Upgrade your web experience

A little more than a month has passed since Opera released version 8.0. It's been a month where I've increasingly enjoyed using the web again. And as far as browsers go, Opera 8 is the closest to thing to perfection I've used. This is not intended to be read as a review, it's just some of my thoughts and impressions on the new version.

easy adoption

Again, as I've written before, it isn't this particular release that does it. Though the new version has several new features, tweaks and improvements that by themselves are exiting enough, it's when these are combined with what has to Opera already offers it becomes really exiting.

It's kind of funny though that the changes I consider to be amongst the most important ones, all the UI tweaks and improvements, really doesn't matter that much to me personally. You see, for a long time now I've considered Opera to be the best browser, both when it comes to features and functionality as well as overall user experience. The problem however has been that it has been a bit geared towards web professionals or otherwise already tech savvy persons, while the more casual or technologically challenged users may at times have had a hard time getting the grips with the browser. Much of this can of course be attributed to the way IE is integrated into Windows (often trying to give the impression that the WWW is nothing more than a extension of the OS itself), but it's also the result of the default configuration in previous versions of Opera. Together with a general cleanup of the UI, the simplified default configuration is one of the smartest moves Opera has done with the new version. Although it's hard to know exactly how a novice users will experience this, it certainly seems as though this version should be much easier to adopt.

Screenshot of Opera 8's default configuration (thumbnail)

Since I hardly can be considered to be a novice user; Why am I ranting on about this? Well think about all the things web designers and developers could do if only the "general public" would start using a better browser, how nice it would be if that standards compliant XHTML/CSS site worked as intended for the majority of users, or what could be done with all the time spent educating novice users in IE's security related shortcomings. Well, with the changes introduced in the new version, Opera has become a browser that easily and right "out of the box" could be the default browser for "most people". Although other browsers (both Mozilla based and older versions of Opera) previously have been close, I truly believe that this is the first alternative browser that's ready for mass consumption1. As such, the aforementioned changes becomes very important and very much welcomed even though most isn't directly targeted at users who already have adopted Opera.

fitter, happier, more productive

It's nice to see that the changes/improvements to the UI haven't been implemented at the expense of everything that originally made me switch to Opera. At first glance the UI seems to be overly simplified, though it soon becomes apparent that the changes are very well thought out and also provides some added benefits to more advanced users (I like to think of myself as an advanced user, some will undoubtedly say that I just have high demands ;). I was skeptical to some of these changes (for instance the removal of the view menu), but given some time I've found them to be very sensible and that they make the time I spend surfing more effective.

Screenshot of Opera 8's new trashcan feature

One completely new UI feature I've found to be especially useful is the "trashcan drop-down" (see screenshot). This button facilitates the retrieval of pages I've closed during the current session as well as access to blocked pop-ups. For someone that is somewhat absent-minded, at times is easily distracted and has a tendency to forget things as soon as five minutes have passed, this little button have already proved itself to be a very valuable addition.

Screenshot of Opera 8's new security bar

Security is another area with some nice and innovative new features. To begin with there's the whitelisting of TLD's who implement (anti-homographic) character policies for IDN's. For TLD's where such policies doesn't exist only a limited characterset will be available, as such the chances of falling victim to URL spoofing should be greatly reduced. Another helpful aid is the new "Security bar" that is displayed when browsing secure websites. It's easily accessible, integrated into the address bar (see screenshot), and quickly let users determine the security level of the currently viewed website. The changes to both the "preferences" and "deleted private data" should, indirectly by making things easier to understand, also help with some security and privacy related issues. I've also, although I really got nothing to hide, found that the speedier access to "delete private data" is very handy (I guess web developers have an extraordinary need to empty a browser's cache).

bells, whistles and performance

Don't get me wrong, with all this talk about Opera becoming a suitable browser for novice users, Opera is still (very much) a browser for web professionals. First of all you'll have a hard time at finding a browser that can match Opera's speed. Running on Windows, Opera will load 3 times faster and render CSS at nearly double the speed compared to the browser that boldly claims to "empower you to browse faster". Equally impressive is the fact that on all but one area Opera 8.0 is actually faster than version 7.54, further establishing Opera as the fastest browser on earth. Of course speed alone isn't anything, it's when you take into consideration that Opera is amongst the best at standards compliance it becomes truly impressive. Speaking about standards, this release both improves and extends the support for previously included standards, as well as add support for exciting new standards such as XmlHttpRequest2, Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG Tiny 1.1) and XHTML+Voice 1.2.

One of the more entertaining experiments I've performed, was testing XHTML while fully controlling the browser via voice commands. Basically I created set of linked pages containing menus, text, some images and a couple of forms. Even though fairly basic, it could (with some imagination) have represent an actual interactive website. I did the actual tests with my back against the computer. I was astonished to discover that, with my very limited experience, I could easily read and navigate throughout my "site". Even using a rather complex order form worked quite well. Most of the problems I encountered directly related to my lack of experience and my sloppy English pronunciation. In reality though, I'm not the best judge when it comes to the actual usefulness of these features; I'm not part of the target audience, nor do I have much experience with technologies like this. Though as a web developer I'm thrilled that I'll be able to test my sites in a "voice only" mode, undoubtedly a huge asset when improving the accessibility my sites.

Another potentially useful addition is the "User Scripting" feature. For those familiar with Firefox, this feature is somewhat comparable to the "GreaseMonkey" extension (Opera should be able to run most GreaseMonkey scripts without modification). Basically this allows you to run pre-defined JavaScripts whenever a page is loaded, easily filtered by document type or path. This effectively allows you to fix problems with or enhance for given sites and documents "on the fly" whenever you visit them. When I say potentially in the beginning of this paragraph, it is because the usefulness of this feature really depends on the user who manually have to enable this feature as well as add the desired scripts. Personally I've only "installed" a few basic scripts that, although they very much enhance3 my browsing experience, really only begin to harness the power that a feature such as this have.

one drawback, one annoyance

There's two areas were I'd personally like to see some developments in future versions of Opera. Both are areas where established standards or common practices are (next to) non-existent, which probably is why RTE functionality is totally missing and links to feeds can be very troublesome in Opera.

Although not something most people would need, RTE editing (also known as a WYSIWYG content editor) is a recurring question and something that (for some people) could be a possible show-stopper when it comes to Opera. As with several other areas where established standards doesn't exist, Opera has always been reluctant to implement this. Most of the time I would agree that this (not implementing proprietary solutions) is the best practice, though this particular case might be the exception to confirm the rule. The reasoning for this is that we probably won't see a standard for this anytime soon, whilst increasingly more people publish websites (or blogs) and thus more people will request and/or benefit from having an RTE editor. Though nothing official have been announced, I'm very happy about the indications Jon S. von Tetzchner (Opera's co-founder & CEO) gave [about the future inclusion of an RTE] in an "CEO-Chat" shortly after the release of Opera 8.

Screenshot of Opera 8's RSS auto-discovery icon

The one big annoyance I've encountered (using Opera) this last month, has to do with the way links to feeds are handled. To be fair though this is a rather complex issue, with different content providers "solving the problem" in completely different ways and as such Opera probably shouldn't be blamed that much for it. However, one thing Opera easily could have done something with, is what happens when I click the RSS/feed autodiscovery icon located in the address bar (screenshot). When I've done everything I can to inform Opera (specified external handlers for both application/xml and feed://) that I don't want it to handle my feeds, I'm still asked if I want to add it to the internal feed reader upon clicking this icon. If it hadn't been for idiotic behavior, the feed autodiscovery icon would actually be a brilliant idea...

summarized

When everything is summarized, I'm very happy with the new version. Opera 8 simply let's me to do more work, with less effort, in less time than any other browser I've ever used. Or in a more marketing friendly wording; Opera simply is a more productive web browser. Don't take my word for it though as I'm biased4, you should really give Opera a spin and make up your own opinion. Opera is free to download, free to try and even free to keep (with a couple of small Google text-ads5), so you really got nothing to loose. Even if I hadn't registered (ie. with the ads), Opera would definitively be my browser of choice!..

Footnotes

  1. Yes, I'm aware that Firefox exists. I do actually think that it's a rather good and capable browser, and very much appreciate what it has done for the web community. It just isn't what I look for in a browser, although I see that it can be a suitable replacement for some users. I do however think that it has a couple of shortcomings that prevents it from being a suitable replacement for novice users (professional users will undoubtedly make up their own mind ;-). However I often recommend people to try both Opera and Firefox side by side, then pick the browser that best suits their needs... (locate)
  2. Ok, so XmlHttpRequest isn't really standard, at least not if you consider the W3C to be the web's authority on standards. Though certain large companies' use of XmlHttpRequest in web applications, have pretty much established it as a de facto standard. The W3C's DOM Level 3 specification does contains something similar with the "Load and Save" functionality, which (AFAIK) Opera is the only browser to support. (locate)
  3. I currently use the following scripts, all ported and managed into a user.js framework file (locate)
    1. killblank.js, which removes target="blank" from links
    2. textlinks.js, converts URI's in plain text documents (CSS, js, log and txt) to clickable link
    3. imagaenhance.js, adds some useful functionality when viewing images (fit to screen etc)
    4. googlesuggest.js, enables Google Suggest for all of Google's services
    5. sitefix.js, fixes some known problems and/or annoyances with a couple Norwegian news sites I visit frequently
  4. I'm a long time Opera user, this apparently lessens my ability to judge if it's a good piece of software or not as I'm already familiar with it. I also own a microscopic amount of shares in Opera Software ASA, as such the possibility to make a quick profit (close to $10 if I manage to double the value of the company!) possibly was my main motivation when I wrote this post. Lastly both Opera and I happen to be from Norway, surely a factor that ruins any chance I had at writing a fair and balanced post. Ok then, I'm really not that biased. ;) Nevertheless, you really should give Opera a spin to form your own opinion about it. After all, the best judge if Opera suits your needs or not is you... (locate)
  5. In "sponsored mode" Opera actually gives you to choice between having un-targeted banner ads or contextually targeted text-ads (powered by Google). The latter really is non-intrusive and wont distract you from your surfing, so IMHO the choice should be obvious. The difference between the two is comparable to traditional website advertising, and how AdSense revolutionized it with it's more effective and less intrusive text-ads. (locate)

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