April 14, 2010

Apps Weekly: Opera Mini + Orion Racer

Apple introduced a new firmware version (to be released June-ish) and one of the biggest controversies surrounding the new terms and conditions Apple set for iPhone app developers was that if developers used anything other than Apple's supplied tools to build an app (somewhat like an app being emulated through a system that bypasses Apple's own), the app would be rejected. It's hard to say for now if the fire Apple is getting prompted them to actually approve the app I'm about to review, but this somewhat surprising move is a sign that Apple actually has a heart despite the megalomaniacal quest for control of the platform. At least that's how PR for the company would be.

But now that I'm severely off-topic and unwilling to think of some witty segueway for the review, I'll just say "LET'S GET ON WITH THE REVIEW".

Opera Mini
Opera Software ASA
Compatible with iPhone 2.2.1 or later

Apple's SDK rules dictate that if a developer were to create a browser, the browser cannot execute proprietary engines and must run off Safari, so basically, most of the browsers in the App Store are pretty much Safari with a new skin. Opera, however, is not a new skin, but it doesn't run off a proprietary engine either. What Opera Mini is, since its Java versions a long time ago, is basically a browser that compresses a web page you want to visit by as much as 90% and displays that version of the website on the screen, slimming down the expenses made on your cellphone bills considerably. This is done through Opera's own servers, which may actually prove a security risk for banking or shopping sites, but I'll elaborate more on that later.

First and foremost, you shall see the "Speed Dial" screen which lets you go to a favorite website in a tap of a thumbnail.

Like the desktop and Java versions, these slots are customizable.

Also brought over from those versions are real, full-fledged tabs.

When you tap a certain menu item below the screen, you'll be able to see the thumbnails of the web pages you have open, and you can scroll to the end to open a new tab. This system is quite slick and fast compared to the Safari version of tabs, and it's extremely easy to just leave a tab while it's loading and open another tab to load another page.

Like any browser, Opera also offers Bookmarks, History, and access to Settings. What Safari doesn't have that Opera has is a basic (but sorely needed) "Find in Page" feature, the ability to access your favorite pages in a cached state ("Saved Pages") and a Help manual.

In the Settings, you'll be able to customize the quality of images, size of text, the ability to enable "Opera Link" and more.

I'm not gonna delve too much into "Opera Link" (because I didn't try it), but if you do use Opera on a computer, you'll be happy to see that this will enable the iPhone and the computer to sync together. This means that whatever Bookmarks and pages are open and stored in the computer will be transferred to the iPhone.

What I am going to let you see is the "Fullscreen mode" and it's basically the app hiding out most of its interface elements and leaving out two buttons that'll let you summon said interface elements.

Another thing that Opera has a leg up on Safari is the ability to switch between search providers on the fly.

Granted, you can't really add more search providers to the list even in the settings, but the ability to choose is much appreciated. A feature that actually makes search super-easy is that you can actually select a block of text and you can just tap "Search" and the block of text will instantly be copied to the search field, saving you much time copying and pasting.

At this point, Opera Mini sounds like a real threat to Safari, but like any product, it has its flaws. One criminal flaw is the inability to granularly specify a zoom level, meaning that you're stuck in two levels of zoom:

This is the zoomed out view of a typical website...

...and a single tap will bring you a close-up. That close-up will be the only zoom level you'll be afforded, meaning that you won't be able to pinch the screen and zoom it out slightly, because that will only bring you the zoomed out version of the whole website. This kind of sucks, quite frankly, but that's not to say it actually makes browsing near impossible.

To save time, I've made a little side by side comparison of Opera Mini and Safari all running my blog.

If you noticed, Opera Mini does quite the crappy job of rendering certain web page elements, like my Shoutbox which becomes downright unusable. Apparently, the compression also seems to be limited to rendering a standard, bland font, which makes the web page look rather iffy. In addition to that, the system with which Opera actually displays web pages can be quite the security risk. Since Opera sends out the URL you want to visit to their own servers first before displaying it all, anything involving user names and passwords may be at risk in case an Opera employee goes rogue. If a log-in screen is sent for compression, all that private data will be transmitted to Opera and it might instill quite a bit of paranoia now that I think about it. If you're gonna do that, please please please use Safari.

Despite its flaws, Opera Mini is a perfect mobile browser for iPhone users that surf with 3G or GPRS because the real goal to the browser in the first place is giving you the web in smaller chunks of data, thus putting less strain on the network, as well as your pocket. It's not about rendering web pages perfectly, which means that if you're gonna use a Wi-Fi hotspot anyway, you might as well use Safari to see web pages in the way it was intended. But if you're really into speed, Opera Mini can and will do the job for you. Now it must also be noted the Opera Mini is merely a first generation product, and updates will happen. For now though, I don't see much reason in switching to this one, other than to save some time and money, which for a lot of people, is reason enough.

Rating: 7/10

Now let's go see a little game that looks promisingly fun, and it's called Orion Racer.

It looks like a basic racer, because it kind of is, but hopefully the space motif and hovering going on will bring on a sense of speed, which is actually the appeal to these types of racers.

There are a few unlockables to be found, and... well, it's pretty barebones. The crisp visuals and general fun to be had with a racer can justify the not too demanding $2.99 the developers offer, and I'm off to download this one myself.

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