December 3, 2001

Opera 6.0 Preview: New cannon fodder for the Linux browser wars

Author: JT Smith

- By F. Grant Robertson -
When I set out to review the Technology Preview 1 version of Opera 6.0 for Linux, I'll have to admit I was at a bit of a disadvantage. Until now I've all but ignored Opera. I knew it was out there and I know at least one person who actively used it, but I just hadn't put forth the effort to give any recent versions a try. Call me set in my ways, but it just didn't occur to me that there could be a better browser for Linux than Mozilla. How wrong I've been. I was excited to try an alternative to the Netscape/Mozilla stranglehold on Linux Web surfing. I wasn't getting my hopes up, though. A Web browser is a complicated application, and if companies with the resources of AOL or Microsoft couldn't get it right, how could I expect some relatively small software company from Norway to get any closer?

My software test computer, otherwise known as my trusty desktop, is a K6-II 450 with 512 megs of RAM running Mandrake 8.0. This is not a powerhouse by anyone's standards, but it is a reliable system, representative of the average desktop machine found in the wild.

After downloading a surprisingly small 4.5 meg installer package and installing it via RPM, Mandrake's native package manager, I set about the task of putting Opera 6.0 TP1 through its paces.

I wasn't surprised that "easy" pages like Google, Yahoo, and were rendered quickly and fully. I soon started trying pages that present difficulty or don't render correctly (or at all) with Netscape. Many of them looked a lot better with Opera. It seems that because of better default fonts, most anything is more legible under Opera than under Netscape. I also found that Opera correctly renders most CSS-style directives, including text-only hover effects and font sizes. Over the course of two days, I was not able to find a page Opera couldn't display. My hat is off to the people at Opera for understanding that that poor HTML structure should not lead to missing information on a page, a point Netscape missed a long time ago.

Opera also possesses some unique features, such as a persistent Google search bar, searchable bookmarks, and something called mouse gesturing. Gesturing is a neat concept, but will take almost anyone some acclimation time before it becomes useful. For instance, right-clicking on a blank spot in a page and moving the mouse upwards then releasing the mouse button causes the browser to reload the page. A similar motion, but moving the mouse downwards, causes a new browser window to open. There are a host of these shortcuts, and I see the potential for them to be useful once you've gotten the hang of them. As with most any feature in Opera, mouse gesturing can be turned off easily.

What I did find to be missing from the Linux version of Opera 6.0 was an email client. The Windows version of Opera contains a useable and highly integrated email application that seems to have been completely removed from its Linux counterpart. For most users, this won't be an issue; however, it would be nice to have Opera's features completely synchronous across platforms. Perhaps this will be included in the production version of Opera 6.0 for Linux, even though previous Linux versions of Opera have not included an email client.

As with any pre-release or beta software, there were drawbacks. A frustrating bug with mouse-over image "ALT" tags sometimes left the tooltip text for an image displayed even after the page -- and in some cases the browser itself -- was closed. Even Xkill seemed powerless to correct this, but after several minutes the orphaned tooltip would finally disappear on its own. In one instance, over a secure connection, the browser issued a segfault, bringing an immediate end to the application and the secure transaction I was performing. This was a one-time event. I was unable to reproduce the crash later, given the same conditions. Last, but not least, the most visible and spectacular bug I saw caused the blending of two pages when closing one browser window in favor of another. This was also not readily reproducible, although I did see this several times over the course of two days. Overall, I found the Opera 6 TP1 sufficiently stable for a pre-release version, with quality far surpassing what any Mozilla early adopter would find acceptable.

After this, I'm definitely Opera's newest fan. Its only drawback, from where I sit, is cost. In the browser market, where it seems everything has been free as long as anyone can remember, the U.S. $35 sticker price for a standard Opera license is almost shocking. After seeing its quality and features, I can't help but think that taking the monetary incentive out of the mainstream browsers may have adversely affected their quality control, or at least their commitment to meet users' desire for enhancements. In the end, the $35 license fee is a small amount to pay for the independence of having a modern, feature-rich, and well thought out browser under Linux.


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