Review: Opera Mobile 14

As a ten-plus year user of the Opera web brows­er, it real­ly pains me to write this review, but at the same time it also gives me the chance to pass along some good rec­om­men­da­tions to users and edu­cate them on what I believe was a very poor man­age­ment choice in terms of this browser’s recent user inter­face (UI) redesign.

Let’s start from the beginning.

All the way through, and includ­ing its most recent ver­sion 12.x releas­es, the Opera brows­er has man­aged to hit spe­cif­ic mile­stones and do a lot of things its peers are still strug­gling to emu­late: it per­mits an incred­i­ble amount of free­dom in hav­ing a high­ly cus­tomiz­able inter­face, it gives supe­ri­or page load times and appli­ca­tion respon­sive­ness, and it pro­vide for the sin­gle most stream­lined brows­ing expe­ri­ence in that it absolute­ly min­i­mizes the amount of hand trav­el and click counts need­ed for both page nav­i­ga­tion and repet­i­tive tasks.

One of the first things long-time Opera fans will recall is the browser’s light foot­print on the oper­at­ing sys­tem. Down­load it, and you are get­ting an installer file that’s bare­ly above 12MB. No one else has real­ly been able to match this in the main­stream. On mobile plat­forms, the installer is clos­er to 8MB. When ful­ly installed and loaded, the brows­er offers a faster feel than its con­tem­po­raries: it loads pages very quick­ly, does not stall out, and gen­er­al­ly main­tains its com­po­sure and feel­ing of extreme­ly high responsiveness.

The one excep­tion to this was the stock brows­er in Android 2.3x, which is mar­gin­al­ly faster due to its own design inte­gra­tion specif­i­cal­ly with that oper­at­ing sys­tem (but even so, it’s a minis­cule difference).

By and large, Opera stomps any oth­er brows­er into the ground in terms of per­for­mance, even on a sin­gle-core smart­phone like the one I have. Opera was arguably the first to bring tabbed brows­ing to the main­stream, fol­lowed close­ly after by Mozilla/Firefox and lat­er IE. Tabbed brows­ing has exist­ed since 1994, but if we’re to be hon­est, after check­ing out all of the browsers of its era Opera seemed to be the first one that real­ly stood up and found a way to make it use­ful. The han­dling and nav­i­ga­tion meth­ods have large­ly remained con­sis­tent across ver­sions, with a few small improve­ments such as the addi­tion of stack­ing and win­dow pre­view, but at its core the fea­ture I as a user have come to rely on is the man­ner in which it gives the best expe­ri­ence in terms of chang­ing between win­dows and eas­i­ly open­ing or clos­ing new ones.

That brings me to the next key fea­ture: Opera was the first on the mar­ket to bring mouse ges­tures to the main­stream, some­thing that has still not caught on in oth­er browsers despite how this fea­ture is so ergonom­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant in that it saves the user from hav­ing to make an incred­i­ble num­ber of hand move­ments, clicks, and time spent nav­i­gat­ing from one page to anoth­er. Don’t want the cur­rent tab? Right-click-and-hold-and-move-left-and-release. This works any­where with­in a page, and avoids the annoy­ance and rep­e­ti­tion of hav­ing to move the mouse back up to the top of the screen and find an X shaped but­ton to nix an unwant­ed tab.

Func­tion­al­i­ty like this is what set Opera apart from the rest, and more­over, it is some­thing that comes straight out-of-the-box with­out need­ing to down­load any­thing extra or fid­dle with add-ons. Its com­ple­ment of oth­er built-in ges­tures sim­i­lar­ly serve to speed up nav­i­ga­tion and aug­ment the soft­ware’s sleek, ergonom­ic feel. I’ve seen oth­ers try to imi­tate this many times in oth­er browsers by cre­at­ing after­mar­ket plug-ins, often clum­si­ly. The bot­tom line is oth­ers have been slow on the uptake, and haven’t been doing it as well as Opera has done for near­ly a decade.

With its Speed Dial, Opera was once again a seri­ous inno­va­tor. A few years ago one might have nev­er thought we’d even­tu­al­ly see all browsers even­tu­al­ly close in and take aim at an on-launch mul­ti­ple home­page inter­face. Today, it’s still slow­ly coa­lesc­ing, and yet Opera has been the only one to prop­er­ly hit that nail on the head. Its brows­er allows the user to cus­tomize what shows up in the mul­ti-frame page that loads in the brows­er. Fire­fox, out-of-the-box, is still strug­gling with an almost use­less his­to­ry based design that loads images of the last few pages vis­it­ed. That’s not what users want.

There’s a damn good rea­son why the old “one page” home­page con­cept stuck with browsers and users for so many years: it was sim­ple, sta­t­ic, and reli­able. Unless the com­put­er got bogged down with spy­ware or some­one man­u­al­ly changed set­tings, it did­n’t change and could be relied on. Oper­a’s imple­men­ta­tion of a mul­ti-home­page inter­face takes this idea to its log­i­cal exten­sion: you get a start page “con­tain­er” dis­play­ing rows of as many home­pages as you want, and you can cus­tomize the dimen­sions. Sim­ple, to the point, min­i­mal­is­tic … def­i­nite­ly the design that makes the most sense.

Oth­er rea­sons I love Opera?

The Link fea­ture: this lets you car­ry your set­tings to your Opera PC and mobile device browsers via the cloud. Sign up for an account, make your speed dial and book­mark set­tings, and guess what, you’re good to go. It saves all of these things auto­mat­i­cal­ly as you set them. It’s espe­cial­ly use­ful if you ever need to reload an oper­at­ing sys­tem or install Opera for the first time on any device. Just sign in to Link, and every­thing is auto­mat­i­cal­ly rebuilt for you. The con­fig page: you can jump into opera:config at any time and set out exact­ly how you want your brows­er to behave at the ren­der­ing engine lev­el. If you don’t want it to load Flash wid­gets at the same time as the rest of the page, for exam­ple, there’s a stan­dard option called “On Demand Plu­g­in.” Set it, for­get it, and go on with your day. You can also use the con­fig page to change what direc­to­ry your down­loads appear in, to name one of the hun­dreds of oth­er options.

A mod­u­lar user inter­face: Opera lets you pick and choose the graph­i­cal ele­ments of the brows­er which appear on the screen. This includes task but­tons, address bar ele­ments, page infor­ma­tion, print options, image dis­play options, nav­i­ga­tion but­tons, and text fields. It lets you set these and dis­play them in what­ev­er order and visu­al lay­out the user prefers. I have yet to see a com­pet­ing prod­uct on the mar­ket that even comes close. Again, the ergonom­ic impli­ca­tions are fair­ly obvi­ous: you can opti­mize your brows­er for min­i­mal hand trav­el and inter­ac­tion, and speed up com­mon tasks. I’ve made great use of this fea­ture for the many years Opera has imple­ment­ed it, and have zero doubt that oth­ers do as well. On top of this, you can also down­load skins using the inte­grat­ed appear­ance man­ag­er that takes the lev­el of visu­al cus­tomiza­tion even further.

Now, what if I told you that near­ly all of this has, over the span of one month, sim­ply dis­ap­peared or changed?

Enter the mobile ver­sion of Opera 14. No mean­ing­ful con­fig page, no visu­al tweaks, a clunky and inef­fi­cient UI, lack of stream­lin­ing for tabbed brows­ing, and in fact vir­tu­al­ly no resem­blance at all to its pre­de­ces­sors besides the name.

What hap­pened? I wish I knew.

The one thing the com­mu­ni­ty does know at this point is that Opera has recent­ly cho­sen to drop its Presto ren­der­ing engine in favour of using Webkit.

Now either that strong Nor­we­gian beer was even stronger than usu­al among Oper­a’s devel­op­ers on the night of the big deci­sion, or some­one thought it was actu­al­ly be a good idea to fix some­thing that was nev­er bro­ken in the first place.

So, they brave­ly sal­lied forth and redesigned the ENTIRE. FREAKING. UI. Then, to add insult to injury, the result­ing code bloat appar­ent­ly was­n’t tak­en into con­sid­er­a­tion for its poor per­for­mance on sin­gle-core and Android Gin­ger­bread smart­phones to drop out through the floor. You see, I’m one of the 45% of the Android mar­ket who’s still using that ver­sion of the OS since my ser­vice provider con­tract locked me into Gin­ger­bread and sin­gle-core hard­ware just a few months before respectable par­al­lel pro­cess­ing hit the main­stream in smart­phones. In oth­er words, Fire­fox does­n’t work on this phone (too unre­spon­sive to browse at all), and the built-in web brows­er includ­ed on the OS is old­er than dino poop.

This is what drove me to Opera 11 and 12 in the first place. These ver­sions solved the per­for­mance and speed prob­lem, offered mod­ern ren­der­ing and fea­tures, were ful­ly up to date and rel­e­vant to the online world, and turned out to be an ergonom­ic dream.

Those who don’t know any bet­ter about this week’s Opera 14 release are call­ing it rev­o­lu­tion­ary. Oh, if only you knew. I’ve been using Opera since ver­sion 5 came out for desk­top com­put­ers and would go with a slight­ly dif­fer­ent term — screw­ing the pooch.

Ver­sion 14, as I’ve found out, push­es the user into more hand trav­el, more unnec­es­sary clicks, and more efforts to get the sil­ly thing work­ing in the first place. It’s stripped out Opera Link in the menu sys­tem and made it a web­page inter­face, forc­ing the user through a bunch of unnec­es­sary steps to get the same end result when reload­ing page book­marks and Speed Dials. The options menu is sim­i­lar­ly stripped down of all but the most bare­bones fea­tures for basic Web nav­i­ga­tion, there’s an unwant­ed sec­tion called “Dis­cov­er” which you can’t remove (so hor­i­zon­tal flicks of the fin­ger may acci­den­tal­ly land you there while brows­ing), and most odd­ly of all, the Opera Pref­er­ences Edi­tor is no longer avail­able to mobile users. This basi­cal­ly means good­bye to the On Demand option for Flash, down­load fold­er cus­tomiza­tions, and vir­tu­al­ly every­thing that seemed to make Opera supe­ri­or to any oth­er brows­er on the Android platform.

While this is sup­pos­ed­ly being mar­ket­ed as a full release, I would­n’t call such an unpol­ished, dumb­ed-down trav­es­ty “full” in any sense of the word, and I sure would­n’t stop at call­ing it beta. This thing looks, han­dles, and feels a lot more like an alpha ver­sion churned out by a bunch of drunk mon­keys danc­ing the Harlem Shake on a table full of type­writ­ers at a col­lege party.

If you think I’m exag­ger­at­ing, ask some oth­er long time Opera users what their expe­ri­ence has been. Yes, it real­ly is that bad. I’ve seen forum after forum lit up with posts from pan­icked users that feel like some­one’s yanked the car­pet out from under them. There are tons of queries being made about restor­ing lost fea­tures, fix­ing the clum­sy nature of the new user inter­face, or adding customization.

In my hum­ble opin­ion, the devel­op­ers threw the baby out with the bath­wa­ter this time around. You don’t need to rein­vent the wheel just to roll out Pri­vate Brows­ing, or any of the oth­er incre­men­tal updates in ver­sion 14. Hell, the desk­top ver­sion already has most of this firm­ly in place, to the respect of the user­base, with­out any of the clut­ter and con­fu­sion we inher­it­ed in this new release.

On the oth­er hand, if one thing can be said about Oper­a’s devel­op­ers after all these years, it’s that they’re a per­cep­tive bunch and tend to pick up the slack very quick­ly when it comes to crit­i­cism of a prod­uct. They’ve also been ahead of the curve for a long time on fea­tures and usabil­i­ty. Con­sid­er­ing I’ve also noticed tons of extreme­ly help­ful sug­ges­tions being giv­en by users on their forums as to how they can improve on ver­sion 14, it sounds like maybe we’re not going to end up with a total loss when it final­ly hits the desk­top lat­er this month. That’s my hope, any­way. Fur­ther evi­dence from past releas­es also shows they’ve been pret­ty good when it comes to incre­men­tal improve­ments and espe­cial­ly fix­es of major annoy­ances. As one exam­ple of this, a major bug that caused ver­sion 10 to crash was fixed inside of two weeks.

For now though, I can only hold my breath — and hold onto ver­sion 12.

Bet­ter luck next time, guys.

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