- Editor's Rating
By Dustin Sklavos
It may surprise some of you to know this, but Opera actually still produces a very capable web browser. Back before the era of Mozilla Firefox began and people were stuck between using an increasingly bloated Netscape Navigator or virus-magnet Internet Explorer, Opera was actually a pretty good choice.
Unfortunately, in the crushing march of progress, Opera’s innovative feature set got lost in the shuffle. Firefox came out and basically beat Internet Explorer at its own game, producing an alternative that was just as clean, compatible, and easy to use while being faster and less prone to drowning your computer in spyware. Then Google threw their hat into the ring with Google Chrome, a browser that aimed to be even faster and leaner than Firefox. In the midst of all this is Apple’s Safari, of which the less said the better (though I’m sure those iTunes PC users that got it forced onto their systems back in the day were just overjoyed.)
Opera hasn’t been sitting still, though, and in visiting the Opera 11 alpha we find a piece of software that seems almost like it’s being developed in a vacuum. Opera’s developers have tried to build the best browser they can, period, and then some.
EXTENSIONS, LONG OVERDUE
It’s probably safe to say extensions are one of the big reasons people use Firefox these days. Script blockers, ad blockers, and download managers are all popular along with extensions that let you download video from sites like YouTube. Google Chrome didn’t ship with support for extensions, but it’s gradually getting them, though I have yet to use anything that seems to be as clean, efficient, and easy to use as Firefox’s Adblock Plus.
Opera has thrown their hat into the ring, and while the number of extensions they have available from the start is a little anemic, it’s healthy enough and the big ones — script and ad blockers — are accounted for. The fact that extensions are on the table now should be enough to keep Opera at feature parity with the other, bigger players.
Unfortunately, Opera 11 isn’t even in beta yet, it’s in alpha, and that means the ad blocking extension I downloaded worked…well, it didn’t work at all, actually. It’s installed, with its little icon sitting at the top of the window, but damned if it can be bothered to actually block an ad. My experience with the ad blocking extensions in Google Chrome wasn’t a massive improvement; even though they worked, they didn’t make adding exceptions anywhere near as easy as Adblock Plus in Firefox is. ABP should be the gold standard here.
I’d also liked to have seen a download manager, but actually Opera’s download manager has always been worlds more robust than the competition’s. In Firefox I use Download Statusbar and I’m happy with it, but switching to Opera isn’t going to be a huge issue.
FEATURES, FEATURES, FEATURES
While Chrome, Firefox, and Safari try to keep things lean, Opera’s developers have tried to add a massive amount of functionality to their browser. Opera 11 feels in many ways like what Google is trying to produce with Chrome OS — offering a fairly complete suite of tools and applications within a single browser. This should be a major red flag, but Opera’s UI designers have learned a lot over the years, and as a result the browser window is incredibly clean, and the memory footprint is smaller than the increasingly bloated Firefox.
Opera’s three big, compelling features all have links at the bottom of the window, easily toggled on and off and — in a rare fit of intelligent UI design (not a jab at Opera, but at developers in general) — actually have links you can click that tell you what they do.
The first is Opera Sync, which allows you to create an account with Opera and in turn synchronize all of your bookmarks, settings, notes (yes, you can take notes in Opera), and more between different Opera browser installations. If your browsing experience is split between, say, four computers and a phone like mine is, Opera Sync could be incredibly useful by centralizing all of your important links in the cloud instead of forcing you to set them up one machine at a time.
The second is Opera Unite, which unfortunately seems to be yet another attempt to produce a form of social networking in a world that’s pretty much standardized on Facebook (at least until the next big thing comes along.) Opera Unite will let you share music, photos, videos, and other files through your browser, but in fairness this does seem like it has room to grow. The “Web Server” plug-in is particularly compelling, letting you essentially point to a directory on your machine and have a website up. You’ll have to create an Opera account (hey, just like Opera Sync!), but the potential is there.
The third and probably most compelling is the simplest one: Opera Turbo. Opera Turbo is claimed to be a “server-side optimization and compression technology,” but what it basically seems to do is downsample and compress images (among other things) to improve render time on pages. A good broadband connection may not need something like this, but if you’re using crappy wireless at a local coffee shop or worse, dial-up, I can see Opera Turbo being a major boon.
I will say Opera’s user interface is impressively spare and clean, much cleaner than it’s been in times past, and the browser actually feels fairly speedy. The real clincher here is the fact that they’ve added (and kept a lot of functionality) but obscured it from the user in a way that’s logical and sound. Power users aren’t liable to suffer the ignominy of using a browser that feels like “Baby’s First Internet Explorer,” but neophytes aren’t going to be drowned in a sea of “what the hell does this do” either. Opera’s UI designers should be commended, they seem to have struck an excellent balance between form and functionality and in many ways I think the UI is superior to Chrome, which almost abstracts too much from the end user.
I tried to quantifiably test browser performance against Firefox by using Futuremark’s Peacekeeper, but it crashed. That’s fair, Opera 11 is in alpha after all. I can say with certainty that Opera seems to perform faster than Firefox in general by a decent margin. Anandtech’s Flash-based article carousel is something that seemed like a great idea at the time but murders performance in practice, and in Firefox I tend to use my browser zoomed in a bit because I have a 27″ monitor and bad eyes. Scrolling the page in Firefox is an absolute chore, but Opera is actually able to handle the scaling and scrolling remarkably smoothly.
If I have one major complaint, and it’s a doozy, it’s that Opera 11 breaks a fundamental Windows convention. Double-clicking the title bar of any program should toggle maximizing the window, but in Opera 11 it just brings up the “Speed Dial” tab if Opera is already maximized. This is infuriating. It means actually having to move the mouse all the way to the far end of the window and click the dedicated button to get it back to window form. There’s also no way to disable this behavior; you can tell Opera to “hide Speed Dial” but that just changes the behavior to open a blank tab instead. Why even have the “+” tab? For all the brilliant UI work done in Opera, breaking something fundamental to Windows itself should be a cardinal sin.
I have to admit, I was impressed with the Opera 11 alpha. It’s speedy, and if you’re not interested in all the extra features they’re easy enough to ignore. The extensions need work — specifically, they need to work — but the promise is there. Opera is an awesome alternative browser that deserves more than playing fifth fiddle behind Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome, and even Apple’s miserable Safari (seriously Mac users, you don’t have to use everything Apple tells you to use.)
Am I going to switch? I’m awfully tempted, but it’s going to be tricky. When Opera 11 finally does release and hopefully the extensions work properly, it’s going to be a very compelling alternative. Just please, fix the double-clicking the title bar.