSR). Also, getting to, for example, the top of the page, and the cursor isn’t at the first link, if I press up and hold (by mistake, I didn’t release fast enough) – the cursor will not budge. I have instead to stop what I’m doing, and then press and release quickly.
In the older model I could quickly browse pages (while reading) by pressing up or down, or traverse a list of links quickly by holding left or right. Now I can’t do either – traversing links in logical document order is all but impossible, and browsing pages is a complicated physical excersise where you need to press and hold the joystick and the second the page starts to move, you have to immediatly release the joystick. Now if you want to browse through the pages, looking for something – you need to do it over and over again. Kind of reminds me the old (circa 1986) Activision Decathlon game where you operated the athlets by rapdily swinging the joystick from side to side – the faster you hit it, the faster your avatar ran. It was a great way to wreck your joystick and get muscle cramps at the same time :-). Now Opera brings this ingenious interface back to life.
All in all, I can’t say there is much improvement in the current crop. I’m really sad that they broke the SSR, and the navigation is completly shot to hell. I’m going to play with it a while longer, and if I eventually keep it (assuming Opera isn’t going to release an update that fixes all of my problems) its going to be because of the improved Hebrew support – with the older version I had to use the Nokia WAP browser to read Hebrew sites, which was always a bad idea as it can’t handle complex and not completly standard compliant sites (which is sad to say, a very very rare thing to find on the Israeli web). Now I can at least get some info from large Hebrew sites such as YNet.