Updated 7/17/08 at 11:16 am PST with additional pricing information.
It's time that Opera Mobile got its due. Long overshadowed by Opera Mini--the light, server-fed browser for Java phones--Opera Mobile is a robust browser built on Web standards (and written with C and C++) that's known for delivering a full Web experience to Windows Mobile and Symbian phones.
Yet even though Opera Mobile has made good as a much closer approximation of the desktop Internet experience, it traditionally hasn't received the same developmental attention as Opera Mini. With Opera Mobile 9.5 beta, released on Thursday as freeware, things begin to change.
In many ways, this beta version of Opera Mobile is a fusion of Opera's Desktop and Mini versions. It inherits certain tabbing, searching, linking, and saving capabilities from Opera Desktop 9.5, and Opera Mini's search and display settings.
What follows is a full hands-on review of Opera Mobile 9.5 beta (also see the video) that takes into account the program's newly redesigned interface, features, performance enhancements, Opera Dragonfly, issues, and what to expect from future beta builds, of which there will be several before the final release. We also won't leave out availability and price.
The redesigned interface focuses on a small strip of navigational icons at the base of the app and concealed context menus that appear where applicable when you tap and hold. For instance, opening the context menu when hovered over a link gives you options of opening the link in a new tab, copying the URL, or sending the link to friends. The main context menu can be accessed by tapping and holding the white space, whereas the inverted 'v' on the navigation pops up a third options menu.
This new design replaces actionable menu items and helps boost clarity while reducing clutter. If you don't see the menu option you're looking for, you know you've mis-tapped. Without the familiar desktop icons, Opera Mobile 9.5 beta replaces the Opera-branded character with a generic sleek and modern look. You decide if that's good.
Only about two-thirds of the final features are present in this first 9.5 beta build (see the road map section below), but already surpasses version 8.65 in terms of the browsing experience--with one caveat.
This new beta version opens in the full-screen browsing mode by default, which lets users pick a starting point and zoom in for closer reading, and entire pages can now be saved for later. Like the 9.5 desktop version, there's in-text search with Find in Page and text highlighting; a Google search bar when you tap to enter a URL, and an address bar fitted with auto-complete that harnesses your browsing history by suggesting compatible sites as you begin typing.
In this case, not all that is newer is better. While Opera retains its support for tabbed browsing, it replaces the true tabbing experience of Opera Mobile 8.65--ironically defined as "windows"--with a reversion to separate browsing windows, ironically called "tabs."
In addition, the beta update appears to have lost some zoom granularity, though in a demonstration at Opera's California office, Sales Engineer Brian Purdy explained that zooming features differ by handset manufacturers.
Driving all the front-end enhancements is a new proprietary core rendering engine, called Presto 2.1, which improves on the speed and rendering quality compared with Opera Mobile 8.65. While Opera doesn't yet have benchmarking numbers to share, I will say that the new version performed more smoothly than the old during testing and trounced Windows Mobile's Internet Explorer in performance. While Opera Mobile itself may have gotten speedier, the browser is still only as good as the phone's processor.
For developers, Opera has also included support for the open-source remote debugging tool nicknamed Opera Dragonfly. Using the computer's IP address and Opera browsers for the phone and desktop, this cross-platform software syncs the two to test against errors on the phone, not just in the editor or emulator.
Beta builds aren't meant to be perfect and Opera Mobile 9.5 beta comes with its share of flaws and foibles. First, it's an English-only build with support for other languages coming later. Users will also notice right away that Flash hasn't been enabled, making this software version video-blind. Installing the application on a memory card may be rocky, so make sure you've got room for the 4.2MB requirement.
Fourth, you'll want to refresh pages after switching between viewing modes, for instance mobile and full screen views. Finally, problems with custom input methods specific to certain phone models will be buggy or broken.
As I mentioned, Opera's center of command plans several more updates to Opera Mobile 9.5 before the final release. Google Gears, Opera Link, and Opera Widgets are slated to join the app in subsequent waves of development. A version for Symbian phones is forecast for Opera's near future.
Starting Thursday, the touch screen version of Opera Mobile 9.5 beta will be available for free for Windows Pocket PC phones running Windows Mobile 5 or 6. A slightly different version of Opera Mobile 9.5 comes preloaded on the HTC Diamond. Opera Software has declined to comment on the pricing of Opera Mobile 9.5 going forward, but I've speculated elsewhere that there's a good chance the product could remain free. The stable version, Opera Mobile 8.65, costs $24.