Opera Review: Exciting, but not too much so

Last night I wrote a quick post about Opera Mini having been approved for the iPhone and my curiosity about when it would come to the iPad.  On the day after I’m still excited about the fact that Apple allowed a competing browser on the iPhone, but I’m quite disappointed with the browsing experience offered by the application.

The fact that Apple has allowed an application which competes with a built-in function of the device, something which was expressly forbidden, seems quite positive, specially at a moment when the company is being criticized for their moves to remove Flash from the iPhone developer’s tool chest.  While I already expected that Apple would not try to block other eBook readers from the iPhone OS devices as there were already several successful applications in that area in the App Store, browsers are a different issue all together.    For starters Safari has been one of the main features of the iPhone from day one and I wasn’t really holding my breath that Opera would get approval to have the browser in the App Store.

Well, since they did and rapidly became the most downloaded free app on the US App Store, I thought it deserved a closer look, specially since their demo video was so impressive on the speed difference from Safari.   I was quite disappointed with how the application handled pages and the iPhone touch interface, right from the start.  There were issues with elements not being redimentioned to the same proportion as the surrounding page.  This was immediately visible in the WordPress admin pages where all the sidebar section headers were rendered much wider than their sections creating a bad first impression.  I decided to try it out on the public facing portion of the blog and again there were issues with how the page was rendered.

I decided that I would not hold against the browser the fact that it could not properly render the iPad Watcher website and decided I would try it with the New York Times website as that is used in their own iTunes pictures and demo video.  Okay, the NYT website rendered okay, but I had couldn’t really read anything, so I decided to zoom in.  The touch response was horrible.  The page resized in bursts which made even short motions blow the page way too big and getting it back with a pinch yielded the exact opposite results.  The page got too small to quickly.

While Opera does load pages much faster than Safari, it seems to do this at least partially by reducing the quality of what it is rendering.  For the sake of comparison I took snapshots of the NYT home page on both Opera and Safari.  Below you can see the Opera snapshot.

Notice how you can’t really read anything on the page, other than the NYT banner on top.  This page effectively loaded in Opera Mini much faster than it did on Mobile Safari, but in order to even know what is on the paper you need to zoom in.  Unfortunately zooming while also fast doesn’t work half as smoothly as it does on Safari.  Below you can see the equivalent snapshot taken from the NYT home page in Safari.

Notice how much clearer the page is on Safari.  You can pretty much read the main headlines which is extremely useful for you to know where you’ll want to zoom in.

While Opera is only available in iPhone format, in many respects it looks like it would work better on the iPad with its much larger screen which wouldn’t require as much zooming for you to peruse the contents of a page.  From this point on we will have to see how the application evolves in the iPhone OS platform to see just how committed Opera is to providing a superior browsing experience.  The application shows promise, but it needs to greatly improve how it handles tasks with which iPhone and iPod users are deeply familiar such as gesture based zooming.

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