Browser Speed Tests: iPhone's Mobile Safari Vs Opera Mini

This morning Apple surprised everyone by approving the Opera Mini web browser for the iPhone and iPod touch, bringing one of the most popular mobile browsers to the most popular smartphone. So how does it stack up?

First of all, it's worth pointing out that Opera Mini has one big roadblock for iPhone and iPod touch users: Apple doesn't allow you to set any other application as the default for web browsing, so if you're opening links from other applications, like Mail, you'll still launch Mobile Safari when you click that link. (To use Opera Mini, you'd have to copy the link, close Mail, open Mobile Safari, and paste the link.) That's a pretty big hurdle, but it's not the end of the world, especially since more and more apps display links in-app unless you explicitly choose to open a link in Safari. All that aside, you probably still open Safari directly when you want to do a lot of basic web browsing, so nothing's standing in the way of just launching Opera Mini in those instances instead.

So let's talk speed and performance. I don't have all the same options for testing these as we have when we do our normal browser performance tests (most notably, memory use is missing, but since multitasking isn't on the iPhone yet anyway, that doesn't much matter), but we'll try to tackle as many of the same tests as we can. (Also like our other performance tests, these aren't exactly scientific, but we do follow our own set of guidelines to get as accurate of results as we can on limited equipment. For these tests, I'm using my iPhone 3G.)

Browser Boot Up/Load Time; Split Decision... Probably Mobile Safari

This is a little bit of a tricky category. What I found when pitting the two against each other in launch time is that, while the Mobile Safari took significantly longer to launch from a cold start — that is, after having rebooted my iPhone entirely — it apparently resides in the iPhone's system memory from that point forward, meaning subsequent launches are nearly instantaneous. Opera, on the other hand, had a better cold startup time, but it doesn't have the benefit of sitting in the system memory, so every launch for Opera Mini is a "cold" launch.

Page Load Time; Winner: Opera Mini

To measure page load times, I timed five or so page loads on several popular sites over Wi-Fi, threw out the highest and lowest for each site, and then averaged them all out. In this category, Opera Mini absolutely pummelled Mobile Safari, especially on full versions of websites like the New York Times front page (which partially rendered in Mobile Safari before it finished loading, but continued loading for over 40 seconds time and again).

JavaScript, DOM, CSS Speed; Winner: Mobile Safari

We used Mozilla's very cool Dramaeo browser performance testing tool to pit Mobile Safari's JavaScript, DOM and CSS chops against Opera Mini's. Unfortunately, we learned pretty quickly that, while Mobile Safari slowly chugged through the test (slowly compared to desktop browsers, that is), Opera Mini failed to run with any of them.

That's not necessarily a huge black mark against the speed of Opera Mini, per se, since we couldn't actually pit the two against each other, but it speaks pretty loudly about which browser is currently capable of offering a more desktop-like experience, and that's Mobile Safari.

Keep in mind that we're not saying that a more desktop-like experience is necessarily preferable; you're on a mobile device, after all, and that desktop performance does seem to come with some trade-offs — like the page load times mentioned above.

Takeaway

It's pretty clear that, while Opera Mini features seriously impressive page load times, it's still behind Mobile Safari on several levels — some of its disadvantages are due to Safari's advantaged position as the system default, some of them probably have more to do with the youth of Opera Mini on the iPhone platform. You will, however, notice the considerably faster page loads when you're using Opera Mini, and with the web, speed is everything. If Opera could keep the speed and fix some of the rough edges, it could be really impressive.

Speed aside, use Opera Mini for a while and you'll quickly miss the smooth zooming of Mobile Safari and the nice font rendering. (When you're looking at a desktop version of a site zoomed all the way out on Opera Mini, the type renders as big blocks of colour and is generally unreadable.)

(Click the image above for a closer look.)

Still, I'm holding out hope for Opera Mini. The speedy page loads alone make it an ideal browser for a quick lookup, and its tabbed browsing interface is, in my opinion, superior to Mobile Safari's.

If you've been kicking the tyres on Opera Mini since its release this morning, let's hear how its measuring up for you in the comments.


Comments

    whilst opera mini does load pages faster, a key failing its its ability to be recognised by websites as a mobile browser. For example, hit up theage.com.au or ibm.com on Safari and you are automatically taken to a mobile-enabled version of the site. Opera Mini doesn't do this, instead trying to load the 'normal' page - and it does a bad job of displaying theage.com.au

      This is not the fault of Opera Mini, it is the fault of poor web development practices.

      theage.com.au for example is using Javascript to detect the user agent, and if it matches iPhone/iPod (and only Safari will do this), then it will redirect to the light version of the page. What they really should be doing is checking the screen real estate available and then redirecting.

    This is way faster than mobile safari. Big sites like theage.com.au will load in about 10-15 seconds on Optus 3G. Sure beats the >1min that I had to wait on mobile safari. It therefore doesn't bother me that sites such as theage.com.au aren't rendered for in the much beloved iPhone format, because let's face it, now i can have the FULL site load, whilst downloading less data than on mobile safari, thanks to Opera's compression.

    Pinch to zoom needs to have more than one zoom level in Opera Mini. One tap on the iPhone top clock bar doesn't auto-scroll to the top. But these are small gripes given the speed improvements. Not sure weather Quicktime video will be recognized/rendered within Opera Mini. But i'm sure these are all things they can add in later?? I'll be using this wherever possible from now on. Great job Opera!

    It could just be me, but I've noticed that on wifi, Opera Mini actually lags behind in comparison to Mobile Safari. I think it's going to be good, but like desktop Opera, it has a few awkwardly placed shortcomings.

    Nice article and comparison....

    But I guess we should not compare iSafari and Opera (at least, as of now). iSafari is alive for more than 3 years now, and its just been one day since Opera's birth. So I guess, we should give this infant a bit of time in order to catch up with the mafias like Safari. I am sure, if we feed Opera with positive feedbacks and some suggestion it will grow up soon enough in a giant.

    Safari is good as it can use all the resources available on iPhone on the contrary, Opera is starving for few of the resources as they are restricted by SDK. But I am sure, Opera is listening to us and will definitely come-up with much better technology in their browser.

    Lastly, I am not saying that its a pre-mature version of Opera but I truly believe that they didn't put all of their efforts in developing this little baby. Reason is pretty much clear, no one was certain that Opera will be ever approved by Apple. So knowing the fact that it duplicates the functionality of Safari, and has strong grounds of being rejected, Opera certainly didn't use all the resources as they also had their finger crossed. But now when they have arrived on iDevices, they will bring the heaven on earth. All they need is, some time...so, excuse them for a while and see what they can bring to this platform.

    My limited experience of Opera Mini is that it is not as good as the Safari browser for rendering pages. One trick that Safari (and any Webkit compliant browser) has is that if you tap on a column of text then it will expand to fill the width of the screen, whether portrait or landscape. I find this very useful given my not so good eyesight. With Opera I have been unable to regulate the text width. It is either too small or too large, i.e., I have to scroll horizontally to pick up all the text. I have been using the Plain Vanilla Surfer browser for some months and have found it to be very good.

    Opera is bast.

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