Sizing up Opera 10 Final: Can it Compete with Chrome and Firefox?

Opera 10 is finally final. It has lots of great bells and whistles, and a much nicer user interface compared to the Opera 9x series, but can it compete with Firefox and Chrome?

A few months ago I took a look at one of the pre-releases for Opera 10, and then checked out Opera Unite, which was also based on Opera 10. With the release of Opera 10 final, I wanted to check in and see how the finished result measured up. Overall, Opera is a nice browser, but it doesn’t seem to have an edge over Firefox or Opera.

Nothing happens in a vacuum, of course. At the same time Opera has been pushing its browser forward, the Mozilla Project has been hard at it with Firefox, and Google Chrome is also moving forward quickly — and starting to deliver cross-platform binaries so users on Linux and Mac OS X can also partake of its speedy goodness.

What matters in a browser? Depending on the use case, Opera 10 is either a great browser or a relative disappointment. The Mozilla folks abandoned the Internet suite approach years ago, having decided that a more stripped-down browser with a developer ecosystem (add-ons and extensions) made more sense than maintaining a mailer, browser, IRC client, etc.

The relative success of Firefox has validated this approach. Many users have no interest in IRC and get their mail via a Webmail client rather than using a fat client like Thunderbird. The users I hear touting the all-in-one approach to Opera are niche power users. It’s good that there’s a browser to serve their needs, but it isn’t providing a compelling story to the masses.

How does Opera Measure Up?

Out of the box, Opera 10 does just fine as a Web browser — it’s stable, full-featured, and offers a pleasant browsing experience all around. If I’m not being particularly picky, I can use any of the major browsers all day long without complaint.

Compared to Firefox, I’ve found Opera to be pretty fast. And then I started using Google Chrome. Even with “Turbo Mode,” Opera has some catching up to do. In general, Chrome seems snappier than Opera. Especially on sites that have a lot of JavaScript: Like (probably no surprise) Gmail and other Web 2.0 sites.

I checked Opera’s JavaScript performance against Chrome using the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark. On average, Chrome finished the test with a total time of 875ms. Opera finished with an average of 7099ms. Faster is better in this particular benchmark, which means Opera is way behind Chrome. For comparison’s sake, my tests a few weeks ago of Chrome vs. Firefox showed around 2970ms for 3.5 and around 1730ms for the first alpha for 3.6.

To put it gently, Opera is not leading the pack here. Rendering HTML may be super-speedy, but its JavaScript performance seems to need some tweaking.

This shows up when using sites like Gmail and Evernote’s Web-based interface. While Chrome renders these sites very quickly, Opera feels a little bit pokey in comparison. For sites that are mostly CSS and HTML, Opera does just fine, but it needs some improvement in the JavaScript department.

Opera does have a nice showing for privacy, though. I checked all three browsers against What the Internet knows about you, a site that tries to examine your browser’s history and displays the results to demonstrate whether your browser is giving up your info. When using Opera and Chrome, the site didn’t show any results. When using Firefox, it was able to pull quite a bit of history info from the browser.

In terms of site support, Opera stands shoulder to shoulder with Chrome. Not all sites are supported (I get a warning on the Evernote site, for example, but it then displays and seems to work fine) but the days of “go away, you’re not using Internet Explorer” seem to be coming to a much-needed close.

Where’s Unite?

When Opera announced Unite a few months ago, it seemed the company was planning to drop Unite in 10.0. It looks like the plans have changed, though, as there’s no mention of Unite in the release announcement.

The initial wave of excitement around Unite seems to have died down, and there are claims that it may not be as secure as it ought to be.

At first I was pretty psyched about Unite, but at this point, I don’t see it being a game-changer for Opera. The missing component right now is critical mass: It needs a hefty developer ecosystem, and so far there’s no evidence that Unite is attracting enough attention to make it happen.

Too Little, Too Late?

Opera’s browser share seems to be slipping a bit, at least according to the stats over on W3Schools. Chrome is making inroads with 7% of the market, Firefox commands 47.4% (slightly down from July), and Opera is at 2.1% for the third month in a row — which is down from 2.3% at the beginning of the year.

Opera 10 has some nice features, and the interface is vastly improved. But none of the new features or UI improvements adds up to a browser better than Firefox or Chrome. Firefox has the developer ecosystem and features, Chrome has speed and focus on the features that matter the very most to users.

Opera feels like a kitchen sink approach to the Web. While it may appeal to a die-hard set of users, the company would do well to jettison mail and IRC support and focus hard on its core Web browser.

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