• The Mac Night Owl Review: Opera Sings a Different Tune

    September 24th, 2005

    If someone asked you what’s the most popular alternative to Microsoft Internet Explorer or Apple’s Safari, no doubt Firefox comes to mind. And, in terms of market share, you’d be absolutely correct. Although its growth may have stalled in recent weeks, Firefox has become a surprising success story. But, as you know, there are other browsers out there, and some have rich feature sets that truly set them apart.

    Take Opera, which some regard as the best of all. Unfortunately, since Opera Software is a relatively small company, you needed to pay for a user license; otherwise, you’d have to settle for a small ad banner. I’ve little doubt that one factor has hurt its growth in the market, which is why it’s now free. No ad banners, with one proviso: If you want “Premium Support,” it’s $29. I can live with that.

    Along with its new “feel free” promotion comes Opera 8.5, now available for the Mac, Windows and various flavors of Unix. Compared to previous versions of Opera 8, the new release, aside from dumping ad banners, is a minor update, although the overall performance level seems a tad better. That is after a somewhat slow initial launch, which adds several seconds to the appearance of your selected home page.

    Once it gets going, however, page rendering is impressively swift. For the most part, it’s impressively accurate too, although I found a few quirks along the way. Examples are scattered, but worth mentioning. The introductory text in our Java-based chat room for The Tech Night Owl LIVE doesn’t display properly. The folks at Macs Only tell us that “Opera still does not render bold text in the Geneva font that we use…” Fortunately there’s a “Report a site problem” feature in the Help that will help you alert Opera’s programmers about issues of this sort.

    Is it the fastest browser on the planet, as some suggest? I’m not about to go that far, since it would take lots of careful testing to determine the reality of the claim. Let me just say that you won’t disappointed, and if you’re real curious, you might want to check out an independent test linked at the Opera site for some fascinating results. No, it’s not faster in every respect, and not all the tested versions are current, but if should give you a fair indication of what to expect from Opera in the real world. However, the best reason to give Opera a try is its impressive feature set, some of which first appeared in this application, such as tabbed browsing.

    I’m particularly impressed by the little touches that make the Web surfing experience even more impressive. Consider Opera’s bookmark handling. When you add a new bookmark, it pops right into the list, in alphabetical order. That may seem a minor enhancement, but if your bookmark menu is as large as mine, you’ll appreciate all the help you can get.

    If you’re not satisfied with the appearance of the program, you can drag and drop buttons and search fields, add and remove toolbars, and install custom skins. You may want to pay a little more attention to this feature, since the look and feel isn’t quite as Mac like as it might be, particularly the preference panel, which is, unfortunately, something you can’t change.

    Among my favorites is the “Fast Forward” feature that predicts the “most likely” next page during your browsing session. You can also use the “Sessions” feature to recreate your layout of open pages to access at a later time, even when you first launch the program. If you’re daily Web routine involves opening lots of pages, and positioning windows just so, you’ll appreciate the ability to restore that layout without wasting your valuable time.

    There’s also a decent RSS/Atom news reader, and email and chat clients. They aren’t necessarily best in class, but have enough features to warrant a little experimentation in case you want to see if you can do everything in a single application.

    It would take several pages to list all that Opera is capable of. Surprisingly, the download size of the Mac version is just 5.4MB. Compare that to the last released version of another browser, Netscape, which is more than three times as large.

    So is Opera your cup of tea? Well, since it’s free, it doesn’t hurt to give it a try. For now, I’ve made it my default browser, just to see if I can do everything without having to return to Firefox or Safari.

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