A long time ago, long, long, long time ago, everyone was pretty much using Internet Explorer to surf the web. During that period, consumer computer systems weren’t really what you would call “fast” but that was OK because it was the norm. Sorta. Like many other geeks out there, I was (actually, I still am) a hardcore freeware hunter and collector. Yes, I didn’t know any better at that time and so I had installed many viruses and whatnot but point is, I had a passion for using freewares to spice up my Pentium II computer. It was at that time that I stumbled across an alternative browser to Internet Explorer called Opera. It was labeled as one of the speediest browsers at that time and best of all, it was (you got it) free! Consider me sold. No need for any more sales pitch. Using Opera at that time made me first realize how important competition really is. Not only do the consumers benefit from it, but the entire technology world as well since competition drives innovation (usually). Sadly, once Firefox came around though, Opera was replaced and I never looked back. Although I read news about Opera here and there on the web, I never really paid much attention till now with the release of version 11. Since I recently tried to switch from Firefox to Chrome, I thought why not give Opera another chance? Hey, it’s still free to use so why not?!You can download Opera 11 from here.
I don’t know about you but when I initially landed on that home page for the download, I was shocked at how good looking Opera 11 was. A good first impression indeed!
Opera 11 weighs in at around 7.1MB and the installation is pretty much a breeze. However, you might want to head into the Options menu before proceeding to see what default options Opera has enabled. As we can see here, by default, Opera will install for all user accounts on your computer and most importantly, automatically set itself to be the default browser on your system. Not sure if I like that but it can be forgiven since switching back to Firefox or whatever browser you were using is a relatively easy task.
A quick glance at Opera 11 and you can definitely tell that it went for the same “cleanliness” look that made Google Chrome such a joy for so many users to use. Your browser tabs are placed at the top of the address bar and for some weird reason, just that change alone seems to make a very big difference in visuals. A lone Opera menu button sitting at the top left corner allows you access to the browser’s configuration menus and whatnot. This is similar to what I can accomplish with Chrome and Firefox albeit I had to install an add-on to accomplish the same thing. You’ll also notice some icons on the status bar at the bottom (talked about later) along with a view button but other than that, Opera 11 can be considered clutter free.
If the default look of Opera 11 doesn’t please your eyes, than feel free to download the many different skins offered by the Opera community.
In my honest opinion, the speed category when it comes to modern browsers these days is moot. Back then, when Opera or Firefox claimed it was the fastest browser on the web, they meant it. Internet Explorer was no competition in that regards. With the modern browsers we have today, it feels as if every browser is fast. I’m sure if you actually used a stop watch and measured the seconds (or milliseconds) it took for two browsers to load the same page there would be a difference. However, that difference is most likely so minimal that it wouldn’t impact a users browsing experience. With that being said, yes, Opera 11 is fast just as Firefox, IE and Chrome is as well. If you want hard data on this category, please look elsewhere.
Alright so Opera 11 is a browser but what can it do to separate it apart from the rest of the competition? Although there are many thousands and thousands of Opera users out there, Opera still doesn’t represent a significant portion in the overall market share when compared with other popular browsers.It’s unfortunate how things work now days. If you’re not already a big name company, it’s really hard to to attract users to switch using whatever product they are using at the moment to join your cause. No matter how many more features you bake into your product that your competition doesn’t have, it still doesn’t matter. Brand name recognition is huge today. A very simple example of this is when comparing the iPod music player. There are dozens of other MP3 music players out there that have much more capabilities (not talking about the iPod touch) but yet doesn’t sell well because users have already put the Apple name synonymous with music. If you ask a person off the street who doesn’t really know about technology that much if they would rather use a browser made from Google or one from a company called Opera, chances are good that they will pick the one from Google because they already know about that company. Whose Opera? Obviously it doesn’t always work like this but you get the point.
With modern browsers, a lot has to focus on tabs and how you interact with them. Opera 11 comes with a cool feature that allows you to easily group a bunch of similar tabs together under one tab. This is useful for users who have many tabs open during a browsing session as it can help you become more organized, not to mention saving screen room. All you need to do is drag a tab directly onto another tab and they are now grouped/stacked together. Anytime you need to find or switch over to a tab within that group, simply hover your mouse over that one tab and Opera will show you a nice window in which you can preview all the tabs in that groups along with making a switch to another. This works very similar to the Aero-peek feature of Windows 7. As you can see below, I have three websites stacked together.
Another very useful feature concerning tabs is tab pinning. I’m sure there were many times when you were working with a dozen or so tabs within a browsing session and you accidentally closed a tab you didn’t intend to. Sure, it’s really easy to recover that tab as many browsers allow you to do just that with a couple of clicks but wouldn’t it be nice if you never actually have to worry about it from the start? By pinning a tab, Opera will not allow you to close that tab until you have unpinned it. This prevents accidental tab closure. To pin a tab, simply right click on one and select Pin Tab from the context menu. Two things will immediately happen. First, the tab will automatically move to the beginning (far left) of your tabs. Second, the tab will now transform itself into a mini icon with the picture of the site’s favicon as the main source of tab identification. You can move this mini tab wherever you wish to within your tab arrangement. To actually be able to close the tab/site, you need to once again right click on the tab and select the Pin Tab option (to unpin it).
If you didn’t pin a site and have accidentally closed a tab, simply click on the recycle bin icon near the top right corner of Opera and you’ll be able to recover that or any other recently closed tabs.
The last thing about tabs is the ability to easily place them wherever most comfortable for you. You can choose the top, left, right or bottom of Opera to dock your tabs. Another feature is being able to enable thumbnails for your tabs right in your tab dock. Rather than what you are most normally used to, enabling thumbnails allows you to instantly see a preview of the tab right in the tab area. Simply right click on your tab dock area, select Customize and then Enable Thumbnails in Tabs to enable this feature.
Opera 11 also features Panels, a quick sidebar which allows access to many things with a click of a button. To access panels, look at the bottom of your screen where you should by default see a couple of icons. Click on the first one from the left and immediately a tiny column will appear with different icons. Here, you can view your Downloads folder, History, bookmarks and a host of many other things by clicking on the corresponding icon. The results would be a panel (you can resize the panel horizontally if you wish) showing you the results. Click on the icon again and the panel disappears from view. Quite handy. Think of it as a quick launch dock. You can install other Panels as well which will enable other cool things you can do in that area. The point is, Panels give you a quick way to access the information you need. I like it a lot.
One of the coolest features in my opinion of Opera 11 is the Opera Turbo feature. In a nutshell, enabling Opera Turbo allows Opera to load websites faster when you are on a slow network. How is this possible? Simple. By using compression of course! Let’s say for example you log in to a free (and most likely very busy) hotspot at the airport. You notice that because there are so many other users also logging on to the network, your pages load very slowly. In this scenario, enabling Opera Turbo can help you out because it compresses images to lower bandwidth usage. Also, enabling Opera Turbo mode can serve as a decent Java flash blocker as the element is automatically disabled when loading a website under Opera Turbo mode. You can in turn manually re-enable each Java element by clicking in the appropriate area (symbolized by a “play” button). Awesome! The downside to compression obviously is that the images will not look as sharp than if compression hadn’t been enabled but I’m sure you can live with that for faster page loads.
Here is a simple comparison. You can clearly tell which picture has the Opera Turbo compression feature turned on:
Here, you can see what happens when I enable Opera Turbo when browsing to Yahoo. Notice how the flash adverts have been disabled from loading.
To really see how Opera Turbo has helped you, hover your mouse button over the icon at the bottom of the status bar (which also shows you the current compression level). Opera Turbo will tell you how much MB of data it has helped you save altogether in that session.
Opera Unite is a service offered by Opera to allow you to share your data along with interact with other users in the Opera community via applications. For example, you can play games with other users along with collaborating on certain projects. There is a application to share your entire music library along with an application to host your own website via a web server right inside Opera! The only requirement is that you sign-up for the service. After that, you can begin using the applications.
Opera offers their own synchronization service called Opera Link. Signing up for the service is free and once you have done so, Opera will then sync your browser’s data to their online servers. When you use Opera on another computer and sign-in to your Opera Link account, the data will be merged/synced to provide a more seamless browsing experience no matter which computer you use. This is very similar to the Xmarks service except it’s only designed for Opera browsers. Sadly, Xmarks isn’t officially available for Opera.
Opera 11 features a pretty slick content blocking mechanism right inside the browser. This helps you manually target advertisements or other distracting elements when on a website. Using it is very simple. When on a site that has content you wish to blast away, right-click on an empty area and select Block Content from the menu. You can now simply click on the unwanted elements be it an annoying picture or advertisement banner and it will be blocked. Any other elements loaded by the same server path will consequently be blocked automatically as well (default behavior). Hold Shift while clicking to block individual content.
If the above is to tedious work for your liking, then you’ll want to use an automatic ad blocking mechanism. As usual, the awesome Adblock Plus addon for Firefox doesn’t work for any other browser but Mozilla type based so we’ll have to look elsewhere for Opera as well. Luckily, there is a Adblock list maintained by Fanboy that should help prevent most unwanted advertisements from loading. It’s not perfect but it sure does a very nice job. All you need to do is download the list (urlfilter.ini) and copy it to the correct Opera directory. If that isn’t enough, combine that with the Adsweep addon and be set. If an advertisement still manages to invade a website, manually block it by using the method mentioned above.
Mouse Gestures is a nice feature to have in any browser and Opera 11’s got it without you having to install anything. By holding your mouse’s button and moving the mouse in a certain direction, you could perform various actions within the browser. For example, holding the right mouse button while moving the mouse left causes you to traverse to the previous page. There are many other gestures you can perform so memorize them to save you a bunch of time.
A modern browser isn’t complete now a days without some sort of private browsing mode. In Opera 11, simply right click in your tab area, select New Private Tab and off you go.
Did you know Opera 11 allows Voice Control? Yups. That’s pretty sweet if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.
Speed Dial is another similar feature seen in other browsers. When opening a new tab, you’re presented with a grid of your favorite websites, which you can access with a single click. You can configure how big or small the grids are which in turn alters how much grid boxes can be seen. Also, you can configure the background image on the Speed Dial page to your liking as well. The Opera community has a few selection of Speed Dial backgrounds for you to download. Simply right-click on the image (or any other image you have in mind loaded within Opera) and select Use Image as Speed Dial Background. Another awesome site to grab backgrounds is from Interfacelift.
In the End…
I’m very impressed with Opera. It’s been a while since I’ve last tried the browser but it wasn’t like it left a bad taste in my mouth. At that time, something better just came along, I made the switch and haven’t looked back since. The browser world has matured a lot within the last couple of years and so it’s good to see what Opera has been up to all this time. After using Opera for a good day or two, I can definitely say that I like this a lot more than Google Chrome. I definitely would love to see more addon support for Opera in the coming years. As of right now, Opera only lists 256 addon’s for Opera 11. Of course this shouldn’t be shocking as Opera doesn’t have as large an audience such as Firefox or Internet Explorer so hopefully, it will get better with time. By default though, Opera is still a joy to use. I can definitely see the Opera Turbo mode taking off in future browsers because it’s so useful, especially for users who are always on the road and connecting to slow hotspots. The Panels feature I can see myself using all the time. Being able to quickly get to the information I need is very important and Panels allows me to do just that. And it’s customizable! If a advertisement sneaks its way past your defenses, simply zap them away with the built-in content blocking mechanism in Opera.
It’s my hopes that Opera will gain more users as time goes by. The browser war has mainly been dominated by talks of Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome but Opera deserves to be mentioned as well. But again, that’s hard to do if your user-base is not so big. In terms of quality, I think Opera surpasses Chrome. I mean at the end of the day, a browser is just that. A browser. It renders HTML so that it displays the page how the developer intended it to look on your screen. It’s the extra features and services that makes a browser special from one another. Oh right, can’t forget usability as well!