I changed mobile handsets with some girl at work (she needed to test stuff on a Nokia 6600, which is what I usually carry around), and I got a Nokia 6280 which is a Series 40 handset (Release 2).
So I took liberty of going to Opera’s web site (using the built-in Nokia browser which does XHTML, which makes it not completly useless, but it generally just sucks), and downloaded their latest mobile browser offering (for the not so mobile usage, check out the latest 9.0 TP2). I’ve heard a lot about it – I use the Opera Series 60 symbian version (8.5 currently) and everytime I visit their “My Opera” page there’s a “mini” ad on top.
To sum it up, the Opera Mini is nothing short of brilliant. It has it bad points, but those are few and have minimal impact. The first thing you’d notice with the Mini is that its fast, or at least incredibly responsive. I’ve yet to try it on a Release 1 handset, like the Nokia 6100 – and I expect that to be slower, but the behavior of the Opera Mini on the 6280 is very slick: it is very responsive, the smooth scrolling is, well, smooth and everything you click responds with an immediate feedback. The Symbian version on Series 60 (both Release 2 and Release 3) is noticeably much more slugish then its smaller sibling on a smaller and lighter handset.
The next thing is the design – the red theme (which is not all that noticable as there is very small amounts of “chrome” about the interface, its mostly displayed pages, even bookmarks and settings) is very neat and nice to look at. In addition the interface is full of nice tidbits that makes life so much nicer with the Mini: the “stop” functionality of the right multi-key is clearly marked when the rest of the bottom interface is given to a progress bar; The scroll bar is always visible and looks just like a normal scroll bar from a desktop appliaction (it does take some screen realstate, but its so useful like this that its worth it); The top part shows the site’s title, there are gradients and shadows everywhere giving the interface that sleek touch, and most importantly – there is a large clock on the bottom bar, between the two multi-keys. I’m not sure what the guys at Opera were thinking when they put it in, but I find it histerical, and oh so useful (its a good idea to keep a track of the time when you’re surfing the web 😉 ). I didn’t expect to see a clock there, but its a neat idea and now I want one on the Symbian Opera.
The “homepage”, which is the page that you first see when you open the Mini, is very useful with an address bar, a google search box, some bookmarks (which you can choose from the full bookmarks list), an “Other services” entry which I didn’t get but could do without and the last 3 URLs from the history. The main problem with the Mini – or rather with the Series 40 itself – is that there is no multitasking in the operating system, so unlike with the Series 60, when you want to switch to do something else for a while, you have to close the current application and when you need it again you have to start it again from the begining (and due to some reason, if the app needs to access the network, you have to approve the access manually every time it starts). So the homepage allows you to keep track of where you were and what you are doing by showing you the last few pages you visited as history is kept across restarts of the browser.
Another highlight is the navigation: Opera Mini returns to the navigation style of Opera 6 for Symbian, but in reverse. Version 6.x of Opera for Symbian allows you to choose links by moving the directional control (joystick or pad) left and right, and to page with up/down. The current Symbian version – 8.x – dispensed with the paging and uses both up/down and left/right to select links and scrolling pages quickly you have to do some annoying key juggling (as I’ve mentioned in a previous post). The Mini on the other hand brings back the paging capability but in reverse: up/down choose links and left/right pages up or down – which sounds weird but after a few runs it gets to be second nature and besides – on the verticaly scrolled display of the pages it makes much more sense to use the up and down motions to select links (and like with the Opera browser for Symbian, if the next link is out of view, the view scrolls up or down to it automatically). Having the pager “smooth scroll” the view is just a bonus (and its configurable), but its fast and makes paging much more usable.
One anoying issue I have with my Nokia 6600 is that neither the built-in Nokia browser nor the Opera can access GMail mobile. I can access the regular “basic HTML” version of GMail with the Opera, but its not easy to use. With the built-in browser, GMail complains about incomatible browser (though its supposed to work – the built-in browser of the Nokia 6280 works), while the Opera complains about broken a XML page. As mentioned, the Nokia browser for the 6280 works with GMail mobile, but Opera Mini does so much a better job at displaying it. Its just looks so much better. When I access the GMail mobile with Opera Mini, it displayes at the top of the page a warning message saying that the communication to the site is not encrypted. I assume it means to say that the username and password will be sent in the clear, but I’m not sure who displays this – the browser or the site: on one hand, GMail mobile through the Nokia browser is not showing this warning, on the other hand other web mail or login forms I access with Opera Mini don’t have that warning. Except for this the only issue I have with GMail on Opera Mini is that the shortcuts for the menu commands do not work – pressing the number keys does nothing. Which brings me to the major disappointment I have with the Opera Mini – no shortcuts: The Symbian version offers key-bindings for all of the numerical keys on the handset, to do actions you often need, such as ‘add bookmark’ or ‘go to url’. The Opera Mini is noticeably lacking this feature and I find it a shame that 11 buttons are completly unused when using the browser. The only key that does something is the ‘*’ key which similarly to the Symbian version changes the screen mode and allows you to remove the top and bottom chrome and to get back some more screen realestate for the page view. It also toggles between showing the title of the page and the URL in the top bar, which is another nice touch.
I would also like to comment about the image display capabilities of the Opera Mini: it works 🙂 . Again comparing to the Symbian version, where you can select either to have images turned off, or turned on in which case the browser loads the full images, scales them to the screen and then struggles to display them as you scroll up and down – struggle being the operative word here: its really hard for it and it repaints the images again and again when you just move the view slightly. And starting with version 8, the Symbian browser will download the images from the web site even if its not going to display them, there by increasing render time and your phone bill (I think its done on purpose to get you to buy Opera’s Mobile Accelerator service). Compared to that abysmal performance (which causes me to always have images turned off) it was so surprising that the Opera Mini does such a good job – and not even relatively: it comes with images turned on by default (you can use the settings page to turn them off if you want), but it loads them quickly (somehow it only loads lower quality versions or some such – the settings page allows you to choose what quality of images to download), renders them smoothly and having images turned on does not slow down the browsing at all!
I also found the non-browsing parts of the interface to be done really well: the menu is simple and clear, both the bookmarks and settings are rendered as regular pages with just a bit of extra functionality – which is a much nicer interface I think.
The problems with this appliation are all rather minor – the missing shortcuts; The fact that the GPRS indicator of the phone’s operating system is obscuring the web site’s icon or the start of the title; The non-existance of a wallet feature, like in the desktop and Symbian versions, which tracks passwords; And that if you click on a link and then click on another link on the same page before the next page starts to load, there is no visual feedback – with the extremly poor tactile feedback of the 6280’s directional pad this is somewhat of a problem.
The browsing experience provided by the Opera Mini is so far superior to any browser I’ve used on a mobile handset – including Opera’s Symbian browsers – that the above problems simply don’t matter: If you want a browser for your phone, get the Opera Mini. The fact that its free to use is only the sugar coated topping 🙂
(P.S. As a paying customer for the Opera Symbian version, I find the fact that the Mini is distributed for free a bit insulting – but I’ll live).