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Opera Revisited
By Thiravudh Khoman

The Microsoft trial is over, the browser wars are over, and I've made my choice: I'm going to use Opera. For those who haven't heard, Opera (https://www.opera.com) is the alternative browser that hails from Oslo, Norway. I've been annoyed with Netscape's memory leaks for quite a while now and was never very comfortable using Internet Explorer (IE), so I decided to give Opera another try after a 9 month absence. This time around it didn't take long to make Opera my default browser (I still keep Netscape and IE around though).

Interesting Features

Opera (figure 1) is a bit unusual when compared to the dueling duo. First of all, unlike Netscape and IE, Opera isn't freeware, it's shareware. The asking price is US$35 with a 30 day trial period. No doubt, this is going to turn off a lot of people. But if you look at it another way, the cost savings due to Opera's speedier browsing and smaller download time could conceivably offset its price within a year or so. And for me at least, it's an acceptable price to pay for such a critical piece of software, one that doesn't annoy me on a daily basis.

Opera is small - nay, it's tiny - when compared to Netscape or IE. The latest version, Opera v3.60, is only a 1.3mb download. Compare this with Netscape Communicator v4.7 which weighs in at 19mb or even the browser-only Netscape Navigator v4.08 at 10mb. Meanwhile, I've seen IE v4.0 take up as much as 34mb and IE v5.0 as much as 75mb on a CD.

This compactness translates into speed - not only program loading speed but also browsing speed. I especially like the easily accessible button that's used to turn graphics loading "on" and "off" (or use the keyboard equivalent "g"). As a result, I routinely run Opera with graphics "off" and turn it "on" only when I need it. This, of course, makes web pages load faster. While you should certainly turn on graphics when visiting new sites, for frequently visited sites, they're less necessary if you know your way around. This is especially true of Yahoo! news articles, which are eminently readable even with graphics "off". Turning graphics "off" also acts as an "ad filter" since banner ads are left off the screen. And while Netscape and IE both have this same feature, they're buried 5 mouse clicks away - hardly worth the effort for on the fly changes.

Another nice feature of Opera, especially for those of us with less than perfect eyesight, is that you can zoom the screen simply by pressing the + and - keys. These are the same commands I use with ACDSee (a graphics viewer), so it's very intuitive for me. Compare this with Netscape's ctrl-[ and ctrl-] key combinations (IE doesn't seem to have a shortcut key for this). A 1-finger command beats a 2-finger combination any day. And for all the young ones who can spot an ant on a wall at 100 meters, there's the - key which reduces the font size and shows more of a web page on your screen (for those who don't have 17" or 19" monitors running at 1024 x 768 resolution or better).

Opera's download facility was also a pleasant surprise. The fact that Opera uses a dedicated download screen immediately made me suspect that I could download several files simultaneously, something I never tried with Netscape. I could! Granted, multiple downloads probably don't finish any quicker, but at least you could start several downloads and leave them to finish at their leisure, rather than having to wait for each download to finish before starting another. Actually, both Netscape and IE can handle simultaneous downloads as well, but I find Opera's design much more elegant.

Speaking of simultaneity, my experiences working with multiple windows under Opera has been excellent. It's much more stable than Netscape and switching windows can be done with a single keystroke (pressing "1" cycles windows in one direction, while "2" goes the other). IE has also been pretty good at this, but I just don't like the fact that IE is intertwined with the operating system. I'd prefer that it run purely as an external application as it did in v2 and v3, rather than be grafted onto the O/S as it is with v4 (but less so with v5).

Another definite plus for me is that my internet cache utility, NetSonic Pro (https://www.web3000.com), supports and shares its cache between Opera, Netscape and IE. Thus, anything cached by Opera will be available for use by Netscape or IE and vice versa. Definitely nice.

Speaking of sharing, if you'd like to move your bookmarks from Netscape and/or IE to Opera, try a program called Columbine Benchmark Merge v3.3 (https://www.clark.net/pub/garyc). It supports Netscape, IE, Opera, and Mosaic. You can convert bookmark files from one browser format to another or sort/merge multiple bookmark files. Columbine Benchmark merge is "Memorialware" (yes, it's that Columbine) and a small donation is appreciated but not required.

Interesting Problems

Opera's support for Java has always been spotty, which was one of the reasons why I considered it "not quite ready for prime time" my first time around. It's vastly improved, thanks to a Java plug-in that has to be downloaded separately. (By the way, Opera works with Netscape plug-ins and can even use plug-ins already installed in a Netscape directory). However, a small percentage of web pages (usually malformed or non-standard) still give Opera the fits and a fallback browser will be needed on such occasions (which is why I still keep Netscape and IE around).

Another minor complaint has to do with Opera's configuration settings. These are very extensive and it took me a while to understand and customize Opera to my liking. I assume that most casual users will have difficulty handling this, and therefore will be forced to use Opera in its default configuration. Of course, this extensiveness translates into great flexibility, and I don't expect Opera to be less customizable in the future. Quite the opposite.

Another Opera plus/minus is its built-in support for 128 bit SSL encryption. Unlike Netscape and IE which come in separate 40 bit International and 128 bit U.S. versions (Netscape's 40 bit version can be upped to 128 bits using a Fortify patch), there is only one "security" version of Opera and it supports 128 bits only. Despite this, Opera may still fail to work with some security-conscious apps. The reason is that these apps check whether the browser being used is Netscape or IE. If neither, they simply refuse to let you proceed. Actually, you can make Opera masquerade as Netscape ("Mozilla 3.0"), but whether this will work in all cases remains to be seen. Worse comes to worse, use your fallback browser and curse the offending site.

In Conclusion

To me, Opera is like a brand new dress shoe. Despite good workmanship and materials, the shoe may initially feel uncomfortable because the leather is still new. Only after some breaking in will the shoe start to feel comfortable and mold itself to the shape of your foot.

The same holds true for Opera. A number of features you're used to on other browsers will be found in odd places in Opera, while others may operate in completely different ways. Still, Opera is a thoughtfully designed program - crafted by artisans dedicated to improving this, their sole product - and the more you use it, the more comfortable it will feel.

Ready to dip your toes into different waters? Opera is available most solidly for Windows 3.1/9x/NT. Versions for other O/S'es are in various stages of completion, with beta versions currently available for BeOS and EPOC. Meanwhile, Linux should get its beta and MacOS its alpha version by year end 1999. Stay tuned.

Copyright © 1998-2000, Thiravudh Khoman