Update; The latest release of Opera Mini is version 3.1, read about it here.
There is a new beta of the next release of Opera Mini available for download. I'm sure you've heard of Opera Mini, but in case you haven't, it's a free Java ME browser that is faster, more capable and has a more efficient UI than almost any of the browsers that come pre-installed on phones. There's a page of information about the new release and download instructions here. New features in this release are:
- Secure (https) pages are now fully supported. Mini 2.0 let you browse secure sites but the transmission wasn't actually encrypted between the browser and Mini's servers. That was probably OK for gMail but certainly not for banking. Now your data is encrypted from end to end. Note that secure browsing requires the MIDP 2.0 version of Mini 3.0, which Opera calls the high memory or "HiFi" version. It doesn't really require that much more memory but your phone must support the newer Java ME MIDP 2.0 standard which most phones released in the last two years do.
- A built in RSS reader.
- Photo uploading.
- "Content folding" which is what Opera calls hiding lengthy navigation menus. It's very similar to what the Google Transcoder does. The big menu of links that appears at the top of most PC web sites is replaced by a plus sign. If you really need to see the menu, clicking the plus reveals it.
As a confirmed Opera Mini user I was eager to try out the new version. Although Opera Mini is great, there are a few small annoyances that I was hoping would be fixed in the new version.
I was especially wanted to see if a scrolling issue that apparently only effects Motorola phones was fixed. When you scroll a page with images, Opera Mini 2 will freeze for a second or two before it scrolls an image into view. Un-selecting "high quality" images in the Mini options helps somewhat. It isn't really that bad, Mini is still better than the built-in browser which takes forever to render images and can't handle pages with more than a couple full screen images. I don't think many users would have complained except that the early versions of Mini before 2.0 scrolled images with almost no hesitation. It was obvious that Opera had changed something that worsened the user experience on Motorolas. There is a long thread on the official Mini forum with Motorola owners complaining about the problem and the Opera moderator "ManneS" promising that a fix was coming. Some users went back to using the last version of Mini 1.0 (1.2.3214), but that didn't work for me because 1.0 uses a tiny font that can't be changed and which I found too small for comfort. Mini 2.0 in the High memory version gives a choice of four fonts including a couple that I could read without eyestrain.
Another improvement I was hoping for was accesskey support. If you are a regular reader of this blog you know I'm a fanatic about accesskeys on mobile pages. Unfortunately Opera Mini, almost alone among mobile browsers, doesn't support the accesskey standard. I'd made a feature request for accesskeys on the Mini forum and was hoping they had made it into this release.
Many people have been asking that Mini support file uploads of various types including photos. The camera on my i855 is so bad that I have little desire to use it let alone upload the photos anywhere, but I was curious to see if the new photo upload feature actually worked on a Motorola iDen phone on the Nextel network (Shozu doesn't).
First I had to find a way to get the beta on my phone. My carrier Nextel, blocks downloading Java apps from anywhere but their Cellmania online store and Opera is only offering the beta download OTA from a wml page. So I fired up Firefox and with the WML Browser and User Agent Switcher extensions, set the user agent to "MOT-A-3D" which identifies the browser as a Motorola i855, downloaded the .jad file, opened the .jad (which is just a text file) in notepad and copied the .jar url from the .jad into the browser's address bar to download the .jar file. Then I fired up WebJAL (It's a "liberated" Motorola developer tool that lets you load Java apps and ringtones) and sideloaded Opera Mini 3.0 onto my phone. I tried the high memory version first as it has always worked on the i855 before. The beta installed but when I ran it the phone spontaneously rebooted! I tried again a few times with the same result. So I repeated the drill to get and load the low memory version - and it worked!
Wow, what an improvement. The low memory version now offers a choice of font sizes. The default medium font was too small but large was perfect. The image scrolling problem was gone too. I loaded a 400KB page with dozens of full screen images and scrolled smoothly from top to bottom. And that was with the "high quality" image option selected - something I never did with 2.0 as it slowed image scrolling even more. Pages seem to load noticeably faster too.
The RSS reader is OK. It auto discovers feeds on web pages. If a page has a feed, an RSS icon appears at the top of the page along with a link you click to read the feed. There's another link at the top of the feed reader that lets subscribe to the feed. You can read your subscribed feeds "By Time" River of News style or "By Feed" which gives you a list of feeds to read one at a time. Mini's reader doesn't keep track of what you have read so every time you open a feed you get all the articles all over again. I prefer mobile web based readers like Bloglines Mobile or Google Reader that keep track what you have read regardless of if you read it on your mobile or PC. But you have to register for and set up web based readers. Having RSS reading functionality built into the browser makes it easy to quickly check out feeds without any setup. Reading a feed in Opera Mini strips out sidebars etc. leaving just the article's text and images which is generally more mobile friendly than reading the originating site directly - unless that site has a mobile version. The reader loads the entire feed as a single page. I think a better mobile RSS reader design is the way Google Reader and Feedalot do it - an index page listing just the item titles with links to each individual item. That way you can pick and choose which items you want to read and don't have to scroll through every item to get to ones near the bottom.
I couldn't find the photo upload feature in Mini. I suspect it's only in the high memory version. Accesskeys still don't work either - I was really hoping that Opera would add them- it seems like a simple thing but one that really enhances usability on sites like gMail Mobile where 7 deletes the current email, 4 archives it and 0 takes you to the Inbox, etc. Opera designers have obviously though a lot about usability with features like dedicated page up and page down keys and handy shortcuts for things like refresh(#,0) and jump to top and bottom of page (#,3). I don't understand why accesskeys weren't part of the design from the beginning.
Minor carping aside, I'm switching to the beta for all my browsing. The scrolling and speed improvements and the ability to use high quality images make 3.0, even in it's low memory guise, so much more enjoyable to use than 2.0. You don't give up much with the low memory version, either. The main features of Mini HiFi that I miss are the "quick dial" shortcuts (*, 1-9 takes you to your first 9 bookmarked sites) and being able to hide the page title and soft key labels.
All in all, I'm extremly pleased with Mini 3.0 even in it's LoFi version. The performance improvements, which probably only apply to Motorola users, are what I like the most. The RSS reader is nice to have and for HiFi users picture uploading and https support are pretty significant improvements. It's a beta so the sort of incompatibilities I experienced with the the HiFi version are to be expected. I recommend trying the beta especially if you have a Motorola device or a MIDP 1.0 phone and want to be able to change font sizes. The beta installs alongside your existing Mini 2.0 installation rather than replacing it so you can freely switch back and forth. Bookmarks aren't shared between the two versions and Opera warns that any bookmarks you create in the beta will not carry over to the actual 3.0 released version.
Opera believes in "One Web" and Opera Mini is billed as a "full" html browser. It certainly lives up to that billing and can load virtually any PC web page. The usability of PC sites in Mini ranges from excellent for pages (like Opera.com) that follow Opera's guidelines to just tolerable for framed, pop up laden sites but in almost every case usability is better than what you get with a transcoder. Opera Mini is also the best browser for mobile specific pages because of it's speed, image handling and powerful shortcut enabled user interface. If only it had accesskey support :).
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