Sneak Peek at Opera 10.5

If at first you don't succeed, try again. Opera hasn't cracked double digits in the desktop browser market, but that doesn't mean the company is giving up. A few days ago, Opera released alpha builds of Opera 10.5 and made them available for download. If the alpha release is any indication, Opera is going to give Firefox and Chrome a run for their money, speedwise.

In my Web Winners and Losers column a few weeks ago, I noted that Opera had failed to bring much to the table in 2009. Opera 10 was a solid release, but didn’t do much bump its market share on the desktop. That hasn’t stopped the Opera team from trying, though. They released an alpha of Opera 10.5 on December 22nd that gives a sneak peek into what to expect from Opera in 2010.

Since it’s clearly labeled an alpha release, I wasn’t looking it over for bugs — just trying to get a sense what new features are coming in 10.5 and whether Opera 10.5 would be a must-have upgrade. One disappointment with the alpha release I do have to mention, though: No build for Linux. Normally I’d hold out until I could run a native build on Linux, but decided to slap the alpha on a Mac and give it a try there.

Well, I will say one thing about crashes. Opera 10.5 did crash a few times while I was testing. That’s OK. And it gave me a chance to see its crash reporting dialog, which is a nice if unfortunate feature to need. But every time Opera 10.5 crashed, it would also display a dialog about not being my default browser because it would exit. Just a thought, but asking the user if they want to make it the default browser immediately after a crash, not such a good idea. Opera might want to make sure that if Opera exits by calling the crash reporting dialog, it doesn’t do the “default browser” test.

Better yet, Opera would win big points in my book by being the first browser to abandon the nag dialog altogether.

Performance Boosts and Rendering Improvements

When I looked at the JavaScript performance of Opera 10 Final, Opera’s performance was nothing to write home about. Well, it wasn’t anything to write home about in a positive way, anyway. Opera came in behind Firefox and Chrome. Not good for a browser that’s always used speed as a claim to fame.

The Opera folks obviously are not giving up without a fight. They’ve been working on a new JavaScript engine called Carakan, and are aiming to make it “the fastest in the world.” It looks like they are on the right track.

When I last checked Opera against Chrome and Firefox, Opera clocked in at 7099ms, Firefox at around 2970ms, and Chrome blew past both at 875ms. (Smaller numbers are better here.) Obviously, the Opera team had their work cut out for them.

This time around? Opera speeds by at 548.8ms. Chrome, on the same machine, posted a respectable 598.6ms, but slightly slower than Opera. Even though this isn’t a final release, the engineering team at Opera must be feeling a little bit proud.

But benchmarks are one thing. Day to day use is another, and you always have to wonder how representative benchmarks are of actual performance. Using Opera for normal browsing, it does feel impressively snappy. JavaScript heavy sites like GMail just speed by.

What’s really impressive is that the Opera folks claim that the Mac release of Opera 10.5 is not yet optimized. If the performance on the Mac is unoptimized, I can’t wait to see how well it performs when it is.

The alpha includes a new release of Opera’s rendering engine, Presto, and a new graphics library for displaying SVG and other graphics.

Privacy

Opera is often a pioneer of new features, but the company was a bit late to the game with its private browsing features. Opera 10.5 makes up for this by giving a private browser and private tab feature.

Firefox and Chrome both have private browsing features of varying degrees of granularity. Firefox allows you to enter a private browsing session, which is useful but means you have to choose between regular browsing and private browsing.

Chrome does this one better by allowing a mix of private and regular browsing sessions at the same time.

Opera takes this one step further by allowing private tabs alongside regular session tabs. This means you can either open a private session in a new window, or as a separate tab an existing window. If you’re a stickler for keeping open windows to a minimum, this can be a nice feature.

Private tabs might need just a bit of work, though. The only indicator that a session is private is a tiny privacy icon in the right-hand side of the tab in place of a site’s favicon. Some additional visual indicator would be good — maybe grey out the tab or make it darker.

But making the privacy feature a seamless part of the browsing experience is a good step. I’m looking forward to seeing how this is revised as 10.5 matures.

Goes to 11?

One additional word of advice for Opera. With the new JavaScript engine, platform integration improvements, and new (to Opera, anyway) privacy features, calling it “Opera 10.5″ is an injustice. It’s only an alpha release right now, so there’s plenty of time to convince whoever needs convincing that it’s ready to be called Opera 11 by the time it gets released.

Also, good job to Opera for putting out an early release of Opera 10.5. Because Opera isn’t a FLOSS project, too much happens behind closed doors. I think that this hurts the company with developers — who can get their hands on Firefox nightlies and Chromium builds long before those things hit the street.

Opera is doing a lot of good stuff with 10.5 and much of that is for the benefit of developers. They need to make sure developers can get their hands on the releases early and often. It’s not too late for Opera to go open source, but I don’t know if the company is quite ready to go that far.

But they need to do something to energize the developer base. Firefox has a huge dev community that drives its adoption, and Google isn’t doing too shabby in that department even though Chrome extensions have only been around, officially, for a few weeks.

Speaking of developers, the Opera Unite features seem conspicuously absent from 10.5. Not sure if that’s just because Opera is focusing on rendering and JavaScript features, or if Unite is going to be quietly dropped in 10.5.

We’ll keep an eye on Opera 10.5 as it develops and check back in when there’s a beta and Linux build. Feature-wise, there’s nothing Earth-shattering, but the speed improvements might be enough to convince heavy Web users to give 10.5 a shot.

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