Apple's notoriously touchy approval process refuses apps that duplicate built-in software such as the Safari Web browser. Opera Mini seems to have sneaked in as it doesn't offer the full Web, as Safari does. Instead, Opera compresses each page you ask for and serves it to you in compressed form. This makes it far faster than Safari.
Up to speed
It also means the browser sidesteps several aspects of our speed tests. Opera Mini failed the Acid3 Web standards test, but then most browsers do. It passed 97 per cent of subtests but made a right pig's ear of rendering the test page. Safari failed by a much narrower margin, passing 100 per cent of subtests and displaying only a small glitch in the test page.
We had a phase where pages refused to load over Wi-Fi or 3G, but this seems to have sorted itself out. From our use, Opera Mini is noticeably faster than Safari, even over Wi-Fi. It loads pictures lightning-fast, and leaves Safari standing when clicking back through your history. Google results, meanwhile, load practically before you've decided what you want to search for.
Opera Mini also offers a bunch of cool features. Speed dial puts your favourite sites on your home screen. Sites can be saved for later viewing and there's one-click access to your history, a much-missed feature from Safari. The task bar can be hidden to increase real estate, leaving just a semi-transparent back button and toggle for the task and navigation bars. The mini tab bar is a neater solution than Safari's multiple-page solution.
Despite all this, we're not ready yet to put Opera on our home screen, for one simple reason: multi-touch zoom. You tap to zoom in, and double-tap to zoom out, but only from a clunky wide view with unreadable text to an extreme close-up that's hard to see where you are on the page. It's not very subtle and not a patch on Safari's sublime pinching, zooming motion.
Apart from that, the glitches were minor. Amusingly, Facebook's mobile site spotted that the data was coming from Opera's servers in Norway and blocked us, thinking a pesky Norwegian hacker was trying to get at those embarrassing photos from mad Uncle Teddy's house party. We had to unblock our account on a proper computer.
The fat lady
It remains to be seen whether Opera Mini is the trojan horse of the app world, breaking down the gates for other apps to flood the iPhone's ramparts. For now, it's a speedy and fully featured alternative to Safari.