May 3, 2006

Opera 9.0 beta is playing my song

Author: Lee Schlesinger

Opera has been my favorite browser since I began using Linux regularly in 2003, and on Windows before that. With Opera 9.0, now in beta, Opera continues its record of innovation, adding features no other popular browser can match.

Since its debut a year and a half ago, Firefox has given Opera a run for its money. Among the changes in Opera's new version are key bindings that emulate those of Firefox. For instance, to open a new window in Opera you used to press Ctrl-N -- now it's Ctrl-T. You can also now use Ctrl-Enter to add "www." and ".com" to a string you type in the address bar. Being able to use the same function keys in both browsers makes it easier to use them concurrently, or to migrate from one to the other. Also new in this version, you can type opera:config in the address bar to bring up an editor for browser preferences. While the about:config option has been present in Mozilla browsers for some time, Opera's Preferences editor is much more user friendly.

A major new feature in this version is Opera Widgets, which are applets that run along with but outside of Opera. You can pin a widget to the screen, after which it stays visible over other Opera windows. Today, most of the available widgets are non-essential things like games and clocks, but more complex and useful widgets are likely to take more time to code.

Another nice new feature: If you pause your mouse over a page's tab, you can see a thumbnail of the page. The new version has many more enhancements.

Opera displaying thumbnail - click to enlarge


I downloaded the shared version of Opera, which relies on shared Qt libraries, to start with, but when I tried to install it, I found a missing dependency. Rather than mess around to fix the problem, I downloaded the static version of Opera. The 11MB package installed smoothly on my SimplyMEPIS laptop running KDE. The skin I used with Opera 8.5 and my bookmarks remained in place. The new version also runs on Windows, Mac OS X, Solaris, and FreeBSD.

Opera pioneered many of the features we now expect in a modern browser -- tabbed windows, integrated pop-up blocker, integrated search box, and custom panels for things such as bookmarks and browsing history. Its interface is highly customizable -- you can place panels and toolbars just about anywhere on the screen. Opera includes a dozen search engines available from a box next to the address bar, and if your favorite is not among them, you can easily add it to the list. If you accidentally close an Opera tab, you can bring it right back by pressing Ctrl-Z.

My two favorite Opera features are the Wand and form completion. Opera's Wand remembers usernames and passwords, and enters both with a click to a taskbar button. If you have multiple usernames and passwords for a single site -- multiple Yahoo Mail accounts, for instance -- the Wand presents a list for you to choose from -- no typing needed.

Opera's Preferences editor - click to enlarge

In addition to making password completion simple, Opera does something similar for other commonly typed information. If you enter your personal information in Opera's Wand Preferences window, then every time you visit a page that asks you to fill in your name, address, email address, or phone number, Opera will suggest the information you've supplied for the given field, and insert it if you arrow down to it and press Enter. Other browsers can do something similar, but not without a plugin, and not without an additional mouse click.

If you're migrating from another browser, Opera lets you import your bookmarks from Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Konqueror.

Despite the fact that Opera 9.0 is still in beta release, the code seems solid and stable. I experienced no crashes or unexpected page rendering, and the browser's speed is at least as good as that of the last shipping version.

More than the Web

Opera is a great browser, but it can do more than browse the Web. Opera also bundles an IRC client, email client, contact manager, and RSS feed reader. None of these integrated applications is the best program available for what they do; they offer good basic functionality, but I'll be sticking with X-Chat and Thunderbird.

Opera has many more features of varying degrees of importance. It's hard to find anything not to like about what the product offers. Some potential users object to the fact that Opera is neither open source nor free as in speech (though it is free of cost). Anyone who's passing up the software for philosophical reasons may be short-changing himself. The release of the latest beta makes a perfect time to see what you've been missing.

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