Opera Attempts to Reinvent iPad Web Browsing With Coast

The iPad has been around since 2010. It ushered in a new wave of computing and user experience design, all of it centred around a highly-interactive glass pane. So it’s sort of surprising that some apps really don’t differ much from their desktop versions. Safari is a perfect example of this — while browsing the Internet on Safari is a lovely experience with iPad, the interface largely remains unchanged.

Some people would argue this is a good thing and creates a sense of consistency. Others, like the folks behind the Opera browser, would argue otherwise. Opera’s new browser, Coast, is an attempt to completely reinvent what browsing on an iPad should be like. Read on for my thoughts on the new app.

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A Totally Different Interface

Opera is taking a bit of a nod from the Chrome OS and treating Coast like a launcher for web apps. The homepage is similar to the iPad home screen, in the sense that you swipe through icon trays and can tap on a website to open it. I’ve seen things like this before, but they’re usually not quite as well-executed as Coast has it down. It doesn’t feel like a web browser so much as an app launcher.

Coast wants you to treat websites more like native apps.

Coast wants you to treat websites more like native apps.

There are a ton of “pre-installed” websites, but you can remove them just by tapping and swiping them up to a little garbage tray at the top of the screen. Again, this is really smooth — surprisingly smooth, actually.

Search relies on Google.

Search relies on Google.

Pulling down brings up a search/URL bar. The search taps straight into Google, and if you know where you’re going you can simply punch in the URL. I tried it with a number of sites and was pretty impressed with the speed that Google’s search results were fetched.

When you’re actually on a website, though, the URL bars disappear. There’s no chrome. This is the website and nothing but on the iPad screen. It works surprisingly well on the iPad mini, where space is at a little more of a premium.

The web experience has almost no chrome whatsoever.

The web experience has almost no chrome whatsoever.

It does make me wonder why we haven’t seen something similar in Safari. We have a feature like this on the iPhone in landscape orientation, where the chrome disappears. But that doesn’t happen on the iPad. Coast solves what’s been a glaring omission on the iPad ever since iOS 6. With that in mind, though, people who use Chrome regularly might find that this isn’t much of an improvement for them, since Chrome already offered most of these features.

Not Exactly a Cheetah

The speed of the browser is fairly impressive in most cases, considering that Coast can’t use Nitro like Safari can. I didn’t run any speed tests with the app, but I can tell you that it does feel slower than Chrome but not decidedly slower. It usually feels only mostly marginally slower.

AppStorm was slow to load.

AppStorm, for example, was slow to load.

Sites with a lot of images take longer to load than they do on any of the competition, and some sites, like our own (very visual) site here at AppStorm, took more than ten seconds to load. Most stats I’ve read about waiting longer  said that most people aren’t willing to wait longer than five seconds for a website to load on their tablet or smartphone, and since AppStorm wasn’t the only slow-to-load site in Coast, I’m betting many users aren’t using the app out of frustration.

The app also looks good in portrait orientation. (Side note: My ad agency, Wildfire Studios is launching soon. Just saying.)

The app also looks good in portrait orientation. (Side note: My ad agency, Wildfire Studios is launching soon. Just saying.)

That being said, there is a nifty animation that occurs when a webpage is loading. It’s kind of funky, but in all honesty, I’d rather the Opera team just spend their time building a faster browser.

Of course, that isn’t to say the app is kludgy. It’s lightweight and, apart from the speed of the browser itself, it feels like a nearly native app experience.

Changing the Game and Losing Some Features

Coast is trying really hard to be different — maybe too hard. Its features are great, and I like being able to do things like swipe to go back. That’s a really nice touch. As a visual experience, Coast is something you have to try. But it’s not necessarily something you’ll keep using.

The app eschews a lot of features, but at least there are tabs and a Share Sheet. Don't expect to send an article to Pocket or Instapaper though.

The app eschews a lot of features, but at least there are tabs and a Share Sheet. Don’t expect to send an article to Pocket or Instapaper though.

Simply put? In its attempt to differentiate itself from other browsers, Coast skips out on a lot of features I would deem essential in a 2013 browser. The Favourites, which are the app-like website icons you tap on, largely replace bookmarks, but bookmarks can’t be imported from another browser or synced with Opera on the desktop.

There’s also no way to sync tabs, which is a tremendously handy feature on both Chrome and Safari. In fact, I’d go so far as to say this is the single largest omission in the app. And while I’ve heard some rumours that suggest Coast is coming to other operating systems (Android and maybe even the desktop?) in the coming months, that doesn’t make it any less of an inconvenience to go without these features now.

Final Thoughts

At the end of the day, I find myself at a bit of an impasse. Coast isn’t bad, per se, but it’s just not something I’d show off to my friends. It’s not as feature-packed as Chrome, and even though it’s easy to navigate, it still doesn’t have as many features as even Safari does.

And, for some of us, losing the features or the speed of Safari or Chrome would be worth it if Coast delivered an experience that’s truly mind-boggling. But it doesn’t. I kind of like a traditional browser, and in some cases I almost found the “intuitive” new design to be confusing. It’s not that Coast is weak or terrible or kludgy, it’s that it’s simply not worthy of being a default browser. And because of that, I think it needs some serious improvement. Right now, maybe it’s best we all coast on by it.


Summary

Coast deliver an interesting interface, but lacks many of the features necessary in a modern web browser.

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