Opera 8

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.

Opera 8 screenshot

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).

Screen space

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.

Accessibility

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.

Voice

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.

Gestures

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.

Conclusion

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.

Searching for INF files

Here’s a question posed to me by my friend James:

Do you know if there’s a way of seeing which .inf file a device is using for its driver?

I didn’t, and he didn’t. But together we seemed to work it out, with a little bit of detective work.

See, James is trying to get his PCMCIA WiFi card to work on his laptop under Linux. It works under Windows, and James thought that some of the information contained in the .inf file might be useful.

I discovered from the INF File Sections and Directives pages on the MSDN website that the .inf file contains a list of all the driver files installed. And given that you can find which driver files are being used by any piece of hardware in the Device Manager it seemed only sensible that a text search in the C:\Windows\inf folder (once viewing hidden system files has been enabled in Folder Options) would throw up the .inf file required. And that seemed to do the trick. So, well done us!

(I use Agent Ransack for searches, as I find it more reliable and faster than the built-in Windows XP ‘puppy dog’ search.)

Possible spam, what do you think?

I opened this email today; I’m wondering if it could possibly be spam, or if the attached Zip file might have a virus payload.

From: info@garethjmsaunders.co.uk
Sent: Wednesday 15 June 2005 14:02
To: gareth@garethjmsaunders.co.uk
Subject: Your password has been updated

Dear user gareth,

You have successfully updated the password of your Garethjmsaunders account.

If you did not authorize this change or if you need assistance with your account, please contact Garethjmsaunders customer service at: info@garethjmsaunders.co.uk

Thank you for using Garethjmsaunders!
The Garethjmsaunders Support Team

+++ Attachment: No Virus (Clean)
+++ Garethjmsaunders Antivirus – www.garethjmsaunders.co.uk

I asked my friend James what he thought. He replied “I think it may be spam. Do you have your own support team?”

I sometimes wish I did have my own support team! It looks like I have my own antivirus product too (Garethjmsaunders Antivirus). Now why didn’t I mention this to my friend Simon last night when he was asking about AV software. Now, I wonder.

Linux Bible

Linux Bible 2005 Edition cover

I’ve just begun reading this book, Linux Bible 2005 Edition by Christopher Negus (Wiley, 2005). It claims to help me:

  • Understand what Linux is and where it comes from
  • Sort through the various incarnations of Linux to choose one (or more) that is right for me
  • Try out Linux as a desktop computer, server computer, or programmer’s workstation
  • Become connected to the open-source software movement

Sounds like a good start. For quite a while I’ve wanted to get into Linux (I already own the t-shirt!). Maybe this book will give me the chance to understand what it’s all about, how it compares with Windows, and what I need to do to get started. One of my immediate concerns is regarding dual-booting, that is installing more than one operating system on the same system, in my case Linux with Windows (either 98se or XP, depending on which machine I install it on here). This book, I am certain, will guide me through that process step by step: it does claim to be the Bible after all!

I expect to return from Cellardyke on Friday a fully-trained Linux guru.

Fertility clinic: Dr Rogers to the rescue!

Jane had her appointment at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh today, at the fertility clinic. It all went well, seemingly. Unfortunately, because I was being dosed up with antibiotics on the other side of town, I couldn’t be there, so the part of ‘Concerned Husband’ was this morning played by Mrs Dorothy Neilson, Jane’s mother and Enneagram Scotland business-partner.

After the usual clinic procedures of bloods, height and weight, Jane saw one of the fertility experts, a female doctor, whose name was, rather amusingly, Dr Rogers, who discussed her medical history (Jane’s medical history, that is, not her own) and what they knew about mine; the usual things: do I have any hereditary diseases (yes), am I on medication (no), have I ever had sex with a Russian prisoner (no), that sort of thing.

Then Jane was treated to some kind of internal scan to make sure her inside-ladies’-bits (as they are professionally known) looked as though they were working okay. And they were. Now, something I didn’t know is that women’s ovulation alternates month about between the left and right ovaries, like the pendulum of an amazing biological clock.

[Adopts Newcastle accent] Day 17 in the Big Brother womb and it looks like Egg has just left his room on the left-hand side of the house, and is making his way into the corridor to be greeted by …

Yeah, that’s another thing. Jane asked for clarification about my sperm test results from yay back (Thursday 27 January). Dr Rogers was far more helpful in her analysis of the test results.

It appears that we really have nothing to worry about on that front. The results showed that I have around 107 million sperm/ml, while the average is (according to Jane, according to Dr Rogers) around 30 million sperm/ml. Yay for me! Her only comment was that at times they were a little slow.

A little slow?! No wonder, have you seen how many there are?! Has she ever been on the London Tube at rush hour?! You turn up during the day, when there are an average number of people trying to get on the escalators down to the platforms and you’ve got plenty of room to move, plenty of opportunity to scoot on ahead, you can go as fast or as slow as you like. But as soon as you increase that number of people by a factor of, say three or a little more … you see what I’m saying?

The next step is a laparoscopy for Jane … in September. Seemingly, trying to co-ordinate theatre-time with consultants’ holiday diaries isn’t as easy as it might first appear.

But it all feels quite positive, we’re in the system, and the tests are (so far) coming back positive, in that there doesn’t appear to be any immediate and obvious reason why we’re not conceiving. You know, like “I’m sorry, but it appears that the reason you’re not conceiving is that Jane’s womb appears to be made from Lego!” or “I’m sorry but it appears that Gareth’s sperm is 50% lava!” We just keep trying …