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First Look at Opera 10: Can it Make a Dent in the Desktop?

Opera has done well with mobile, but can it take the desktop by storm? Opera 10 beta 1 was released last week, and Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier takes a look at Opera 10 to see if it can make some noise next to Firefox, IE, Safari, and Chrome.

Last week, Opera released the first beta of Opera 10 with a visual refresh and a number of enhancements and new features. The question is, can Opera make a dent in the desktop or is Opera on the desktop just a Quixotic effort in the face of Firefox and Internet Explorer?

It’d be silly to say that Opera isn’t doing well — the Opera mobile browser is one of the most popular around. But Opera on the desktop has less market share than Chrome or Safari according to some measures, consistently around 2.2% in the reports from W3Schools.com.

Can 10 change that? Let’s have a look.

What’s new in 10

Opera 10 includes several new features and improvements that are worth a look if you spend a lot of time on the Web. Mostly, 10 is an incremental update that hones existing features and makes Opera a little better in several areas.

Some of the features are new to Opera, but not new to users. For instance, Opera now has an auto update feature, and inline spell checking. Those features aren’t new to Firefox users, but they’re a nice addition to a solid browser.

Opera has also tweaked its Speed Dial feature, which allows you to create several “speed dials” for favorite sites. The original feature allowed users to choose nine sites for speedy access, but now the sky’s the limit. If you can fit ‘em in your browser window, the more the merrier.

A book shouldn’t be judged by its cover, but it’s really hard not to judge a program by the way it looks. Previous releases of Opera have looked, well, really clunky. This has improved over the years, but even the 9.x series was a bit clunky looking. At least to my tastes and to others I’ve spoken to. This is, of course, highly subjective.

However, 10 is really attractive. (Again, subjective.) For once, Opera doesn’t stand out like a sore thumb on my desktop, though a few of the UI choices are a bit different. For example: When I pop out a chat window in Google Mail, it opens a new window. In Opera, the new window is opened within the existing window – it doesn’t pop out of the border of the existing Opera instance, unless you specifically “detach” it.

If you have a lot of screen real estate, the tab bar has a really nice improvement. By default, you’ll see the standard tabs. But you can drag the tab bar down a bit and see thumbnails of the sites in the tabs instead of just the site’s “favicon” and page title. This is pretty handy if you have the room to take advantage of it.

Speed, and Does it Matter?

Opera 10 adds “Opera Turbo” for the browser, so you can speed up browsing on slower networks. According to the site, Opera “uses Opera proxy servers to compress the traffic before it reaches the Opera browser on the client’s computer.

In my experience, turning on “Turbo” means fuzzy graphics and slightly faster load times. I tested the build for openSUSE, so I can’t say for sure if this is true across all platforms. Maybe there’s something wonky with Opera interacting with a graphics library on openSUSE, or who knows what. But the Turbo didn’t seem to make a huge difference when using broadband, anyway, so I turned it off pretty quickly. For the poor souls stuck on dial-up, a little fuzziness might be acceptable if it means not waiting 30 minutes for a Web page to load.

Overall, page rendering in Opera 10 beta 1 seems slightly faster overall than in Firefox 3.5 beta 4. But, the difference is marginal, and unless you’re really impatient, the speed differential probably isn’t going to make a major difference.

A Word about Widgets

Firefox has add-ons, Opera has Widgets. Opera has actually managed to garner a fairly healthy community of widget developers. It has hundreds of widgets ranging from games to RSS readers, to Twitter tools,and Web developer tools.

I hate to keep measuring Opera with the Firefox yardstick, but looking through the widgets available from Opera, I don’t see quite as many useful or interesting add-ons for the Opera browser. Granted, you’ll find more games for Opera, but I haven’t found the variety of tools that you’ll find for Firefox.

Has the Fat Lady Sun for Opera?

Opera does have one thing going for it that you won’t find with Firefox. It’s sort of a one-stop shop for browsing, email, IRC, and productivity (at least notes). While Firefox can add IRC (via the Chatzilla plugin) it doesn’t offer integrated email. So if you want it all in one fell swoop, try Opera.

I really love the Opera Notes feature. Using Notes, you can copy bits of Web pages to Notes in Opera, which is pretty useful if you spend a lot of time gathering information on the Web to pull together later. This includes text and URLs, though — oddly — not images.

Opera 10 is a really solid browser, it’s fast, it’s stable and the week of testing I’ve put it through suggests that it’s very compatible with most Web sites. I’ve only run into a couple of sites that complained about my browser choice, and they worked just fine with Opera — it was mostly a matter of browser detection run amok.

Will it overtake the desktop like Firefox? I sort of doubt it. While Opera has a lot to recommend it, there’s not a huge reason to switch. It’s at par with Firefox, better at some things, not so good at others, but it needs to have a few killer features to get the sort of momentum that Firefox does. However, as a testbed for Opera’s mobile devices — which I suspect is the chief reason for keeping it around — Opera does just fine.

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