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Opera — well worth a look

By: 10 May 2011 4 Comments

The Opera Internet browser goes way on back to 1994 but has struggled for fans over the years.

That’s a shame, too, as Opera is an incredibly useful Internet suite that — once configured — can do away with a heck of a lot of applications that a good number of users access daily.

Before getting into the merits of Opera, let’s take a look at market share. As was mentioned in our article about the Firefox 4 browser, Opera finished well behind the dominant Internet Explorer, Firefox, Google Chrome and Apple Safari in the so-called browser wars with 2.14 percent of the market in April. Compare that to the industry leader, Microsoft Internet Explorer, with 55.11 percent of the market.

The odd thing about Opera’s failure to gain some solid traction in the market is that it’s a great browser. Still, it’s not hard to understand why Opera lags behind the pack. It was released to the public in 1996 as trialware, meaning users were allowed to try it before buying it. The problem with that, of course, is that other browsers were available for free, so why bother with purchasing one? Opera dropped the trialware model in 2000 and switched to flashing ads at users, a practice that stopped in 2005.

In other words, who wants to either buy a browser or have one that inflicts ads on you when Opera’s competitors didn’t do those things? Since 2005, Opera has been free and offers a lot of things competitors don’t. Is it worth downloading and trying? Well, that all depends on your needs, doesn’t it?

One thing that sets Opera apart is that it is more than an Internet suite than simply a browser. That means the browser is a bit more complex to learn than, say, Firefox or Google Chrome. Opera comes bundled with a bunch of applications that take some time to configure, but can replace a lot of standalone programs. Those built-in applications mean taming the browser can be a bit complex — the applications themselves aren’t that complex, but getting rid of applications that you’ve used for years and replacing them with Opera apps take a bit of retraining.

Look at it this way. Want to check your email? For years, that’s involved opening up Mozilla Thunderbird, Microsoft Outlook or whatever external email client you’ve come to rely on over the years. With Opera, it’s very possible to set up the mail app within the browser to check all of those emails. Want to share your files online? A great standalone application for that is Dropbox, but similar results are available through the file sharing app in Opera’s Unite suite of programs. Perhaps you access your music collection wherever you’ve got access to the Internet through Winamp Remote — you can do the same thing through Opera.

The thing about Opera is that it does take some time to configure. If someone plans to simply download it and use it as a browser, that individual is missing the point. Yes, Opera is a very good browser that looks like a cross between Google Chrome and Firefox and pulls up sites very quickly. One thing that sets the browser apart from others is Opera Turbo, which effectively compresses data sent over slower connections and does work well. Other than that, the browser is solid but is it really slick enough to replace other great browsers on the market?

Maybe and maybe not, but anyone who uses Opera for browsing and little else may well fail to see the appeal of the program. The Unite interface was mentioned briefly, but it’s worth taking a closer look at because it is an incredibly useful item. Unite is, in itself, a suite of applications that the user can choose to configure or not. One of the most useful apps in that suite is file sharing, which enable the Opera user to make files on a computer running Opera available for anyone in the world or only those people who are invited to share files and are given a password. Must that person who is invited to share files also use Opera? No — those files can be accessed through just about Internet browser out there and that’s a very powerful feature that allows those few, proud Opera users to get files to people who are using something else.

The same goes for music sharing — simply enable the application under Opera, dump a folder to be shared and people can stream the audio regardless of whether they’re running Opera.

There are a couple of examples, but the number of things you can do with Opera by simply configuring applications is impressive. Go ahead and use the suite for instant messaging, stick “magnets” with messages to friends with the “refrigerator” app. Share photos, take notes and access them later and do a heck of a lot more with Opera. Again, what sets this browser apart is that it’s actually a suite of applications that can replace a lot of the standalone programs that a lot of us have used for years.

Another great feature is Opera Link, which is very similar to the sync function in Firefox. Assuming you use Opera at, say, home, work and a mobile device, bookmarks, browser history and other data can be accessed through Link once it is configured. Speaking of mobile devices, Opera is available for most of those gadgets and Opera Mini is a very good alternative to Apple Safari on the iPhone (it’s free, too). Opera is, by the way, the default browser on the Nintendo Wii, but it wasn’t free when I bought it years ago.

So Opera is solid, but there are some things that aren’t so great. While there are some add-ons available (they’re called widget under Opera), both Firefox and Google put the number of them available for Opera to shame. One of the great things about Firefox is that you get a fairly lightweight browser that you can customize and make as powerful and as flexible as you want through add-ons. While Opera has a lot of great stuff built in, Firefox has so many add-ons available that it’s tempting to have around because it’s so easy to expand it enough to handle the needs and wants of just about anyone.

Also, Unity could use some work. Yes, it’s much improved in Opera 11, but the fact I have to share my home music collection by punching in a specific link and typing in a particular password seems a bit ridiculous. Why not just require an Opera user to set up file sharing (or whatever) and then access it directly through another computer?

Truth be told, the complaints about Opera are very minor. It takes some time to configure apps and set everything up just as you’d like it, but that might be time well spent. I appreciate the fact I can set up my email in my browser (thus eliminating another application), share files, grab torrents within the browser and achieve so much after spending some time learning Opera. Opera has allowed me to simply shut down some applications I used regularly, and it’s quite obvious that the folks behind the browser are pushing for the day when an Internet browser is almost as critical as the desktop. The browser is impressive enough with it’s simple menus and speedy interface, but the real appeal of this browser lies in the ability to share files safely through Unite, check email from all my accounts easily and just do a whole lot more than other browsers can initially.

Want some advice? If you’re open to trying a browser other than the one that’s served as your trusted default, download Opera here, install it and give yourself some time to configure it and see how convenient it can be. You may be glad you gave the browser a chance.

About: Ethan C. Nobles:
Benton resident. Rogue journalist. Recovering attorney. Email = Ethan@FirstArkansasNews.net.

4 Comments »

  • Yadda said:

    I very much like many of the things you can do with Opera (voice control for years now). However, it still does not format some web pages correctly. Unfortunately, some that I access (money.cnn.com for example). I used to send requests for help but never received a reply so gave that up. It is a shame. This is a great tool if a little more attention was paid to detail instead of gimmicks.

  • Ethan C. Nobles (author) said:

    Yadda — I thought about dinging Opera for that, but it does seem that great improvements on the compatibility front have been made with Opera 11. You are correct, though — if a browser won’t work with a user’s favorite sites, it’ll get dumped in a hurry regardless of how great the overall package is.

  • Resident47 said:

    How do from New England …

    Historically, and with rare exception, sites which fail to resolve in Opera have been not a browser fault but a question of lazy coding, usually with MSIE and its many nonstandard cheats in mind. Years ago, financial and tracking-happy sites were the worst actors, actually denying service to “minority” browsers based on the user agent string. Opera users sat in the rear of the bus if they were permitted to ride at all. The evaporation of MS browser share has appeared to encourage better compliance with W3C rules since then. This has been well documented in the Opera user forums. Now the rare case of a site which craps in Opera usually isn’t worth my time in *any* browser.

    I think the core strength in Opera is in being lean and flexible, and less about geek-out features. Its “no-fat” approach to program code makes it natively a nimble joy to use even on shoddily made sites overburdened with objects and graphics. Out of the box, as you say, it comes with a lot of useful tools. Frankly I’m tired of the “it’s too complex” argument against Opera, since as you suggest, managing the same tools across multiple programs is arguably more prone to confusion or failure.

    More to the point, Opera is very accomodating to changes in layout, skin, and interface. Once a user refines her own config, the meta-tool fits neatly in the hand and promotes efficiency through comfort. I feel crippled if I’m away from Opera and can’t scale a page with the ol’ plus/minus keys, or quickly fill any input field from my large collection of “Notes”, or execute its many keyboard equivalents, or open new tabs with a gestural mouse swish. It’s easy to get spoiled by that. As a slow transplanter from the Amiga platform, I first found Opera to be a spiritual cousin in both aspects of functional speed and interface customization.

    The FireFox model of arriving as an empty vessel to be filled with tools and toys is also valid. But I’ve long suspected the FF cheerleaders to be more interested in tinkering than productivity, like the hotrodding computer hobbyists who dominated prior to the mid-90s.

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