April 14, 2011

Opera 11.10: Fast, Full-Featured, a Little Quirky


Opera 11.10 is out with desktop support for its Turbo feature. How's the browser measuring up next to Firefox and Chrome? Opera 11.10 holds its own, though it has its own quirks and hurdles to overcome.

It's been a while since we've had a full review of Opera on Linux.com, so I wanted to take a more complete look at Opera 11.10 rather than just focusing on the new features. Not all of the features I'll touch on here are new, but should provide a fairly complete picture of Opera's capabilities.

Opera went through a ugly duckling phase, but recent releases of Opera are looking pretty snazzy on the Linux desktop. I worked with Opera 11.10 on a system running Ubuntu 10.10, with GNOME 2.32. Opera looks right at home on GNOME, something that couldn't be said a few years ago.


Opera 11.10The big feature in 11.10 is Opera Turbo. First found in Opera's mobile versions, Turbo is a feature that compresses Web pages via Opera's servers. That's right — that means Opera's going to have a pretty good idea what you're looking at while using Turbo.

Naturally, sessions over SSL won't go through Opera's servers — but if you're using Turbo the rest of the traffic gets sent through Opera's servers. That still leaves Opera holding a lot of information about your browsing habits, which users may or may not be comfortable with. (I'm not.) Opera's privacy statement on Opera Turbo is not particularly detailed, though it does say that analysis of usage is done in aggregate, "anonymizing individual identities."

The feature isn't meant to be used full-time, however. Opera suggests the feature for situations when you're on a slow connection — like at the airport on public Wi-Fi, or maybe tethering off a mobile phone. In those cases, if you just need to hit the Web to get an address or something like that, you might not mind Opera being able to see that traffic. And since SSL'ed connections aren't sent through Turbo, Opera won't be able to see anything about your use of Webmail or other connections that are sent via SSL.

Turbo does work as advertised, as far as I could tell. Unfortunately, I started testing Turbo on my home network instead of last week when I was dealing with hotel wireless — the ultimate test.

Opera's UI

I have something of a love/hate relationship with Opera's User Interface (UI). If you spend a lot of time using Opera, you'll start to discover some interesting features that aren't obvious at first glance. The problem is that you have to get used to a UI design that's somewhat cluttered and loaded with bells and whistles.

Let me give a few examples. Opera has a neat newish (since 11, I believe) feature called Tab Stacking. You drag one tab on top of another and it "stacks" the tabs and puts a small arrow on the right-hand side of the window. You hit the arrow and it expands the tabs so you can see them all. This is a fairly feature and makes Opera's UI very pleasant.Opera 11.10 Tiling

Opera also lets you put the tabs on the right or left of the windows, as well as top/bottom — instead of the top-only configuration that many users are used to with Firefox. If you have a wide screen this can be very useful.

When I'm on a very big widescreen monitor, I do like Opera's window management features — where each page can be its own "window" inside the larger Opera window. (See screenshot). This is very useful when looking at two or more pages at a time.

But Opera is also a bit cluttered, and it can take a while to find things.

Widgets and Extensions

Opera has made a big deal of its Widgets for years and added extensions in Opera 11. What's the difference? Extensions are similar to add-ons for Firefox, while Widgets are full-blown applications like games or ebook readers.

So far, Opera hasn't accumulated anything like Firefox or Chrome's collection of extensions. You'll find a few, the list was fewer than 500 when I checked, but I didn't find any extensions that were must-haves. The Widgets on offer can be kind of fun (I like the circular Tetris game, Torus) but nothing that's really crucial to a Web browser. The strategy of trying to make Opera a development platform may work on mobile, but I don't really see it being a winner on the desktop.

Mail and IRC

Unlike Chrome and Firefox, Opera comes with its own mail and IRC clients. You might be thinking that Opera would be "bloated" with all that extra stuff — but it's really not. The benchmark tests go back and forth so much it's hard to say whether Opera is the fastest browser this week — but it's plenty speedy. And that carries over to its mail client.

I tested Opera with my Gmail account, over IMAP. I was pleasantly surprised by how speedy Opera was in fetching messages. Skimming through mail is very pleasant with Opera.

Where it falls down is configurablity. Finding the mail preferences in Opera's UI is not easy — and there's not much in the way of preferences. Opera seems to want to manage the way you handle mail, which might work for some folks — but it's not my cup of tea. For example, Opera wants to organize messages by read/unread, etc. instead of by folders. I much prefer folders — which is admittedly "old school" and probably not the most efficient way to manage mail. But it works for me — and doesn't work well for Opera.

I'd like to be able to "archive" mails as soon as I've read & (if necessary) replied to them. However, as far as I can discern, Opera has no notion of "moving" messages except clicking and dragging. This doesn't exactly work for me, but maybe it'll work for you. I like the label system, and its "Follow Threads" feature (which does exactly what it sounds like). I like that Opera automagically detects mailing lists, and provides a way to follow contacts, or view messages by attachments. All nice stuff, but still missing some basic features.

I will say that when manually copying messages between folders, Opera was plenty speedy. It's just not optimal to have to use the mouse to do it.

As an aside, I think it's about time for mail clients to stop with default signatures that pimp the mail client. I can't speak for others, but I don't want to send a client or friend a message with the signature "Using Opera's revolutionary email client." Whether Opera's mail client qualifies as "revolutionary," I'll leave as an exercise to the reader — but I'm not convinced. It's good, but revolutionary is a stretch.

The IRC client in Opera is nice enough, except that it doesn't seem to have a way to automatically log messages. Searching Opera's help system for this didn't yield any joy, either. If you only use IRC once in a while, it's not a biggie — but IRC used to be one of my primary modes of communication for work, and having meeting logs (without having to think about it) was essential.


After using Opera 11.10 as my primary browser for a few days — and using it for mail a bit and for IRC — I have to say that I'm impressed, but not convinced.

Opera has a lot of nice touches that I really like. It's fast, it's very full-featured. But it's a jack of all trades, master of none. Opera is a great browser, but doesn't have the depth of add-ons/extensions that Firefox and Chrome have. It has some interesting features as a mailer, but misses a few features I'd need to want to use it full time. It's a decent IRC client, but if I can't set up automatic logging then it's not worth looking at.

For casual users, though, I think Opera is a fine browser. If you do a little bit of browsing, a little bit of email, and occasionally participate in IRC (or not at all), then using Opera makes a lot of sense. So it's a conditional thumbs up for Opera 11.10. It's not quite what I'm looking for in a browser, but it has a lot of advantages and might be a great fit for other users.

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