New iPad Browser: Coast by Opera


This post originally appeared yesterday on my blog.

Yesterday Opera announced the release of its newest browser, Coast, built specifically for iOS tablets (I would say just iPads, but if my fridge gets an iOS tablet UI then I’d be wrong and will have paid too much for a fridge).

Background

Recently Opera moved away from Presto as its rendering engine and hitched its future to Blink, the rendering engine born from WebKit that powers Chrome. Now instead of Opera worrying about the rendering engine, it is focusing on the user interface, the place where it can set itself apart from the other browsers.

Essentially Opera is removing the browser chrome (implying to the user that a web page is just an app) and adding gesture support. Given that Opera was the browser that introduced us to mouse gestures well over a decade ago, and given that a touch screen is an inherently gesture-based UI, this seems like a natural fit.

Bits for Developers

Sadly, my office wifi was down and I couldn’t play with the browser immediately (my crusty iPad 2 is wifi only). So instead I took some time to read through the developer notes.

Tablet First

Overall Opera recommends general responsive design current best practices, though it promotes a tablet-first approach. Opera offers some CSS you can use to specifically target iPads Mini, 2, 3 and 4 (Retina and non-Retina), though it leans on vendor prefixes with only a brief note to also use other prefixes and unprefixed rules.

Responsive Images

It’s also clear that Coast supports the new srcset option for responsive images. It even offers a code example: <img src="image.jpg" srcset="retina.jpg 2x">

Note: As Bruce was kind enough to inform me (because I missed it in the dev notes), responsive images will be supported only in iOS7 and up.

Update as of September 20, 2013

According to Opera, iOS7 did not come with a WebKit update. That means Coast cannot support responsive images via the srcset attribute without a polyfill. Nor can Safari, of course.

Tile Speed Dial Web App Image

Instead of “Speed Dial” icons/images, Coast now looks for a “web app image.” If you don’t have one, Coast will first look for a Windows 8 tile image, then an Apple touch icon, then a shortcut image, then just a favicon. You can, however, create your own 228 × 288 pixel image and stuff it into your site with the following HTML:

<link rel="icon" href="$URL" sizes="228x228">

User Agent String

Don’t use this to do any browser sniffing. Browser sniffing bad. This is instead handy for recognizing it in your logs:

Mozilla/5.0 (iPad; CPU OS 6_1_3 like Mac OS X) AppleWebKit/536.26 (KHTML, like Gecko) Coast/1.0.2.62956 Mobile/10B329 Safari/7534.48.3.

General Review

Getting going is pretty easy, just start typing into the only field on the screen. As you type you can see a Google preview on the left, which you can tap at any time to go to Google, or a list of icons on the right which correspond to sites you might mean. The icons start out just displaying the first letter of the site, and then identify the site’s tile or shortcut image.

Screen shot of Opera Coast navigate screen.
Note the handy “.com” and “.net” options that appear above the right end of the text box.

Once you are on a page, you can go back by swiping from the left, forward by swiping from the right, or reload the page by pulling down from the top — but not too far or you get the iOS menu instead.

Vine of me playing with back, forward and reload in Opera Coast.

Opera Coast skips tabs and windows altogether and, frankly, feels a lot more like Internet Explorer for Metro than other current tablet browsers. It’s pretty easy to see the open “tabs,” flip through them, get more details, and discard them. It’s also incredibly easy to forget you have so many tabs open. I regularly found myself littered with tabs because of all the links opening new windows.

Testing Opera Coast window/tab management.

While in that tab view, you can also see how “safe” the page is and can get to options to share it, email it, print it, and so on.

Screen shot of Opera Coast safety and share information.
The arrow on the right gives you all the share options.
Opera Coast print dialog.
I don’t have a printer installed, so I’d love to hear feedback on how Coast honors print styles.

Adding and removing a bookmark, tile, whatever, is pretty easy. It took a few swipe-fails, but I got the hang of it well enough to show the whole process in one uninterrupted Vine:

It takes a little getting used to, but it’s not too hard

Gotchas

There were a few things that threw me off. Perhaps because I am a power user, perhaps because I only played with it for one evening.

Swipe History

The swipe for back/forth is handy, but conflicts with behavior I have already learned. In Chrome for Android, swiping left or right has the infuriating feature of bringing me to the next or previous tab in the stack order. For those rare sites that implement a slide that is swipe-friendly, imprecise swipes will move me back and forth in the history instead.

Web App Images

Using the browser in portrait view, the additional screens of tiles (speed dial icons if you are already familiar with Opera) aren’t immediately apparent. It wasn’t until I turned to landscape that I saw them. The tiny dots under the Coast icon weren’t enough for me to intuit that. They also aren’t nearly large enough to tap to jump to a specific screenful of tiles.

Hit Sizes

The 9-box grid at the center bottom as well as the three rectangles at the bottom right are the only real browser chrome in play as you surf. They are also maddeningly small to tap. And I have dainty, lady-like fingers, so I suspect it may cause consternation for others.

Address Bar

If I am on a site and I want to change the address of the current page (maybe I fat-fingered and got to a 404, or I know a super-secret URL), I could not find a way to bring up the address bar and change it. It also made it impossible to know the current page address at any time. As someone who regularly looks at the URL for familiar addresses, indications of scam sites, quick commitment to memory, and so on, this alone takes it out of the running as an everyday browser for me.

Email a Page

I did not care for the email feature one bit. Not only does it embed a screen shot of the page (with a Coast watermark), the screen shot won’t display on other devices. Outlook blocked the image because the attachment ended in .com (not .png or .jpg). Had it not come from me, I wonder if Outlook would have blocked it as spam. My Android email client couldn’t display it because there was no file extension to give it a clue.

Screen shot of emailing a web page from Opera Coast.
What you see when you choose to email a web page from Opera Coast.
Screen shot of received email from Opera Coast.
Best case scenario of what the email recipient sees, though the attachment was blocked in Outlook and unusable in my Android email client.

Tweet a Page

Tweeting a page left me similarly dissatisfied. By default it includes a Twitpic screen shot of the current page with an Opera Coast watermark. When composing the tweet, I tapped the paperclip icon to see if it would do anything, but nothing happened. I opted not to tweet again.

Screen shot of tweeting a page from Opera Coast.
Tweeting a page from Opera Coast.

The resultant tweet:

Wrap-up

Overall, I like the browser. I like what it’s trying to do for consumers. As a power user, however, It’s not a fit for me though I’d be interested in bringing it in front of some other members of my family.

I also didn’t get to try out unsafe sites, printing pages, responsive images (need iOS7), or poorly-built sites. My opinion might change as I continue to play with the browser.

Open Question

There are a lot of Android tablets out there, not just the four screen size offerings from Apple. So how long before we can see Coast on my Nexus 7, if ever?

Updates

I’m adding notes throughout the day as they come up.

Surprising no one, the following reviews from more mainstream sources completely fail to include any screen shots or videos that weren’t pilfered from Opera. I only say that to remind you that by reading this post you have gotten the most in-depth review currently on the web and you should be excited and send me a thank you note and maybe read all my other posts and high-five me on the street.

These articles are, however, worth visiting just to see the comments and how others are reacting to it.

Tips from Bruce:

Update: September 18, 2013

Opera has fielded some questions about Coast and collected them into two posts (so far):

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My (Mostly) Unbiased Overview of Android and Apple’s iOS – Part 2

Feel free to check out part one of this post, in which I covered some pros and cons on Apple’s iOS.

On to Android, which now owns the majority of the mobile phone market share in the world due to the many manufacturers who choose this open-source, free operating system for their phones. Much like iOS, there are plenty of pros and cons to cover for this OS; I’ll touch on the ones I’ve found to be most important during my software testing experience.

Pro – The first thing that comes to mind is the customization of the system itself. Many carriers and manufacturers have adapted Android due to the “re-skinning” they can perform on this OS–they can essentially make it their own by adding a unique look and feel and pre-loaded software. Unlike Apple, which has its own developers working on the OS in-house, Android is open-source, allowing any developer to enhance, limit, or customize the software; there are literally millions of Android developers around the globe, allowing the OS to stay ahead of the curve.

Pro – Android allows for different layouts on user homepages. This includes folders, shortcuts, and, most importantly, widgets. Widgets allow a user to directly access a particular program right from the homepage itself, without having to launch the application. There are widgets available for media players, living calendars and task checklists, and live feeds for social networking, email, and current affairs from around the globe.

Pro – Other great features of the Android OS are the keyboard layouts and text prediction. These include “swipe” style keyboards, where the user literally swipes past each letter in a word and the keyboard chooses the word it assumes the user wants to use. This feature can make typing out long messages or emails a breeze and can help keep spelling errors to a minimum. Many keyboards also have voice-to-text options which are amazingly accurate, “learning” how the user talks. Use of features like these is obviously a personal preference, but the options available in Android really can be quite useful in many applications.

Pro –  The final pro on my list is the new implementation of Google Now, included in all newer versions of Android. Google Now gives you the ability to perform instant searches by speaking into the mic of your mobile device. You can search for the definitions of words, facts about well-known people, and a huge variety of other items instantly. Google Now also has the ability to learn information you either look up or have expressed interested in – things like weather, sports updates, popular tourism spots, commuter traffic, and flight reservations and itineraries. It will also reminder users about tasks and pending calendar items, placing all of this information front and center on the device for users to view quickly and easily.

Of course, Android has its setbacks as well.

Con – One of the biggest faults I can think of is Android Fragmentation. Fragmentation is caused by manufacturers and mobile carriers holding back new versions of software and thereby creating many different versions of Android out in the wild. The Fragmentation can causes issues while developing software for use on Android because, unlike Apple, Android developers have to understand that most devices are not updated to the latest version (currently 4.2.2 “Jellybean”) and have to worry about testing their software on different OS versions in order to fulfill the needs of customers. All this extra testing can, in turn, cause delays in software releases.

Con – Another Android con would have to be the lack of security and stability in the OS. Although developers have made great strides to limit the threats of viruses and other malware, the Android App eco-system is still filled with unwanted security holes and issues. Because, as I mentioned in my point above, there’s no guarantee that all Android devices are running the newest version of the operating system (over half of the devices currently running the Android OS globally are running on Version 2.3 “Gingerbread”, which is far inferior to Jellybean), users and their devices are very vulnerable to security issues.

I’ve learned a lot working with these two operating systems–both Android and Apple have their advantages and disadvantages, many of which depend on the goals of the user. Now that I’ve spent time working with both platforms, I have a better appreciation for the good in both and a better understanding about the bad but, when push comes to shove and people ask me why I prefer one over the other, my simple answer is personal preference. What works for me certainly won’t work for everyone; doing your own research will help determine which OS is right for you.

My (Mostly) Unbiased Overview of Android and Apple’s iOS – Part 1

People who know me might already be assuming that this blog post will be biased, based on my preference for Android, about which I’m not usually silent. However, while working at Algonquin Studios I’ve had the opportunity to test many new mobile platforms and devices including Windows Mobile, Apple, and Android and I’ve learned some new things that I like about both iOS (Apple’s proprietary operating system), and Android (an open source, Linux-based operating system).

The battle between Apple and Android has been both futile (for the companies) and fun for people who posses an interest in the forward momentum of technology. While testing our new mobile app for SWRemote, I’ve learned both the frustration and pleasures of having the ability to work with both operating systems. Below are my top pros and cons of both systems, given in the most unbiased way I can manage:

SWRemote’s Mobile Technician was coded for, and first applied to, Apple’s iOS platform using the iPad, so that’s where I’ll start my list as there are a lot of benefits to be found testing and navigating around this robust OS.

Pro – While it’s not iOS-specific, I’d be remiss without mentioning the battery life on both the iPad and the iPad Mini. The devices have exceptional battery life both in “stand-by” mode and “screen-on” mode. Coming from a mostly Android background, I’ve become accustomed to poor battery life and have gotten used to always needing to be near a charger. This has changed a bit with newer Android models, depending on hardware, but I haven’t seen anything that comes close to the staying power of Apple’s batteries.

Pro – A second iOS pro that must not be ignored is its ease of use for beginners. iOS takes all of the complicated and aggravating things out of the operating system and goes with the philosophy of “Just Keeping it Simple.” This works out very well for both timid users who don’t like change on a large scale and beginners who are getting ready to dive into the technology arena. And, with all forms of the OS (iPhone/iPad/iTouch), Apple keeps everything the same–from the looks of the screens to the settings options–achieving great consistency across devices and lessening the learning curve for newbies.

Pro – I also have to give credit to Apple for the stability and security of its operating system, including version upgrade releases which are only held back by the personal user based on when they want to actually upgrade their system. The free upgrades always include bug fixes and other significant advancements in the OS.

But, of course, with all the good comes a bit of the bad.

Con – Thanks to the simplicity of iOS, many customization options have been curbed including any options for tweaking things like keyboard layouts, power modes, processor speeds, and memory utilization.

Con – Apple has a closed operating system which essentially means that one cannot “tap-in” to many of the areas that might be necessary for both programming and/or adapting certain hardware into software like printers, third-party drivers, etc. For developers this can be frustrating and time-consuming as we try to find workarounds for these particular applications.

Con – Apple has also limited its iOS to only Apple products. Some may see this as a benefit and say that while Apple only does one thing really well, it does that one thing really well. This might be true but when you’re limiting your customer base to only one device brand/manufacturer it can be difficult to keep up with the “Next Best Thing.” Tech consumers get bored very quickly these days and people tend to want the latest and greatest right away. Apple’s insistence that iOS only run on Apple products automatically limits its market share, regardless of the fact that it has some of the best advertising in today’s marketplace.

My Journey to Android After Five Years of iOS Loyalty

I’ve been an avid Apple supporter for years, and have owned iPhones in various incarnations since their launch on June 29th, 2007 (Yes, I was one of the unfortunate / foolish folks who shelled out $599 for the shiny new handset).  Over the past five years I have watched both iOS and Android grow, but my focus has always remained on Apple.  When I was due for a phone upgrade about two years ago I naturally gravitated towards a new iPhone 4 and likely would have purchased it solely based on my belief in Apple, regardless of the phones new features.

Until recently, my experience with Android devices had been quite limited.  What initially turned me off to them was that, despite having great specifications on paper, they couldn’t seem to accomplish even the most basic tasks smoothly. Things like scrolling through a list of contacts or zooming in on a web page made it seem like the hardware and software were fighting with each other.  The unification of software and hardware is an area that Apple has always prioritized, especially with its iOS platform.

I became eligible for a phone upgrade a short while ago and, up until quite recently, had decided that I was going to wait for the next iPhone.  However, after some coercing by some of my Android-loving coworkers, I decided to do something pretty scary – ditch my iPhone in favor of a device powered by an operating system that I’d been so against for so long.  I was hesitant to say the least, but after doing some research and weighing the pros and cons, I ultimately made the switch.  I ended up purchasing a Samsung Galaxy S3, and can say that after using this phone for about ten days, I don’t regret switching one bit and really couldn’t be happier with my decision.

One major plus Android has going for them, from a developer’s standpoint, is that you can develop Android apps for free.  Apple charges a yearly $99 subscription fee to be a part of their iOS Developer Program, and while that may not be a lot of money if you’re an established company, it’s a lot to ask from someone who just wants to be able to develop for mobile devices as a hobby, with the hopes of one day maybe submitting an app for sale.

Recently, Google has begun to roll out their new operating system –Android 4.1 Jelly Bean.  One of the core features of Jelly Bean, known as “Project Butter”, is meant to help the operating system run as smoothly as possible.  Using technologies like triple buffering and vertical sync, the OS is able to run silky smooth, which really hits Apple in an area that iOS has absolutely dominated until recently.

The future is looking very bright for Google, as they’ve resolved the vast majority of the issues that I’ve had with their Android platform and, in my opinion, have caught up to, or surpassed, iOS in nearly every way.  While the iPhone UI is still slightly more polished, the differences are becoming less and less significant and are easily outweighed by the additional capabilities, raw performance, and overall sense of freedom that the Android platform provides.  I can safely say that iOS will always hold a special place in my heart, but it definitely won’t be occupying a special place in my pocket anytime soon.