These days, Mozilla's Fennec and the Skyfire browser have been stealing all the thunder in the mobile browsing space. On Wednesday morning (that's Tuesday night for us in San Francisco), Opera yanked some of it back with the release of Opera Mini 5 beta for Java phones.

Introducing a graphically enriched layout topside and new features below decks, the new Opera Mini beta browser is snappier, more attractive, and more advanced than last year's predecessor, Opera Mini 4.2. Mini 5 beta brings over several features from Opera's desktop browser (Opera 10 for Windows | Mac.) Tabbed browsing is among them, as is a password manager. Each page opens with Speed Dial, a grid of nine thumbnail images and Opera Desktop mainstay, that you assign to favorite Web sites and can select among to quickly launch a Web page. The Speed Dial view replaces Opera Mini's previous landing page, a tangle of links capped with a search box and URL field. These thumbnail images make the landing page more meaningful, both in giving users a visual they can instantly recognize, and creating an easier target for users to accurately hit on touchscreen phones than a scrawny little link.

While the URL field and search bars haven't joined together in this beta as they have in other mobile browsers and in most desktop browsers out there, Opera has at least consolidated the two onto a single line. To address another long-overdue fix, Opera now lets you type directly into a text field. In previous versions, clicking a field opened up a blank page, where you were prompted to start typing before you could return to the main interface.

Speed Dial on Opera Mini 5 beta
Opera Mini gets into Opera Desktop's Speed Dial start screen. (Credit: Opera Software)

Opera Mini's navigation menu received another overhaul in Mini 5 beta. Opera moved it up to the top and made it completely icon-based. Press downward (on a D-pad for a keypad phone) to engage more items, like bookmarks, history, settings, and the Find in Page search tool, a new one for Opera Mini. Find in Page has previously been available in Opera Mini; it's nice to see it return.

The password manager that's new to Opera Mini works as expected, producing a dialog box the first time you log into a site asking if you'd like it to remember your credentials. You can turn this off in the Privacy portion of the Settings submenu.

Many additional features carry over from previous Opera Mini versions, including options to view the page as you would from the desktop versus a mobile view. There are also the usual shortcut keys and support for landscape mode on most phones (not on BlackBerrys, unfortunately, an ongoing omission). There are also additional options that pop up in response to long presses on the 'select' key or on the touchscreen, like for selecting and copying text, opening the image, and now, for opening content in a new tab.

What's missing

Opera shook out a few features found in Opera Mini 4.2 when it developed Mini 5 beta. Skins were one casualty, as are the ability to create a new search engine from any Web site, and most importantly, Opera Link. The latter is Opera's service for syncing your bookmarks and Speed Dial between your various browsers, like desktop and mobile. Since Speed Dial is such an elemental part of the new design, it's almost certain to return by the final version. Opera says it also plans to reinclude customized search, and, at some point, the multihued skins.

Opera Mini 5 beta
Behold: Tabbed browsing for Java phones. (Credit: Opera Software)

We keep hoping that Opera will do something interesting with video other than produce klugey alternatives like triggering the phone's media player to play them. You still can play video within the browser when you visit a site like YouTube's mobile site, but they won't play from the standard An Opera spokesperson told CNET that there's no current plan to transcode video, especially when there is a workaround that doesn't strain Opera's development resources. They're focusing on browser speed and compression first.

We've got one more complaint with Opera Mini as a whole. Because it doesn't access the Internet directly but delivers online content through Opera's servers, it can't handle network limitations like a Wi-Fi sign-in page. The workaround is to simply accept the Wi-Fi provider's terms from the phone's default browser and then skip back into Opera Mini to do the real browsing. However, this does disrupt the otherwise fluid experience. Opera Mini isn't the only one with this issue; Skyfire (which competes right now with Opera Mobile, not Opera Mini) produced the same road block, too.

Apart from these drawbacks, Opera Mini 5 beta is shaping up to become a worthy upgrade from Opera 4.2. It showed solid Wi-Fi and 3G performance during our five days of testing (on a Sony Ericsson W995), and the four main improvements--Speed Dial, tabbing, Menu, and Password Manager--can be put to immediate use. Keep it coming, Opera.

You can download Opera Mini 5 beta for free from BlackBerry owners will see a slightly different version, one that integrates BlackBerry's context menus and copy/paste. It also triggers an e-mail message when you click a Mailto: link in a Web page.

What do you think of the new beta?

Corrected on 9/16/09 at 2:25 pm PT: The Find in Page feature was first introduced in Opera Mini 4.1 beta.

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.