Shrinking Data Plans May Help Opera Mini Grow

Opera today released its Opera Mini 5.1 browser for Google (s goog) Android handsets, making it the next major smartphone platform the Oslo, Norway, company hopes to conquer with a free third-party web browser. The Java-based client is popular because it brings a full web experience to lower-end devices while also reducing bandwidth — all browsing activities are funneled through Opera’s servers where the data is compressed up to 90 percent. The Android version of Opera Mini offers the same features as the browser on other platforms and adds pinch-to-zoom functionality.

When Opera brought its browser to Apple’s iPhone (s aapl) a few months ago, I questioned if consumers would actually use it. And now that the native Android browser is faster — I’m running Android 2.2, which adds speed optimizations, Adobe (s adbe) Flash 10.1 and a faster V8 JavaScript engine — it would be logical for me to ask a similar question: what’s the appeal of a third-party browser on Android? But a key aspect of mobile broadband has changed since I originally asked that question. In June, AT&T (s t) eliminated unlimited data plans on new smartphone contracts and other carriers are likely to follow (subscription required). Given that change, a web browser that compresses data suddenly becomes a bit more attractive for consumers that don’t want to pay data overages.

I took Opera Mini 5.1 for a short spin on both my Nexus One and a loaner Droid X and the browsing experience is peppy, just as it is on other platforms. All of the major features Opera provides for iPhone, Windows Mobile (s msft) and BlackBerry (s rimm) are present: one-touch Speed Dial for fave sites, tabbed browsing, and Opera Link for synchronizing bookmarks and other data between Opera on the handset and the desktop. Even with all of those and other features, I still find the experience to lag slightly behind that of a native browser.

Text doesn’t reflow in Opera Mini, for example, and while that’s tolerable in portrait mode, it’s painful in landscape mode. I often had to reload a page in landscape to enjoy the text — something that negates the data transfer savings offered by Opera. And the new pinch-to-zoom seems a little gimmicky in this first iteration. The same exact action is accomplished with a double-tap because the pinch-to-zoom doesn’t yet offer varying zoom levels.

So while I find Opera Mini quite usable, it isn’t up to snuff compared to Android’s native browser. Of course, if I was on a limited data plan, I think I’d make the concession. Even if you’re happy with the native Android browser, Opera Mini is worth the free look — especially if you’re on a limited data plan or if you use Opera on the desktop and want to sync bookmarks.