A Brief Review of Opera Mini for iPhone

Opera Mini for iPhone is fast, but at best only seems 2 or 3 seconds faster at getting to a readable page than MobileSafari over AT&T’s 3G network here in Philly. And, worse, over my home Wi-Fi network, MobileSafari is faster. I ran those tests using my iPhone 3GS. I then popped my SIM card into my original iPhone, and compared again. MobileSafari still held its own speed-wise versus Opera Mini over Wi-Fi. On EDGE, however, Opera Mini was indeed about twice as fast at rendering a web page to the point where you can start reading it. I’m almost never on EDGE, however.

The security implications frighten me. I would never use Opera Mini to log into a web site whose account or password I value.

Page zooming doesn’t work nearly as well as in mobile WebKit. When I double-tap on a column of text to zoom in, it often zooms in too far, such that the last few letters of each line are off the side of the screen. This is evident when viewing Daring Fireball itself. You can pinch-to-zoom, technically, but pinching doesn’t let you specify an arbitrary zoom level — it just zooms at large preset chunks, just like double-tapping.

Typography is crippled — even web fonts such as Verdana and Times don’t come through — everything, seemingly, is rendered in Helvetica. A great font if you’re only going to choose one, but still: the rest of the web is moving toward more font choices, not fewer. Overall, web pages don’t look quite right in Opera Mini.

The user interface controls — buttons and menus, etc. — neither look nor quite act like native iPhone controls. The Opera Mini browser chrome looks like a web app rather than a native iPhone app. But I doubt the issue will rank highly on most users’ lists of complaints. Update: Riccardo Mori has a good overview of Opera Mini’s interface.

Worst of all: scrolling. The iPhone uses a heuristic when you flick to scroll, such that if your finger is mostly moving up or down (or left or right) it locks you into that dimension when scrolling a view — such as a zoomed-in web page — that could be scrolled in any dimension. The effect is that when you’re zoomed in on a column of text in MobileSafari and flick “up” to scroll down, the view moves straight down, even if your flick gesture was a few degrees off. On Opera Mini, however, scrolling a zoomed-in view moves in exactly the direction of your flick gesture. The result is that scrolling an Opera Mini page feels like sliding a sheet of ice on an oil slick. Unfortunately for Opera and everyone else, Apple has been awarded a patent for this scrolling heuristic — and it’s one of the patents they’re suing HTC for violating. So it’s possible that Opera’s engineers are perfectly aware of how unpleasant scrolling is in Opera Mini, but they’re forbidden from doing anything about it.

I can’t see recommending this app to anyone other than those who use the EDGE network frequently.

But: it’s free.