Opera Mobile 9.7 beta: Not what we expected

We knew that Opera Mobile 9.7 beta was on its way. We even knew it would be centered on the Turbo compression engine. What we weren't expecting was Opera casting the spotlight on widgets.

Opera logo

We knew that Opera Mobile 9.7 beta was on its way (in fact, we expected it in May,) but the build released to Windows Mobile consumers on Monday morning isn't exactly what we had anticipated given certain hints in the business build that support for Flash video was on its way. We should say, the inclusion of Opera Turbo was dead on. What we hadn't expected was a separate widget gallery to replace the one built into Opera Mobile 9.5 beta, the previous version.

More on Turbo and widgets in just one moment, but first the answer to what we think you really want to know--should you upgrade? Based on our tests of the preview build Opera let us test the Friday before the release, here's our take: While it won't slow you down if you do upgrade to Opera 9.7 beta from Opera 9.5 beta, and while it may even help you in a pinch, those with reliable fast coverage who don't plan on using more than Opera Mobile's core browsing features won't have much cause to reinstall.

Turbo-charged Opera Mobile 9.7

Opera Mobile 9.7 preview
Enable Opera Turbo when you've got a weak connection. (Credit: CNET/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt)

Now back to your regularly scheduled review. Opera Turbo is the by now much-touted compression and proxy engine used in Opera 10 beta (review), the desktop browser version released the first week of June. On Windows Mobile phones, Turbo also makes browsing faster for data connections below 3G speeds--in other words, EV-DO, EDGE, and other 2.5G connections. When Turbo's revved on the phone, it sends the page data to Opera's servers for proxy rendering. The servers then send a lighter version of the page back to the phone. While that makes Turbo much faster on data- and image-rich Web pages over slow connections, it also predictably slashes image quality.

Turbo's implementation in Opera Mobile 9.7 beta is (disappointingly) unchanged since we got a demo at CTIA in early April. Though automatic detection is enabled in Opera's version 10 beta desktop browser, beta testers will need to manually switch it on and off each time. It's easy enough to do in the Advanced portion of Opera Mobile's settings menu, but there is a detriment to letting Turbo slave away. If you're on Wi-Fi or 3G, you could experience more lag time while Turbo sends your data to Opera's servers and back. Also, your image quality will suffer. This will be the singlemost challenge for 9.7 beta testers.

Spotlight on widgets
In addition to Turbo's compression, Opera is introducing a new concept for its widget gallery. Instead of residing within the app as it did in version 9.5 beta, there is now a standalone Widgets manager to download separately. Twitter, MyStatus, Google Translate, GeoQuiz, Bubbles, and the Opera Dragonfly debugger widget (for developers) come preinstalled. Getting more mobile-compatible widgets is as easy as pressing the "plus" sign wherever it appears on the screen.

Opera Widgets Manager (beta)
Opera's new standalone Widgets Gallery: Easy to use, but possibly inconsistent. (Credit: CNET/Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt)

The Opera Widgets Manager absolutely showcased widgets in a much more visually engaging environment with this separate app. However, the widgets acted inconsistently in our tests, sometimes forgetting passwords it should have remembered, or kick-starting the browser to download an extraneous second instance of the widget. It's easy enough to delete duplicates and work your way around the widgets, but this area needs more than a few more after-school work hours until it's been completely debugged. It also performed somewhat sluggishly in our tests on the Samsung Omnia.

As for why Opera would care to separate widgets from the browser in the first place, an Opera spokesperson told CNET a couple of reasons. For one, phone carriers have asked for this behavior. In addition, such separation can keep the browser or widgets manager from both crashing if either unexpectedly freezes.

We also have to wonder if this spotlight on widgets is part of a strategy of differentiation to attract more users and to separate itself from other browser competitors. Mozilla, after all, has already previewed at least one add-on for its in-development mobile Firefox browser, and has released an alpha build for Windows Mobile phones.

The Widgets Manager will also be available for Symbian S60 phones.

Since our review was based off the preview version we were able to demo a few days before the first beta release, Opera's engineers might have tightened some of these wobbly screws. To try the beta of Opera Mobile 9.7 beta and the Opera Widgets Manager beta on your Windows Mobile 5 or 6 Professional phone, visit http://www.opera.com/mobile/download/ from your mobile browser. As always, let us know what you think of the new browser in the comments below.

About Jessica Dolcourt

Jessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. A senior editor, she started at CNET in 2006 and spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.