Hands-on with Coast, the iPad browser from Opera

Everything about Coast, the new iPad-only browser that Opera released Monday, was designed for browsing on Apple’s tablet. Opera threw out a number of standard conventions, including an always-present URL/search bar, forward and back buttons, and even a comprehensive history.

And while Coast was clearly tailored to iPad strengths like gesture navigation and generous screen real estate, its quirks feel too much like shortcomings. Some will appreciate Coast’s style while others will long for a browser that behaves like a browser—such as the default Safari browser or third-party Google Chrome.

When you launch Coast, you’re greeted by a grid of square favicons that will eventually represent your favorite sites. (Coast starts you off with some favorites like The Next Web, Google+, Digg, YouTube and Reddit.) Swipe right-to-left for more grids—you can have four total. The grids default to 3x3, but the settings let you change that to 3x4, giving you space for up to 48 favorite sites.

Coast pre-populates its four grids with sites you might find interesting, but you can ditch any of those and replace them with sites you actually visit.

Strangely, this scheme is the only bookmarking feature available. You can’t bookmark a page other than the site’s homepage (no going right to the New York Times’ Style section, for example), and forget about using a bookmarklet. Sure, setting up bookmarklets in Mobile Safari is a pain, but it’s still possible.

The grid screen also contains the search bar, where you can enter URLs to surf to, or search queries to send to Google. As you type, Coast suggests words and sites, and pops up .com and .net buttons pop up to let you quickly complete a URL. But the grid screen is the only place in Coast where you’ll find that search bar. Once you’re viewing a page in the browser, you have to tap the grid button at the bottom of the page to get back to that grid screen and access the search bar there. It’s not a big deal, but it is an extra tap.

The Search box only appears on those grid pages (not when you’re actually surfing around the Web), but once you navigate back to it, it works great.

Tapping the tab button, also in the bottom nav, shows your open tabs, up to seven total. You can swipe between them, swipe one up to throw it away, and tap one to open it. Each tab also has a Share button in its bottom-right corner where you can share it via Facebook, Twitter, email, send it to the printer, or add it to Coast’s home grid.

From the tab viewer, tap the Share button to send it to Facebook, Twitter, the Mail app, your printer, or Coast’s own grid of favorite sites.

Sites you’ve visited that aren’t in your most-visited grid, including tabs you still have open, also appear on the grid screen, in a history stack below the grid. You can fan the stack out and drag any of those sites up to a free space in your grid, or fling it off the top of the screen to get rid of it. To trash a site from your grid, just tap and hold a favicon until they all start to wobble, then rearrange them or fling one off the top of the screen. It’s a bummer not to have a full browsing history—as with the grid, tapping a site from this history area takes you to the site’s homepage, unless you still have the site open in a tab, in which case you’ll see the page currently loaded in that tab.

Once you’re looking at a page, the interface totally gets out of your way. You can swipe left-to-right to go back a page—if you swipe back from the first page you visited, you’ll return to the grid screen. Swipe the other way to go forward a page, and swipe down from the top of the screen to reload. Other than the small black strip along the bottom of the page (with the grid and tabs buttons), the rest of the iPad’s screen is taken up by the site’s content, and the normal pinch and double-tap gestures work to zoom in.

When you’re actually surfing, the only thing Coast keeps on your screen (besides the content) is that little black strip along the bottom with buttons for the grid screen (center) and the tab viewer (right).

Strangely, if you tap a link, that link pulses black while the next page loads, then Coast displays the new page all at once. That way, you know something’s happening, since there’s no status bar to show the standard circular “working on it” indicator. But the pulsing behavior takes a little getting used to.

Video plays smoothly, but it keeps playing when you tap the grid button or tab button to navigate away. Even though you can’t actually see the video, you can hear the audio, and you have to go back to that page to pause it manually, or trash the tab, to get it to stop. Auto-pause when you surf away would be a great addition.

Coast was built for iPad, but it’s not very tweakable. No private browsing, for instance.

And while I’m asking for additions, the settings are a little weak. In the Coast section of the iPad’s Settings app, you can have the app clear all browsing data (cookies, cached pages, history, and saved form data) on the next launch, toggle the page grid size between 3x3 and 3x4, and toggle the remember-password feature. (The settings for Safari, by contrast, lets you specify the default search engine, clear history and cookies separately, refuse cookies altogether, enable private browsing, and other more advanced options.) You can’t even change the background image under the grid view.

Make the icons wiggle to rearrange things or delete sites from the grid or the history bar. Hey Opera, how about letting us change the background image too?

But even the anemic settings wouldn’t be a big deal if the browser’s performance was stronger. It just doesn’t seem as responsive as Safari or Chrome on the iPad—some taps aren’t registered right away, and keyboard entries take forever. I didn’t notice lag when entering text into the search box, or when swiping between pages or scrolling around a page. But when I tried to tap out a paragraph of text into Yahoo Mail, Gmail, or 750words.com, the lag was terrible. Plus, I had to dismiss the keyboard before the grid and tab buttons would come back, so that’s an extra tap before you have full control over the navigation again. I tried entering text in the same sites using Safari and Chrome, and encountered no keyboard lag there.

Since it’s a free app, it’s still worth the download to see if Coast’s good looks and gesture-based navigation are enough to hook you. But for me, the Coast is still a little too rocky—until it’s updated, I’ll be surfing Safari.

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