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Opera

Started in 1994 as a Norwegian telecommunications company, Opera began developing PC software in 1995 and launched its first Opera Web browser for Windows, version 2.1, in late 1996 (previous versions were not widely available). From its earliest versions, the Opera Web browser--hereafter referred to simply as Opera--was an interesting animal. Unlike IE, Mozilla, or most other browsers today, Opera was written completely from scratch, and it's always supported a wide range of unique features. Opera has also continued selling its browser product, again in sharp contrast with Mozilla and IE, both of which are available freely.But thanks to a deep commitment to Web standards, Opera has always found an audience with Web developers, who are generally impressed with its speed, small installation footprint (for non-Java-enabled versions, anyway) and support for the latest CSS, DHTML, HTML, Java, JavaScript/ECMAScript, WML, and XML specs.

Opera 7.53

The latest version of Opera, at the time of this writing, is Opera 7.53, which follows a string of 7.x releases beginning back in early 2003, when the company added a number of new features, including a completely rewritten core rendering engine, a integrated mail component, and a new Small-Screen Rendering (SSR) mode for testing sites on small devices like cell phones and PDAs. Today, Opera 7.53 expands on those additions with a number of other unique features and massive performance improvements, leading to the product's "fastest browser on earth" claims.

Frankly, one of the biggest problems with Opera is that it tries to do so much. It's a complicated product, with a sweeping set of functionality, and an over-busy UI that will likely confuse lots of people. However, Opera will also appeal to the technical elite, who want their computing experiences as personalized as possible, and are willing to take the time to do a lot of customizing.

Another problem with Opera is the price: Though you can download the product for free, this version is besieged by annoying ads (Figure 1). And the default home page that Opera choose for you spews out pop-up ads, which are annoying. A $39 investment will remove the ad banners (Figure 2), which is nice, but that's a high price for a product that generally doesn't offer most users much over the free alternatives (You can turn off pop-ups as well, even in the free version). That said, Opera is a compelling product, especially for certain people, and I'll highlight some of the features that set this solution apart from IE below.

Pop-up blocking. Like Mozilla products and the version of IE found in Windows XP Service Pack 2 (SP2), but not previous IE versions, Opera includes a pop-up blocker. Stupidly, it's not on by default. Even more stupidly, the default home page in Opera displays two pop-up windows (Figure 3)! And thanks to Opera's complicated interface, finding the widget that turns on this feature is difficult at best: It's in Tools, Preferences, Windows (Figure 4). Seriously, could this dialog have a few more options? Anyway, pop-up blocking is good. Complexity is bad.

MDI Interface/tabbed browsing. Opera has sported what's known as a multiple-document interface (MDI) for years, which allows the application to host any number of child windows, each of which can represent a different Web page. This is the way early versions of Microsoft Office worked by default; today, Office products, like IE, sport what's called an SDI interface. With SDI (single document interface), each child window gets its own window frame, and its own corresponding taskbar icon. With Opera (and Mozilla), you can optionally open new windows as pages, or child windows, within the main Opera window. However, Opera takes this process a step further. By default, all new window requests open a new page, not a new window (Figure 5).

Some find this to be confusing or cluttered, but I like it. The problem is that Opera's overall interface is so cluttered that I tend to move some of its UI elements around a bit so that the tabbed page headers are on the bottom of the main Opera window, and not at the top (which is possible thanks to Opera's amazing customizability features; see below).

Zoom. This is where things get really interesting. Opera supports an amazing zoom feature that lets you view text and images up close. Both IE and Mozilla support limited zoom functionality, but it's taken to a whole new level in Opera, and is a boon for the visually impaired (used in tandem with the Small-Screen Rendering (SSR) feature, below, it's even better). Here's how it works: At any time, the toolbar-based zoom control (Figure 6) to zoom in and out of a Web page, and the scrollbars to navigate around the page vertically and horizontally (again, SSR makes this even easier). Fine, right? But check out how gorgeous the text looks (Figure 7). I haven't seen text this clean outside of Microsoft's early Longhorn graphics rendering demos. It's beautiful.

Small-Screen Rendering. Opera also makes browsers for devices with small screens, and they recently added a feature to their desktop-based browser that lets developers test their sites against these devices. Dubbed Small-Screen Rendering, this feature changes the Opera display (hit SHIFT+F11 to enable it) into a small screen emulator (Figure 8). To the average person, this isn't a huge deal, sure. But if you're visually impaired, then this feature, combined with the aforementioned Zoom feature, offers a unique opportunity. What you can do is enabled SSR and then zoom up to the width of the browser. The result is a highly readable Web (Figure 9), even for sites that weren't properly designed for visually impaired users. Bravo.

Customizable. In the previous installment, I mentioned that Mozilla Firefox is highly customizable, and it is But Opera takes customizing to all-new levels, with downloadable skins (themes), panels, language files, toolbars, menus, mouse gestures, keyboard shortcuts, and numerous other features. You can even colorize skins on the fly, if you're so inclined. The result is a rich collection of community-oriented updates, unparalleled on other browsers. Sadly, it's also highly confusing, since there's so much of it. But I give Opera credit for offering quick links to skins, toolbars, and other items that can make the browser emulate IE, Firefox, Apple Safari, and other rival products: If you want to make the switch from IE, but are afraid of a new interface, Opera has a solution (Figure 10).

FastForward and Rewind. Opera features two unique toolbar buttons, FastForward and Rewind, that provide functionality I've been clamoring after for years. Basically, Opera anticipates where you might want to go next when you're on a Web page and you can use these buttons to get there. Consider the obvious example of a Google Web search (Figure 11). As you navigate from page to page looking at search results, the Rewind button will get you back to the original page, and the FastForward button will navigate to the next page, all automatically. Obviously, this feature doesn't work well on some pages, but for pages that would benefit from HTML "next" and "back to beginning" features, as I envisioned them, this solution works well.

The big question, obviously, is whether you should go Opera. At the very least, give it a try: It's a quirky, feature-laden product, and I've only touched the surface of what it can do here. But that, of course, is Opera's biggest failing as well. In some ways, Opera is just too busy and too complicated, and that's going to turn off some people, as will the $39 price tag for the paid version. But Opera is a speedy, impressive IE alternative with unmatched customizability and an amazing array of unique features. I still prefer Firefox's lean and mean approach, but tastes vary. Certainly, Opera is preferable to IE. What isn't?

On to part three: The world of IE-based Web browser alternatives...