I’ve just downloaded and installed the latest version of the Opera web browser, Opera 8.01, and I have to say that I am very impressed with it.
Fast, secure and standards-compliant
In fact, if I wasn’t so hooked on Mozilla Firefox I am certain that this could become my favourite browser. It is fast (loads much quicker than either IE or Firefox), it is secure (with only 4 security issues requiring patched, compared with 61/81 remaining for IE 6.x and 13/18 for Firefox, according to the latest report from Secunia), and it is reportedly the most standards-compliant browser on the market (something that I have long respected Opera for, and have always had a copy installed on my PC for website testing purposes).
But that is not all. Opera 8 also offers an enormous amount of screen space — the most I’ve ever seen for a browser — to the rendering of pages, rather than to toolbars and menus. It is seriously quite impressive. And should my website of the moment not fit the generous 1210 x 887 pixels offered to render the page, the ‘Fit to window width (Ctrl+F11)’ feature will dispense of the annoying horizontal scroll bar and do exactly what it says it will: fit the page to my window size.
Screen estate is further saved by Opera 8’s handling of various default browsers features such as History and Bookmarks. If you click on the address bar a context menu drops down offering you three options: Home, Top 10, and Bookmarks. It’s quite clever and rather intuitive. If you really do miss the traditional placement of History and Bookmarks on the left then simply click the left-hand border of the Opera window (or press F4) and out they pop offering Bookmarks, Notes, Transfers, History and Links (which lists all the links, both internal and external, on your current page).
Tabbed browsing is supported by default, with each tab displaying the favicon, the page title and a useful [x] control to close the tab. New tabs are created either by clicking the New page button to the left of the tabs, or double-clicking on an empty space to the right of the tabs. And new tab pages open phenomenally quickly.
By default there is a Google search box to the right of the address bar. However, I can’t seen to customize this for regional options, Google.co.uk instead of .com and the same for the Amazon option. For a Norwegian software company I’m disappointed at this US-centric default.
For users with accessibility issues Opera offers more than your average browser. Not only is the now-standard option of controlling text size with the mouse scroll-wheel supported (and it supports it better than IE/Win — of course!) but there is also now a voice option. This requires an additional 10MB download (which took seconds with my broadband connection) but impressively does not require an application reload or system reboot: it just downloads it, installs it, and gets on with the job.
A few immediate niggles with the voice options, however. First, there doesn’t seem to be any obvious way to instruct Opera which of my soundcards to use. I have two, an onboard NVIDIA nForce soundcard which I use for Skype and VoIP applications, and Creative Sound Blaster Audigy 2 which I use for everything else! It would have been nice to have been given the option of choosing which to use, as Opera appears to have automatically selected my Audigy 2, despite the fact that NVIDIA nForce is selected as the default for voice recording in Control Panel.
Second, in order to read a selected passage you have to press and hold down the Scroll Lock key before speaking into your mic. I wonder how easy this is for blind users. But more than that, unless you want Metal Mickey to read out the entire page when you enunciate the words “Opera speak!” in a slow, fake-American accent (which is about all I can do to get it to understand me) you first need to highlight the paragraph in question … remind me how non-sighted users are supposed to do that?!
Third, there doesn’t appear to be a way of preventing Opera from reading out loud every URL it encounters, or intelligently reading out the main URL only (eg ‘bbc dot com’). After the ‘aitch tee tee pee colon slash slash double-u double-u double-u dot …’ I’d actually forgotten the first part of the sentence!
Fourth, once it begins reading there’s no controlling it. It’s like visiting an elderly relative! What would have been nice would have been some more intuitive vocal navigation controls that controlled it while it was reading to you: next paragraph, next sentence. Instead the experience is rather start-stop.
However, that all said, while this appears, at the moment, to be little more than a gimmick for sighted-users this is definitely a step in the right direction towards more integrated accessibility support and is to be commended, and may actually be the first browser that I’ve used that supports the CSS2 aural styles statements.
Another interesting feature of Opera 8 is mouse gestures that lets you do frequently performed browse operations with small, quick mouse movements. That will no doubt become a favourite of players of the computer game Darwinia (you know who you are!).
Mail and RSS
Opera comes with a built-in mail client, and support for RSS Feeds. Incredible given that the installation file is only 3.6 MB. How do they manage to cram it all in?! The RSS feeder is basic, but very simple and usable. I haven’t tried the email client.
All in all, the more I’ve used this browser this morning, over the last hour, I’ve become more and more impressed with it. The voice commands have some way to go before becoming a truly usable alternative to typing, but I’m unlikely to use these anyway. Another minor niggle is that there is no reassuring animated graphic to tell me that the browser is doing anything. IE has a spinning planet, Firefox has a spinning disc of dots, Opera doesn’t have anything. When I click something, a form submit button, for example, I like to know that something has happened. The animated graphics are reassuring. With Opera I am left to faith alone that something is happening. When it comes to the internet faith alone might not be enough to reassure users.
What keeps me from switching from Mozilla Firefox to Opera 8 permanently, however, are two things: cost and flexibility. Firefox is free, Opera costs US $29 to register (which unlocks a couple of features including removing the ad banner at the top). If you have a previously registered copy of Opera 7 the registration key seems to work in version 8 — it did in mine. Firefox is also much more extendible with a plethora of extensions that add almost any feature that you could possibly hope for in a browser, written by an enormous community of enthusiasts. Opera, on the other hand, is limited to those features decided on by the Opera software engineers. That said, it is an impressive portfolio of features.
Opera 8 is going to remain on my desktop for a while, and I suspect I will also make room for it on my Quick Launch bar too. IE7 — due in Beta next month — has got an awful lot to compete with now.