Opera’s new Android beta is out, and it includes some pretty big changes

Opera has released the first public version of its new mobile browser, initially on Android. The beta is notable for a variety of reasons, not least because it is the first fruit of the company’s under-the-hood shift to WebKit and other new technologies, but also because it represents a major revamp on the front-end.

For a start, the URL and search bars are now one, much as is the case in Chrome. The startup screen has also been significantly overhauled, adding a curated content discovery feature that is slightly reminiscent of Google(s goog) Currents, and a history page that is easier to access than before. Private browsing is now an option, as it is in rival mobile browsers these days.

On top of that, the Opera team has decided to tweak the Speed Dial concept: Speed Dial links are a narrow selection of favorite pages that show up on new tabs, and now Opera treats them like the bookmarks they are by allowing the user to organize them in folders.

Beyond these changes, the browser still includes the features that already make Opera popular with a subset of users, such as optional server-side compression to cut down on data usage and speed up page loads, and the ability to save pages for offline reading,

This was a much-needed overhaul. Opera’s problem has always been that it looked very different – that was because the company tried to do things differently, and they did succeed in introducing new concepts that others picked up on (Speed Dial was one and, at the risk of enraging Firefox fans, tabbed browsing was arguably another). This iteration has a very native-Android look, though not so much as to appear like a me-too browser. Features such as the combined URL/search bar may be unoriginal, but they were worth copying.

The start screen, meanwhile, is in my opinion now leaps ahead of the competition, being more intuitive, more feature-rich and perhaps even more attractive than that offered by Chrome. Bearing in mind that this is the first of the new Opera browsers to come out – expect revamps across the board – it’s a good omen of things to come.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9wtrZ-Ovtq0&w=560&h=315]