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Speed test: Bolt Mobile browser vs. Opera Mini

We pit the freshly released Bolt browser 1.5 for Java phones against Opera Mini (4.2) to see which renders pages faster and better.

Bolt browser 1.5
Split screen is Bolt's take on zooming.

We were impressed with the Opera Mini 5 beta browser, which came out in mid-September. At CTIA Wireless 2009, a smaller player, Bolt Browser, leaves its beta behind to chase after Opera's dominance as an alternative browser for Java phones.

We liked what we saw the first time we tested out Bolt as a beta (video review) on a Samsung Propel. Bolt's rendering felt truer than Opera Mini 4.2 on many sites, but it didn't seem faster. Now that Bolt has shucked off its beta, we find performance essentially unchanged.

True, Bolt has undergone some cosmetic alterations, such as a Google search box that's separate from the URL bar, and a welcome download manager that lets you download files as well as upload. It also caches pages now, so you can jump back to the previous page without reloading it. Bolt 1.5's new video manager selects the best of three delivery mechanisms for streaming video on your device, including triggering your media player if the phone isn't well equipped for playback.

But what of those speed claims? Bolt, a proxy browser built on Webkit, now claims that it's about 15 percent faster than before and compresses data at a 23:1 ratio. In other words, 2.3MB from the Web shrinks down to 100KB. That may be, but we pulled up our online stopwatch to run our own surf tests.

Without ever budging from our roost, we tested navigation three times on each of three sites, keeping the routine the same for Bolt 1.5 and Opera Mini 4.2. We would have thrown Opera Mini 5 beta into the mix, but it didn't seem compatible yet with our testing phone, a Samsung Propel on AT&T's 3G network. We're telling you this because we know what a difference carrier, data strength, and handset type makes in each user's result. Were you to run the same test, you might get slightly different numbers.

Bolt took 12-14 seconds to load and navigate on Nordstrom.com versus Opera Mini's 9-13 seconds. It took 26 seconds to load The New York Times site and two other stories on Bolt. On Opera, the same stories loaded in 19, 11, and 10 seconds. Yelp was about the same for Bolt 1.5 and Opera Mini 4.2, about 14 seconds, but one Bolt page ran 2 seconds slower. Our tests clearly favor Opera Mini for speed, but there are one or two other caveats and clarifications to consider before declaring an all-around winner.

First, Bolt renders pages more faithfully than Opera Mini, with sharper text and photos, and with all the photos intact. Opera Mini 4.2 tended to overly compress some, but it bought it speed. On some sites, Opera Mini stripped an image or two out, or the photo footprints drastically condensed. Bolt also has an interesting feature that Opera doesn't--the capability to split the screen. This is essentially Bolt's zoom feature. As you pass the cursor over the zoomed-out section up top, the same area is zoomed in below. The 5 key toggles split-screen view on and off.

So which Java browser prevails overall? It's a tough call: Bolt renders graphics more clearly, but Opera was speedier. We'll see if these numbers continue to stand up when Opera Mini 5 comes out of beta. In the meantime, try them both out and chime in with your own views. You may find that a few seconds are worth it to you to use Bolt's interface. Maybe speed is all that matters and you'll stick with Opera Mini for now. You tell us.

Bolt browser 1.5 is free to download. BlackBerry owners should download the optimized version for BlackBerry phones, which integrates RIM's typical operating system shortcuts.