MobilitySoftware

Opera Mini 5 First Look: Revving up Featurephones

Peter Judge has been involved with tech B2B publishing in the UK for many years, working at Ziff-Davis, ZDNet, IDG and Reed. His main interests are networking security, mobility and cloud

Opera is renowned for getting the best browser out of a limited platform. Opera Mini 5 gives a lot of PC-style browsing on basic phones. We are impressed. 

Opera has updated its very popular browser for low-end phones Opera Mini: Opera Mini 5 has the stated aim of making browsing so good on low-end feature phones, that users won’t need to go to the iPhone.

With typical informality, the company met me two days before the beta launch of Opera Mini 5, in the Starbucks on London’s Shaftesbury Avenue, where mobile product manager Igor Netto showed off the new browser between sips of a pink smoothie, oblivious to any interest from the other customers.

Netto reckons Opera Mini has 30 million active users, most of whom get it bundled with their phones, but many download it. It’s a client/server system, where pages are accelerated by a back-end server, so relatively puny phones can do full web browsing.

Opera’s CEO, Jon von Tetzchner, told eWEEK Europe earlier this year, that this makes Opera more important to the mobile web than the iPhone – which rejected Opera Mini as an app last year.

Opera’s desktop version has always been innovative (although the most recent version, Opera 10 is arguably playing catch-up). From Netto’s demonstration of it, the new version of Opera Mini, does a good job of bringing a lot of broswer innovations to the mobile phone.

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Netto showed me the browser using a Sony-Ericsson W995 phone – a camera optimised featurephone which runs a proprietary OS – not a smartphone.

The images here are screenshots sent me by Netto’s colleague after our meeting.

The first obvious thing is the URL window and the search window are on the same line to take up less space – they expand to the full line when in use.

Forward, back and refresh buttons appear when required.

URLs are filled in from the history, as with any sensible desktop browser.

Speed dial just like on a desktop

The thumbnail-based speed dial looks much like desktop browsers. “It’s not a dumbed down version of the desktop”, said Netto. Recently used pages are arranged in thumbnail form – and can be rearranged so favourites are displayed where you want them.

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Using the available 3G in the Starbucks, the browser gave good performance on sites including BBC and Reuters.

New pages open up in full-screen mode, and can then be zoomed and scrolled for reading. This worked smoothly on the W995, even though it is a keyboard phone, not a touchscreen device.

The browser “snaps” onto columns making reading easier.

Opera has put some thought into handling text within browser windows. It’s possible to use a long-press to highlight text, and then use it in various ways, for instance searching (using either Google or Wikipedia by default) or pasting it into other windows.

Tabs are arranged at the top, much like conventional browsers (though Opera 10 on the PC allows tabs at the side). They keep the context of each page as it was when the user left it. for a different tab. Password manager works very much like on a PC browser – passwords are stored on the device to make it easier to log into websites.

Users should of course be very careful which passwords they store in this way, and make sure they put an overall password on the deviceto prevent others getting at their accounts on different sites.

Netto assured me that although Opera Mini is a client-server browser, the passwords are only stored on the handset, not on the service provider’s server.

Touchscreens supported too

The browser supports touchscreens as well as keyboard phones. When a touchscreen is present, the toolbars and other buttons move to the bottom of the screen, so the user’s hand doesn’t obscure the page.

The URL and search bars remain at the top – they aren’t touched in the same way, and they are an important part of the user’s view of the screen. “We use the URL to identify the web page very often,” said Netto.

Conclusion

Opera has the knack of making good browsers on small screens, and Opera Mini 5 takes this to a new level.

It adds in features that you might expect only on a smartphone or a netbook, and makes a very useable experience, with lots of attention to detail, especially in usability.

At this stage it is only a beta, and we only saw it briefly but it does not have any obvious rough edges.

We’d recommend anyone with a suitable phone to download it and play, if only to appreciate the decision process of sensible mobile browser design.