A few days ago I managed to get my hands on a beta version of Opera 9.5. As a fan of Opera on the desktop and on mobile devices, I couldn’t resist trying it out, and now I bring you the first peek at what the Norwegians are secretly brewing in their Arctic strongholds.
Warning: Beta Ahead
A word of disclaimer before we begin. As I mentioned, this is a beta version. That means that the final version may be subject to a certain amount of change. It’s unlikely that there will be major infrastructure changes, but performance and some small details of browser behavior may be altered. Or, as Daniel Goldman of Opera Software put it:
This is a pre-alpha version, and does not in any way reflect the quality of an official Opera release. It can cause data loss, harm your mobile device, and accidentally kill your cat and love life. 🙂
I’ll passingly mention that my devices, cats, and love life are all in the same condition they were before I installed the beta version of Opera 9.5.
This was the Windows Mobile version of Opera, though Opera Software also officially supports Symbian (Series 60 and UIQ) and Linux platforms. My tests were done on a VGA device over Wi-Fi, and on a QVGA device over EV-DO.
For being a pre-release version, my experience was fairly bug-free. Despite the necessity for different install files depending on whether you have a VGA or QVGA device, the only notable trouble I had was that some of the settings menus were a little finicky and didn’t want to work at times. But the browser itself performed well.
Full Screen Preview
Full Screen Mode and Zoomed In
Opera Mobile 9.5 introduces a full screen preview mode as the default way of browsing the Web — effectively shrinking the entire page to fit the screen, then letting you zoom in and out, as has become all the vogue since the iPhone came out. (Although technically, Nokia was the first one to mobile device maker to truly implement this. Not that anyone cares.)
Normally, I’ve not been a big fan of this sort of approach because it tends to result in a lot of panning and scrolling, rather than trying to reformat the page to fit the screen. And it is a bit tiresome on a small QVGA display.
However, when brought to a decent sized VGA screen, the full screen preview takes on a whole new life. You can load up even a complex web site and have it remain legible — assuming, of course, you don’t have a problem reading fine print.
In case the full-page version is too small to read, the browser also implements a tap-to-zoom feature. Simply double-tap anywhere on the page to zoom in to a specific area. You can then zoom back out, fine tune the zoom level, or just tap and drag to smoothly slide your view anywhere around the page.
Fit To Screen Mode
If you don’t like the full screen render, though, Opera Mobile 9.5 still includes a "fit to screen" option. This does an admirable job with what it has available to it sometimes, though other times it seems to fall flat. I suspect this is a feature still being worked on.
Speed and Usability
Opera Mobile 9.5 manages to be noticibly faster than both Internet Explorer and the old Opera Mobile 8.5, though not quite as fast as a desktop browser on the same connection. There are a also few small performance glitches that are more than likely going to be smoothed out in the final release.
By far the biggest flaw in the older version of Opera Mobile was its interface. OM8.5 relied heavily on multi-tiered menus, which were often frustrating to navigate even for a veteran user. In OM9.5, that’s all gone. Instead, it’s been replaced by a system that is vastly simpler and more user friendly, based on a series of a few icons that cover the major features like bookmarks, settings, and open browser tabs.
Searching directly from the browser window makes an appearence as well, though this beta was still stuck on Yahoo as its engine of choice.
Multimedia and Features
One thing which doesn’t work, at least not yet, is YouTube. Opera’s initial announcement promised Flash Lite 3 support, which means that YouTube should eventually work on OM9. However, it appears that either this hasn’t yet been implemented in the beta I tried, or it simply didn’t come with Flash Lite 3 in the installer.
Also not on the docket in this package was support for the Windows Mobile softkeys. We have also yet to see how this new browser interface will work on the versions for non-touchscreen Windows Mobile and Symbian devices.
On tap for Opera Mobile 9 is support for "widgets," tiny little plug-in applications that run under the purview of Opera. I’m not sure how well this will translate to the small screen, though, as the widgets I tried out didn’t want to resize themselves or otherwise accomodate the screen resolution, and needed to be zoomed or rotated to fit.
All in all, my first impressions of Opera Mobile 9.5 are very positive. If the final version is even better, then this application is on the path to be a serious competitor to Apple’s Safari as the most powerful mobile web browser. I suspect that once again Opera Mobile will prove itself to be an indispensable asset to serious mobile web browsers.
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