My Ode to Opera Mini 4
The Beta version of Opera Mini 4 released today, and I gave it a test drive.
First of all, let me say that I've always liked this Java ME mobile browser, mainly because it gave you full web pages at an amazing speed, so much so that the native browser on my smartphone has very rarely been taken out for a ride on the old WWW.
Personally, I love the idea of a fast, nimble application for the masses, a no-nonsense, beautifully optimized and crafted piece of software whose function defines its form. If Apple's iPhone Safari is a tawdry, dressed-up dandy who prances about in voluminous costumes, then Opera Mini is a quiet, earnest, and honest young man who dresses plain, but works hard and fast and gets the job done.
Perhaps many people share my opinion, because Opera Mini is only a year and a half old, but it has already accumulated some really amazing statistics.
- It has more than 15 million user downloads.
- It has served more than 3 billion web pages.
- It is the most popular mobile browser by far, and it will remain so for the foreseeable future.
- It has a larger marketshare than some desktop browsers like Mozilla, and even some major desktop browsers like Safari in certain areas of the world.
However, I was never that satisfied with the look and feel of pages rendered by Opera Mini, and the lack of a virtual mouse was glaring when compared to the bulkier and slower, but more full-featured native mobile browsers. So, I downloaded the new Opera Mini 4, and was instantly floored by the advances made since version 3 just a few months back, and by the fact that not all of the new features for version 4 made it to this beta version, so we're in for more good surprises later on.
I'll hasten to add though, that even with all the new advances, this mobile browser is still blazingly fast, mainly because the server-processed pages coming in are but a fraction of the size of full html pages.
But it's the new features that look to make my mobile web browsing much better.
First, like some native mobile browsers, Opera Mini now sports a virtual mouse that can be moved using my Nokia 9300's joystick. I noticed that I barely used it anyways when testing, but it's good to know that it's there when you need it.
Second, the pages rendered were significantly closer to the original than the previous Opera Mini browsers. For example, images were not stacked on top of text content, but were aligned correctly within the full context of the page. The screenshot below shows the BD-J reviews index page, where the images are right justified and the text content aligned in order along the left side. Clicking on the boxed text magnifies that area for close-up reading, as seen on the next screenshot.
Third, as can be seen in the screenshot above, Opera Mini clearly highlights in a bluish tinted transparent box any links in the page as you scroll close to them. This is one of the best new features among the lot, as it makes easy navigation a cinch compared to the older Opera Mini, which had a much less visible link highlighting scheme.
Obviously, the Opera Mini might not compare favorably in terms of rendering to some high-end browsers running exclusively on more powerful mobile devices, but that is mainly because this gem was crafted such that the varying versions would work in as wide a range of devices as possible with minimal changes, and some of these devices are magnitudes less capable than the higher-end smartphones. Indeed, the fact that the Opera Mini has improved so much and gone so far in so short a time is a testament to the dedication and innovation of its creators. Since feature phones have on the whole gotten more powerful and capable as time passes, it would not surprise me at all if this application gains so many features that it may even threaten the survival of the bulkier native browsers.
For those who'd like a taste of this new beta version without the need for a mobile device, Opera provides a nifty Java SE simulator, but I felt running it on my actual phone showed its capabilities better than the somewhat diminutive screen of the simulated cellphone. In addition, because of the large screen size of my Nokia 9300, I had no need for the magnification "tricks" used in the demo, which has a much smaller screen size.
Here's a screencast of the Opera Mini 4 running on the simulator, courtesy of Screencast-o-Matic, a very useful and really cool applet-based screenshot service.
For those with an itch to lambast the perhaps Java ME-less iPhone a la Hinkmond Wong, here's an interesting vignette from the Opera people comparing their gem of a browser to the iPhone (I know, don't ask me why they're comparing software to hardware, I don't have the latest flash and could not see the film). Opera Mini is free and works with most cell devices, while the iPhone - well, it's expensive, closed and proprietary, over-hyped, and comes with the horribly crappy Safari browser (who even my Mac friends have abandoned for Firefox).