Opera Mini for iPhone

Posted by Steve in the late evening on Tuesday the 13th of April, 2010

Opera Mini for iPhone was released this morning, and after some discussion on Twitter, I thought it might be useful (if only to Chris) to write up my thoughts. In general, though, I think Aral said it best:

Opera Mini: the Nokia browsing experience, now on iPhone.

Essentially, Opera Mini doesn’t feel at all like an iPhone app. The gestures are all wrong to varying degrees, the interface is jarring and detracts from the pages you’re trying to view, and it’s not fast enough (its main selling point) to justify using it over Safari (particularly given the myriad interface oddities).

Gestures

Scrolling

Let’s start with the most basic interaction we have on iPhone: scrolling. Scrolling on iPhone is fun. iPhone uses inertial scrolling; it employs real-world physics to make scrolling feel like you’re interacting with something physical with weight and friction. People sit and endlessly scroll back and forth through their lists on iPhone because it’s so tactile.

I have to admit, I spent about five minutes simply scrolling around in Opera Mini. Not because it was fun, mind you, but because it felt so badly wrong. In Opera Mini, scrolling doesn’t accelerate or decelerate in the same way as elsewhere on iPhone, or bounce back when you hit a boundary.

But then again, sometimes it doesn’t do that: sometimes, it slides at a constant rate until it stops and then jumps in the /opposite/ direction to your gesture and scrolls a little bit in that direction. Not because it hit a page edge, though (those stop scrolling dead, mostly): these reversals tend to happen just when you think you’ve got the measure of scrolling in Opera.

Then there are the invisible pseudo-boundaries Opera puts into the page: if you’re within a column in the page you’re looking at (the sort that double-tapping in Safari would fill the screen with; more on that later), Opera will put a scroll boundary around that so that flinging the page across hits that boundary and stops or, more likely, scrolls a little further vertically. I suspect these boundaries are what cause the aforementioned changes in direction, come to think of it.

Zooming

So what about the other most common gesture in Safari? Zooming in Opera is a little like scrolling: it feels like a first-cut demo that you’d get if you described how an iPhone does it to someone who had never used one, then had them build their own.

Opera Mini has two levels of zoom: in, or out. In Safari, if I want to zoom in just a little, I can zoom to exactly the level I want. I have full control. In Opera, if I’m zoomed out and pinch in either direction, for any distance, I get zoomed right in. If I’m zoomed in and pinch at all, I get zoomed out fully.

For a time, I thought that double-tap-to-zoom (in both directions) didn’t work in Opera Mini. As it happens, it does but you have to tap in exactly the same spot for both taps, or Opera considers it a scroll instead of a zoom. Unlike Safari, double-tap doesn’t zoom in on the content you tapped to fill the screen’s width, though: it simply zooms you all the way in where you double-tapped.

But that’s OK because you can single-tap to zoom in. Yes, you read that right: single-tap when zoomed out zooms you in. Know the site you’re visiting well enough that you know exactly which link you want to click on as soon as you see it? Well, tough: you have to zoom in and then click the link.

What if I want to focus on a picture that takes up two thirds of the page? I either have to look at it one bit at a time, fully zoomed in, or as a thumbnail when zoomed out.

Also: since when is zooming a browsing operation? If I’m zoomed in, why does pressing ‘Back’ zoom me out? Why can’t I just navigate back to the page prior to the current page?

Text selection

Remember the days when iPhone didn’t have copy and paste (or text selection), and how Apple’s solution seemed to fit into the OS so naturally?

Opera doesn’t. If you try to select text by pressing and holding when zoomed out, you get zoomed in (or maybe scrolled). If you try to select text when zoomed in, a spinning cursors orbits your fingertip for a few seconds and, sometimes, presents you with a popup menu. Unless you’ve lost your internet connection since loading the page, in which case it doesn’t.

Typically, this menu offers simply ‘Select Text’. If you press-and-hold on, or near, an image, the popup menu offers, in addition to text selection, the option of opening or saving the image, as you’d see in native image selection popover dialogs.

So you click on ‘Select Text’, and a serifed bar cursor (rather than iPhone’s native slab bar cursor) is inserted where your finger was. You then have to click at the beginning of the text you wish to select, and drag to the end.

Sounds like iPhone text selection, right? Wrong: you get no insertion-point loupe like you would elsewhere on iPhone, making precise selection impossible. Made a mistake in your selection? You have to deselect (by clicking away from the popover offering to copy, search, etc.) and start again.

Interface & rendering

Opera Mini really seems to have an inferiority complex.

Whenever you’re using it, the interface screams ‘you’re using Opera!’, detracting from the web pages you’re trying to read. For starters: I know I’m using Opera Mini. I clicked on the app icon on my home screen, so I really don’t need to see Opera’s logo for my entire browsing session. Sure, this is subtle and in the title bar, but it’s another un-iPhone-like touch. Worse, this title/branding bar is fixed and never leaves the screen , regardless of where you scroll.

The branding, though, pales in comparison to the ‘look at me!’ colour scheme. If I’m using a web browser, I’m using it to look at web pages. This means browser chrome should be kept to a minimum, fade into the background, and be relatively low-contrast.

It does not mean that you should make the browser chrome black and red stripes around the web page I’m trying to use. Red and black is high-contrast and, thus, attracts the eye to it. If I’m using Opera, this means my eye is drawn away from the sole reason for me using the app.

This, of course, is ignoring the fact that Opera commits the ultimate faux pas: it uses iPhone’s light status bar instead of the black status bar, despite most of the app’s chrome being black. Whilst we’re looking at visual faux pas, the settings interface is awful, using completely custom controls for everything.

All that said, there is one piece of Opera Mini’s interface that is quite nice: the tabs. Where Safari shuffles you off to a full-screen tab switcher, Opera Mini slides a pane up from the bottom of the screen with small snapshots of your tabs stacked on top of one another, with the active tab frontmost. It’s not worlds ahead of Safari’s implementation, granted, but it’s a nice differentiator.

Speed, privacy, and JavaScript

I mentioned at the outset that Opera Mini isn’t fast enough to justify using it over Safari. That’s not to say it’s not faster than Safari in terms of raw page rendering speed. The problem is that the difference in speed isn’t significant enough to justify using it over Safari, particularly when you take into account the cognitive dissonance required to use it on iPhone. Sure, the page renders a second or two faster but, if it takes you an extra half-second to second-guess everything you do, what’s the point?

This speed-boost is achieved by Opera’s servers downloading, rendering, and compressing the requested page into one bundle, then passing that back to the user’s browser. On older phones this was a boon because they were underpowered enough that rendering HTML and CSS was a significant overhead. On iPhone, sufficient processing power makes performance increase from offloaded rendering moot, but the connection-and-compression optimisation can still be a significant benefit over slow EDGE and GPRS connections.

On top of that, there’s the matter of privacy: with all the data going through Opera’s servers, you have to trust Opera. If you’re just checking the news or weather, that’s no big deal. The idea of checking email, or doing mobile online banking, through Opera Mini and, thus, Opera’s cache servers (even if nothing is cached) concerns me.

And then there’s JavaScript. Opera Mini doesn’t support JavaScript. Except where it does, which tend to be the most inconvenient places. Yahoo! Finance News, for example, sports a number of progressively enhanced personalisation features. If you visit the page in Opera Mini, it executes the first-run JavaScript but disables any further JavaScript-enhanced interactions.

It seems that Opera Mini runs JavaScript on the server such that pages are progressively enhanced, then delivers the rendered page to the client. For any progressively enhanced pages that hide the non-JavaScript interactions when they’re not needed (read: most of them), this will mean that Opera Mini users get a broken experience.

On the plus side, at least the JavaScript experience matches with the rest of the Opera Mini for iPhone experience.

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