Quantcast

Opera 11.10: We Give the Underdog Browser a Chance

By Wesley Fenlon

We take Opera 11.10 out for a comprehensive test run to see how it stacks up against Chrome 10, Firefox 4, and IE9. Will it fall flat or stand proud?

Opera has come a long, long way from version 5.0, the ad-supported browser that launched in 2000. Over the past decade, Opera has become a popular mobile browser, given the Nintendo Wii a gateway to the web, and changed positions in the Internet world. Once the underdog alternative to Internet Explorer and Netscape, Opera is now . . . the underdog alternative to Firefox and Chrome. With the exception of a small group of ardent supporters, most of us tend to pass over new versions of Opera in favor of the latest from Google or Mozilla.




Where Opera Stands

Today’s Opera stands in a very different place than its progenitor did way back in 1996. Opera began life as a pay-for browser, then switched over to an ad-supported platform before becoming entirely free nearly a decade later. In the last few years, Opera has been better known for its clever sense of humor and mobile browsers than its desktop application. Opera Software also bears the distinction of being the only major web browser developer based outside the United States, as Google, Mozilla and Microsoft all operate out of west coast offices.

According to StatCounter.com, Opera 11 owns approximately 1.53% of the worldwide browser market as of March and April 2011.That figure puts it ahead of the outdated Firefox 3.0 and the brand new Internet Explorer 9, though the latter will likely gain significant support over the next year. IE8 and Firefox 3.6 sit far, far above Opera with 30% and 22% marketshare, respectively. In the mobile world, Opera shines. Opera Mobile and Opera Mini control 21.22% of the phone browsing market, placing them at the top of the charts. The iPhone’s Safari, Nokia’s broswer and Android lag behind with 18% to 15% each.

Opera 11, released in December 2010, hit 6.7 million downloads in one day. Will 11.10 help the browser build on that success and inch upwards from its 1.53% grasp?

Major Features

If there’s anything that makes or breaks a browser, it’s features. Firefox has long successfully campaigned on the strength of its extensions. When Chrome was first released, many Firefox faithful decried the lack of add-ons. Today the focus has moved beyond extensions--a basic must-have--to versatile search/URL bars, HTML5 capabilities, and hardware acceleration.

In terms of the basics, Opera offers the options you’d expect. There’s extension support with the requisite ad blockers and download assistants. Compared to Firefox’s extensions gallery, which includes close to 6000 entries, Opera’s collection of 500 is a bit sparse. Of course, that’s not really a fair comparison--plenty of Firefox extensions are outdated, junk, or outdated junk--Opera’s only been in the extension game since version 11.

Bookmarks, History, Downloads, Extensions, Opera Unite, Synchronize Opera, Widgets, and Notes are all arranged in a single column together. This browser strives to do more than guide you around the web. It wants to play your music, teach you chess and stream your media through the Opera Unite platform. It wants to keep your data synced between Opera Mobile and multiple desktops with Opera Link--which works just as quickly as Firefox Sync to bounce bookmarks, passwords etc. between computers. It wants to provide desktop widgets that run even when the browser is off. Hell, Opera even wants to tie Unite and Link into a social networking profile called My Opera.

That’s Opera in a nutshell: it strives to do almost everything. It has built-in support for torrents, IRC and mail accounts, website debugging--it’s an exhaustive list. Any one of those features could be the one that sets you jumping for joy, but most of them are essentials like bookmarks, extensions, etc. or they’re frivolities. If you run torrents, you likely have a better torrent program, and if you take notes, you likely have a better note app. Putting the wealth of basic and minor features aside, there are two big ones to focus on: Turbo Boost and Speed Dial, both of which have been upgraded in 11.10.

Speed Dial is essentially a beefed up version of the Chrome new tab page. It presents one-click icon links to the websites of your choosing on top of a customizable background. The number of columns and zoom is manually adjustable--by default Opera will fill up the browser window with large icons and shrink them down as you add more websites, but you can choose to make the icons smaller if you so choose. Speed Dial settings sync via Opera link, so you’ll have the same website shortcuts on any linked browser.

Turbo Boost uses a compression system to load webpages more quickly. Designed with slow or busy networks in mind--at a popular Starbucks hotspot or over 3G, say--Turbo Boost runs data through Opera’s servers and shrinks it down to a more manageable size. With 11.10, Opera overhauled the Turbo engine to make fewer connections, and make secure connections more quickly. The biggest change, though, is WebP. With Turbo enabled, Opera replaces JPEGs with compressed WebP images. There’s some noticeable quality loss, but not as much as there was with the old Turbo system using JPEG compression.

Look and Feel



Here again Opera demonstrates its flexibility and desire to cram as many features into its design as possible. The browser is skinnable, of course, and beyond the eight regular toolbars there are panels that set up shop on the left or right side of the screen. A narrow vertical panel filled with the same icons you’d get on a toolbar, for bookmarks, history, etc. is the basic panel. Click on one of the icons and it pops out a column that scoots the current webpage over to the side. Panels are obviously designed for people who value their vertical pixels and have horizontal space to spare. Compared to the toolbar setup most of us are used to, panels feel pretty weird--but if you’re a fan of side tabs, this is the customization option for you.

too much there. Outside of that menu, the browser is only as cluttered as you let it be--customizing the various toolbars will ensure that your browsing experience is almost as minimalistic as browsing in Chrome, if that’s how you want it. In pure omnibar form, the URL bar will pull up links from your bookmarks and history or perform a Google search. One of Opera’s coolest little design changes is that it hides the protocol portion of a web address when the URL bar isn’t highlighted. It’s a small thing, but not seeing “http://” makes the URL bar nice and clean.

Opera’s tab support does have one issue. The spacing is perhaps a little too strong, which wastes a few pixels of space (not really important) and makes it easy to mis-click tabs in a full screen browser (important). If you typically find yourself pushing the mouse pointer to the top of the screen and clicking for a tab, you’ll find that in Opera you’re clicking on a blank space between the tab and the top of the window. It’s a minor annoyance, but an annoyance nonetheless.

tab stacking. Dragging one tab onto another and holding it there for a second groups them up and supplies a collapse/expand arrow for handling the stack. Since Opera supplies mouse-over tab previews by default, it’s pretty easy to group up a bunch of tabs and still get to the one you want within a couple seconds.

Performance

No matter how many great features Opera has to throw out, it’s all meaningless if the performance isn’t up to spec. Can Opera cut it with Chrome, Firefox, and IE9? And what good is Turbo, anyway? To answer the first question, I ran these four browsers through Mozilla’s Kraken benchmark on a Windows 7 Ultimate x64 machine with a Core 2 Duo processor, GeForce GTX 260 Core 216 and 4GB of RAM.

Browser Kraken Score
Opera 11.10 11461.9ms +/- 0.4%
Firefox 4.0 6422.3ms +/- 0.5%
Chrome 10.0.648.205 8025.7ms +/- 1.5%
Internet Explorer 9.0.8112.16421 14852.0ms +/- 0.6%

As you can see, Opera’s not setting any speed records on this benchmark, but it still comes out ahead of Internet Explorer 9. There’s one other major area of contention for the modern browser: GPU acceleration. How much extra hardware muscle can our web browsers leverage to run cool HTML5 web applications? I ran all four browsers through three tests: the Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test, Microsoft Psychedelic Browsing, and Google WebGL Aquarium.

Browser Mozilla Stress Test Psychedelic Browsing WebGL Aquarium
Opera 11.10 14 fps 5 rpm No WebGL support
Firefox 4.0 60+ fps 1885 rpm 50 fish: 39 fps average
1000 fish: 20 fps average
Chrome 10.0.648.205 60 fps 1810 rpm 50 fish: 60 fps average
1000 fish: 37 fps average
Internet Explorer 9.0.8112.16421 60+ fps 1810 rpm No WebGL support

Sadly, Opera doesn’t yet support hardware acceleration, meaning it lagged far behind the other browsers in these tests. Hopefully this is something Opera Software addresses in version 12. Despite a far-ranging selection of features that matches or outstrips the rest of the browsers on the market, Opera doesn’t measure up in the performance category. You may personally decide that hardware acceleration isn’t an important feature for you--if that’s the case, this last test won’t be very important. But as more websites begin to use fancy HTML5 techniques, those browsers without hardware acceleration will be left behind.


Final Thoughts

In regular browsing, Opera loads pages in a snap, and page scrolling is extremely smooth--even smoother than in Firefox 4. Turbo Boost will actually slow down page rendering on a fast connection--it must be substantially more work to pipe the information through Opera’s servers than it is to load the page directly. Additionally, Google Docs is currently completely broken in Opera 11.10--loading up a document prompts a crash error, making it impossible to write more than one or two words at a time.

If you’re looking for a minimalist browser with simple menus and a streamlined interface, Chrome 10 is a better choice than Opera. Firefox 4 is faster and offers hardware acceleration and a better choice of extensions. But if you want something with lightning fast built-in mouse gestures, extreme customization, and more features than any other browser around, Opera’s your man. 11.10 feels like it’s a couple performance improvements and one big injection of hardware acceleration away from absolute excellence--we’ll definitely be checking back next time Opera Software releases a new browser.