Opera Software just unveiled Opera Mobile 10.1 beta for Android tonight, but we've had a chance to play around with a prerelease version for several days. Opera has already had a presence on Android phones in the form of Opera Mini, a Java-based proxy browser that delivers Web pages fed through Opera's servers. Opera Mobile, by contrast, is a standalone HTML browser that can request, render, and display Web content independently of Opera's servers.
On the front end, the two apps look identical, down to the log-in screen and license agreement you'll have to accept before you can begin browsing. Opera Mini 5 and Opera Mobile 10.1 beta both have tabbed browsing, and a signature nine-entry "speed dial" for storing favorite sites. There's also a password keeper, long-press context menus, and support for Opera Link, Opera's service for syncing bookmarks, favorites, notes, and browser history across Opera browsers.
Mobile versus Mini
Despite the similarities, there are a couple of significant differences between the two Android browsers. Opera Mini is usually the faster of the two browsers, a move that hearkens back to Opera's days making browsers move quickly on feature phones with slow processors and slow data connections. As a result, Opera's servers compress Web page data; this assures that pages load in a timely manner, but it also reduces text and image resolution quality. Besides that, there's no Flash support.
Opera Mobile, on the other hand, renders images (using its Presto rendering engine) with more clarity. If the browser seems too sluggish for your tastes, you can engage Opera Turbo, Opera's compression engine, to essentially make Opera Mobile adopt Opera Mini's levels of compression and speed. Opera Mobile beta doesn't currently support Flash, although an Opera representative assured CNET that the release version will.
Naturally, we tried out Opera Mobile 10.1 beta and Opera Mini 5 side by side on Android phones. In addition to rendering more clearly, Opera Mobile displays the desktop version of CNET.com, whereas Opera Mini opts for the faster-loading mobile-optimized site, which is also lighter in content and imagery.
Opera Mini loaded m.cnet.com, CNET's mobile-optimized site, in about 4 seconds over 3G on the Samsung Transform for Sprint. It took Opera Mobile about 10 seconds to load the full version of CNET.com on the HTC Incredible using Verizon's 3G service. The difference in visual quality is apparent.
One internal test we always perform is how well a mobile browser identifies CNET's public Wi-Fi hot spot and processes its authentication page for use. Opera Mini, being a proxy browser, doesn't pass the test by definition of being something other than a standalone browser. Opera Mobile beta for Android identified an error but didn't give us a chance to accept the hot spot's terms, which means we had to use the stock Android browser to jump this hurdle before we could browse on Opera Mobile using local Wi-Fi. Hopefully this is something Opera will improve so users can surf on hot spots that require authentication, as do many in airports, cafes, and hotels.
Why both browsers for Android?
Making Opera Mobile available alongside Opera Mini is interesting for a variety of reasons, especially in light of the confusing differences between the two, as far as most Android owners could be concerned. In the end, Opera's decision to offer both comes down to practicality. Opera could quickly port a version of its lighter Opera Mini proxy browser for use on Android while the company worked on the fuller Opera Mobile. Opera has not shared its future plans for keeping Opera Mobile versus Opera Mini in the Android Market, but it's possible that "Mobile" could one day replace "Mini."
Generally, Opera Mobile's rich interface makes it a comely option on any mobile platform; however, with such a deep bench of alternative Android browsers--like Dolphin Browser HD and now Firefox for Android beta with its browser add-ons--Opera is really going to have to offer something extra to get noticed. Interface design is always one point of personal preference, but Opera's speed and rendering crispness will also play a huge role as the app solidifies.
So will its ability to engage power Android users. Opera has a history of making its overhauled browser compatible with a mobile operating system, but without programming to the OS strengths. For instance, the Android Menu button does nothing on Opera Mobile, although pinch-to-zoom is now enabled.
Android 1.6 users and above can download the free Opera Mobile 10.1 beta for Android from the Android Market or http://m.opera.com/next. It's available in 18 languages: Chinese Simplified, Chinese Traditional, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian Bokmål, Norwegian Nynorsk, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, and Swedish. If you try it out, let us know what you think of the beta software at this stage in its development.
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Article updated 11/19/10 at 10:30am PT with more analysis.