Two of the most popular Linux browsers were unveiled this month after years of development -- the open source Firefox 3 and the proprietary Opera 9.5. Opera's launch a week before Firefox was like any other launch, unlike Firefox's much publicized world record attempt. But Opera 9.5 is no less revolutionary than Firefox, matching its open source rival feature for feature, from security-related enhancements to improved multilingual text rendering.
The first thing you notice when you launch Opera 9.5 is that it occupies less desktop real estate than Firefox 3, with less toolbar space and smaller borders, giving you more room to view pages. Opera's nifty features are tucked away in its power panel. Unlike Firefox's panel, which displays only bookmarks and history, Opera's lets you access the built-in file transfer manager, the notes app, widgets (the Web browser equivalent of desktop applets), and other features. You can also see any bookmarked site as a panel as well, or download more Web panels for a variety of tasks, such as browsing news sites or playing games.
If you like to start your browser with multiple tabs, one for your email, a couple for tech and other news, a couple of comics, and so on, you'll love Opera's default start page, called "speed dial." It displays nine customizable buttons that, with a click, will take you to your favorite bookmarked sites. Opera also has a lot of tabbing features and control options, including the Ctrl-Tab cycling control and restoring tabs. You can preview pages open in a tab as well or resize pages within tabs, which lets you see multiple pages in one window.
Another nifty time-saving feature is the wand, which stores autocomplete information, including passwords. Like with the new Firefox, the wand in Opera doesn't interfere with browsing, saving username and passwords in the background while a site continues to load. The wand is better than the "remember password" option in Firefox, because it doesn't autofill the fields and allows you to enter details manually if you want to use different credentials. But if you want to use the stored username and password, just click the wand button, next to the address bar, and it not only fills in the information but also logs you in automatically, saving you another click.
Opera 9.5 also protects you from online fraud and scams with a built-in fraud protection feature. Opera monitors sites you're visiting and checks them against phishing information from Netcraft and PhishTank, and malware protection from Haute Secure. An option in the panel also lets you view details about the site and its security certificate, if it has one. Firefox 3 has similar phishing and malware protection.
Also similar between the two browsers is their ability to replace desktop apps with online counterparts. Both Opera 9.5 and Firefox 3 let you configure a Web-based email account and use it to answer all mailto: protocol requests. Opera 9.5 goes a step further and in fact packs in a complete email client that can also synchronize with a POP or IMAP-based server. This allows you to compose and send messages from within the browser. The email client is well integrated into the browser, and can be launched in a tab from the panel.
In addition to the email client, Opera has lots of features built in that are available only as add-ons for Firefox. For instance, in its note-taking app, you can create multiple notes from scratch, or copy a selected piece of text into a note, arrange notes in folders, and, if the mail client is configured, email them as well. Then there's the download manager, which can not only pause and resume downloads, but is also a full-fledged BitTorrent client. And Opera also bundles an IRC client.
One Firefox 3 feature I miss in Opera 9.5 is the ability to copy multiple text ranges. But it can search a selected word in a dictionary, or translate it to other languages using Yahoo!'s Babel Fish online service. Firefox 3 lets you tag bookmarks; Opera 9.5 doesn't, but it has a quick find feature that remembers the content of every page you visit. So if you forget to bookmark a difficult-to-remember site -- say zedropratodretua.co.za -- you can still find it in your history if you remember bits of its content.
At the bottom of its window Opera 9.5 displays three buttons. The Fit to Width button zooms out a page to help you avoid horizontal scrolling, which is pretty cool if your resolution is lower than 1280x1024. The resizing worked on several sites I tried it on, but not on Gmail. Another button is actually a pull-down menu that lets you select preset zoom levels defined in percentages from 20% to 1,000%. This is good for instantly doubling or tripling the font size, as compared to Firefox, where you have to press the "zoom in" button several times for the same result. But Firefox 3 can remember zoom settings for a particular site, whereas Opera cannot.
The final button on the bottom toolbar helps you disable and re-enable all images on the page. If you want to block other content, an option in the right-click context menu helps you block certain elements like online advertisements.
Opera 9.5 has lots of import and export options. It can import bookmarks from Firefox, Konqueror, and Internet Explorer, and email from older Opera versions and dedicated clients such as Thunderbird, Eudora, or any generic mbox file. You can also use Opera's free Opera Link Web service to sync bookmarks and speed dials between your Opera browsers at work, home, and on your mobile phones. Opera's Knowledge Base has details on these and more features and how to use them, as well as on online help options and premium support for $29.
Testing under the hood
In addition to the user-facing additions, Opera 9.5 also has a new browser engine under the hood. Opera claims to have "made the fastest browser in the world even faster with superior support for Web standards." While Opera 9.5 did render internationalized scripts better than Firefox 3, I put this claim to test with a couple of online benchmarks. I ran all the tests on a machine with an Intel Core 2 Duo 4400 2.0GHz processor with 1GB RAM over Ubuntu 8.04, and on Windows XP (SP2) to check cross-platform support.
First up was the CSS benchmark, and Opera 9.5 on Linux was indeed the fastest of the lot. The test measures the time it takes the browser to render a locally stored page consisting of almost 2,500 positioned DIV tags. The plotted numbers in the CSS test graph are the average of five test runs. Opera 9.5 also passes the ACID 2 test, but, like its peers, fails the ACID 3 benchmark -- but it scored the maximum marks on the ACID 3 test among the tested browsers, as shown in the ACID 3 test graph.
Opera 9.5 is full to the brim with features and improvements and highly customizable. By rolling in apps such as the mail client and IRC chat application, and integrating them into a user's browsing experience, Opera 9.5 is a worthy challenger to Firefox 3. It surely has enough power and features to make it my favorite browser. If only it were free software and open source!