As if keeping the differences straight between Opera's Mobile and Mini browsers weren't tricky enough already, Opera has added another twist by releasing Opera Mini 5 beta for Windows phones, a mobile platform that has previously only run the Opera Mobile app.
Until now, Opera's mobile browsers boiled down to this: Opera Mini (stable|beta) is the proxy browser for Java-based phones that feeds Web content through Opera's servers. And Opera Mobile (stable|beta), is the full Web experience for Symbian and Windows phones that's written with Web code.
The "Mini" browser doesn't render Web sites as faithfully as Opera Mobile's true Web client (and it still won't for Windows phones) but it does return key content faster.
We loaded CNET.com and other graphics-heavy sites using both Opera Mobile 10 beta 2 and the brand-new Opera Mini 5 beta on an HTC Touch Diamond 2 running Windows Mobile 6.5 (got all that?). Opera Mobile took more than 15 seconds to load over Wi-Fi, but it rendered the page in desktop view and displayed CNET's Flash. Opera Mini loaded CNET's mobile-optimized site in a fraction of the time, but we missed out on the landing page.
Introducing Opera Mini for Windows phones is a big deal. First, Opera had to write a separate version of Opera Mini that runs on Windows phones using the compatible C-based programming language instead of Java (which is incompatible or inconsistent, depending on the phone model). Second, making a speedier browser for a platform that's already capable of running its own full Web browser hints that for many, Opera Mobile wasn't fast enough.
Not that Opera Mobile isn't already equipped with a way to turn on the gas. The Opera Turbo compression engine (also found in Opera's desktop browser) can hasten page-load times while (knowingly) sacrificing image clarity. But Opera Software claims that running Mini on Windows Mobile can compress traffic by up to 90 percent, making pages load faster still.
As far as the feature sets go, the latest beta versions of Mini and Mobile share an identical interface that includes tabbed browsing and Opera's Speed Dial start screen (video tour). According to Opera, the company's goal is not to cannibalize Opera Mobile with Opera Mini 5 beta, but software makers tend to follow users' leads when the tide turns for unused products. What we're banking on is for browser technology to improve enough to make Opera Mobile, and not Mini, the better choice for Opera loyalists on any mobile platform.
The presence of Opera Mini on a Windows phone presents at least a short-term answer to the ever-important question of speed. It's telling us that a standalone mobile browser that's fast enough to deliver the Web without a proxy server go-between isn't here yet.