Note: This article contains no genealogy information. It describes a free product that I tried and enjoy. If you have a cell phone that can surf the web, you may be interested in this article. If you do not own such a phone, you should skip this article. Otherwise, you may be tempted to run out and buy a new phone!
Many cell phones and handheld PDAs (personal digital assistants) have the capability to surf the web by using a built-in web browser. Most of these tiny web browsers are painfully slow. When a page is eventually displayed, it often looks radically different from what you see in a normal web browser on your desktop computer. A new web browser for cell phones and PDAs changes all that.
Opera Mini 2.0 is a Java-based mobile Web browser. According to Opera, you can use it on just about any cell phone that has been made in the past five years, provided you have an appropriate data plan. It also operates on Palm, Windows Mobile, and Portable PC handheld PDAs. Best of all is the price tag: FREE.
I tried Opera Mini 2.0 this week first on a Cingular 8125 phone that is a combination cell phone and PDA. The 8125 uses Cingular's wireless EDGE network to access the Internet at nearly DSL speeds. I also used it on my older Hewlett-Packard iPAQ 4150 PDA that has been out of production for some time. The iPAQ accesses the web via an 802.11b/g wireless "Wi-Fi" network in my home that connects to a cable modem. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Opera Mini 2.0 worked well on both devices. In fact, it worked much better than the Pocket Internet Explorer that is built into both devices.
Opera works much faster than does Pocket Internet Explorer. I had simply accepted the fact that surfing the web with a handheld device would always be slow. Opera Mini 2.0 showed me that my assumption was false. I have no way of making accurate measurements, but I would guess that Opera displays pages in about half the time of Pocket Internet Explorer.
The formatting of displayed web pages can be horrible in Pocket Internet Explorer. Many times, I cannot find information on a page because of the screen's tiny size. Opera Mini isn't perfect, but it always did a better job of displaying pages than did Pocket Internet Explorer. Opera Mini even works rather well on most pages not designed for use with handhelds.
I tested it on CNN, Google, Google News, and Wikipedia. Everything worked well. I then tried it on this newsletter's web site at http://www.eogn.com. It continued to work well. Every article was quick and easy to find. When I tried the Encyclopedia of Genealogy at http://www.eogen.com, the formatting looked a bit "funny," but everything was easily readable.
Next, I went to the Mormon's genealogy web site at http://www.familysearch.org. Here things became a bit confusing. I wanted to search for great-great-granddad's record. The page displayed several blanks to be filled in; however, the blanks were squeezed together on the tiny screen in such a way that the labels did not line up with the fill-in-the-blanks spaces. I couldn't tell which blank was for first name, which one for last name, which one for location, or anything else.
After experimenting for a while, I eventually figured it out and did find the record I was seeking. However, it was a tedious process.
Finally, I decided to try the acid test: a search on Ancestry.com. Surprisingly, it worked well. The labels lined up with the blanks, and everything seemed rather intuitive. I was able to retrieve text records. Just for fun, I tried to look at an original U.S. census record. It failed. No surprise there; I would have been amazed had that worked. Opera Mini 2.0 works well on text and also displays normal JPG, GIF and PNG images. However, it is not capable of displaying more complex image formats.
Opera uses a different methodology than most other web browsers for handheld devices. The user is not directly surfing the web sites. Instead, the handheld connects only to Opera's web servers. When you enter a URL, Opera's servers fetch the page from the web, compressing and formatting the page and then sending it to your handheld. As a result, web pages look better on the tiny screens that most phones have, and the compressed pages require less time to download.
I was amazed at how well and how quickly Opera Mini 2.0 operates. Did I mention that it is available free of charge? Of course, you still have to pay your cell phone company for the "air time," so check the details of your cell phone plan carefully.
There are two ways to get Opera Mini 2.0: Either go to http://mini.opera.com from your phone's browser, where you can click a link to download it, or send an SMS message to 96077. In the latter case, you'll receive a text message back with the tiny applet attached. The application will download, and you will soon be set to go.
If you've got a reasonably recent cell phone and you're tired of using its clunky, slow web browser, Opera Mini 2.0 is a must-download. It's free, it's easy to install, and it makes Web browsing enjoyable on even the slowest GPRS phones. What more could you ask for?