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Hot on the Web

Opera's new browser shows it's still a player

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on July 21, 2006
(Issue 2429, The Way We Were)

Opera, the feisty Norwegian browser publisher, refuses to go away.

Opera barely even registers on most browser popularity charts, falling way behind Internet Explorer (85+ percent of the market) and Firefox (about 10 percent), and even trailing Netscape and Apple's Safari (a couple percentage points each).

Yet here Opera is, issuing version 9.0 – and continuing to support the broadest range of platforms of any browser. From handheld devices and cell phones (and even, by the time you read this, the Nintendo DS) to orphaned PC operating systems like OS/2 (they seem to have finally dropped BeOS), Opera is the most universal of all Web browsers.

And in version 9 for Windows (simultaneously released as a free download for Mac OSX, Linux, FreeBSD and Solaris), Opera shows it's still a viable, and in many cases superior, Web browser, able to more than hold its own against the better known, more widely used competitors.

New to Opera 9 are the following features:

  • Built-in BitTorrent downloading tool
  • Thumbnail preview for tabs not currently opened
  • Individual element blocking
  • Individual site preferences

The thumbnail preview is probably the most useful, and is nearly as good as the overall thumbnail previewer in the new IE version now in beta.

The individual site preferences – which allows you to block pop-ups on certain Web sites only, or to block cookies on a case-by-case basis – is also pretty useful. That and the content blocking on by-the-element basis allow Opera users to customize their daily Web experience like no other.

For instance, if that big ad on the home page of slows down your page loading on your dial-up – simply block it. Pop-up ad on Washington Post's Web site annoy you? Get rid of it. For those of us who have a daily routine of Web sites we visit, Opera gives us more control than any other browser.

BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer downloading application – supposed to make downloading big files go faster. I don't download too many big files, so can't vouch for it. But Firefox has a BitTorrent plug-in, so it's apparently growing in popularity.

The skins utility in Opera 9 – in which you can change the entire appearance of the program – is more completely integrated into the interface than in any browser yet. You can change the skins on the fly, without restarting Opera – and you can browse new skins from within the skins menu, download the skins you like, and install them all from the same panel. Pretty impressive.


Opera 9 also includes what the company calls "widgets" – basically plug-ins that serve non-essential purposes.

We're all used to plugins: Flash, Shockwave, RealAudio, Acrobat Reader. Most of us have them, and most of our browsers now install them for us rather seamlessly.

Opera's widgets are different – rather than handling basic Web content that isn't handled by HTML, the widgets add value: a BBC news reader, for instance. A Google tool bar for Opera. Clocks. Calendars.

None are essential; most are fun. There seem to be a couple dozen, so you can clutter up your version of Opera to your heart's content.

A solid record

Anyone who has used earlier versions of Opera won't be surprised by the user-friendly features Opera has added for 9. Earlier features still included with Opera long ago established it as the Web platform with the most useful features and fewest useless bells and whistles.

For instance, Opera was the first browser to incorporate tabs – where you can have multiple Web pages open in one window on your desktop (i.e., only one instance of Opera running at a time, unlike IE 6, which has to open a separate window for each Web page you want open). And Opera's hot-key (CTRL T) for opening a new tab remains the standard, with Firefox, Netscape and the new beta version of IE all using it.

Opera's built in zoom function, in which you can zoom in or out of a Web page by using the +- buttons on your keyboard, is also highly useful. You can also set up your own stylesheets to use with any Web site – a feature that undoubtedly causes Web designers to pull out their hair, but which is very useful for those with poor vision who need high contrast and large letters.

Opera also claims to render Web pages faster than the other browsers, but with a high speed connection like mine it's hard to notice any differences – they all load pretty quickly.

What I have noticed with each version of Opera is that its programmers are, like those who work on Firefox, getting the browser to render more and more Web sites that use non-standard HTML coding – generally to get a site to have more bells and whistles for those visitors who have IE.

In fact, except for Microsoft's own Web domain, there are no sites I've come across that Opera doesn't handle just fine. Not saying they're not out there, only that I've not found them.

All of this – ease of use, feature-rich environment, stability and universality – add up to make Opera a top-tier browser, easily able to replace IE or Firefox on your system.