Note: This article can be considered a sequel for An IE Lover’s Guide to Firefox, which described Firefox through the eyes of an Internet Explorer fan. Similarly, this article describes Opera’s features from the point of view of a user – myself – who has been using Firefox for years and is now considering another browser switch.
I am a Firefox fan. I’ve been using Firefox since it was named “Firebird” and calling it “stable” was a big overstatement. Firefox dragged me out of Internet Explorer, and that was definitely one of its biggest achievements.
Because I’m addicted to trying out new tools, however, I always kept testing new browsers I discovered here and there. K-Meleon, Flock, Sleipnir… When Safari came out for Windows I immediately installed it and used it for about 2 hours, only to realize that it wasn’t – and it still isn’t – usable at all, mainly due to sporadic crashes.
Similarly, I’ve been trying out Opera periodically, as new releases came out, but again it didn’t seem to work for me. The biggest complaint I had was its inability to render heavily-ajaxified web sites properly. However, now it seems that the Opera Development Team made a big effort to improve the browser, and I was pleased to notice that Opera 9.5b (“Kestrel”) doesn’t seem to have this sort of problems at all.h3. Planning the Switch
Firefox has extensions. Plenty of them actually. Some are useful, like the newish Del.icio.us one made by Yahoo, and also crappy ones you’ll never use unless you want to have a fancy button on one of your over-cluttered toolbars which enables you to interface more easily with X or Y web services you hardly ever use.
By contrast, Opera never attempted to add full-blown extension support to its venerable and yet very powerful browser. Instead, they kept building more and more features right into its core, being careful not to undermine the browser’s two proverbial qualities: speed and stability. What seemed a doomed philosophy at first turned out to be a good thingin the long run. More and more people are getting more and more worried about Firefox’s memory issues and begin to wander off to explore new things, exactly like I did.
The first step to switch from Firefox to Opera is to reduce the number of Firefox extensions to the bare minimum you need:
- Web Developer
- Search Status
- Gmail Manager
- Secure Login
- The first three are related to Web Development only, which means that I don’t need them unless I’m doing some web-development tests during which I’m always going to have more than one browser open anyway. UPDATE: there are a few Ruler widget which can be used instead of MeasureIt (thanks Ameer).
- SearchStatus gives me Alexa Rank and Google Pagerank: I think I can survive without those for a while. UPDATE: if not, there’s always SEObar (thanks Ameer).
- I use Gmail Manager because my girlfriend uses Gmail on the same computer. I’m switching to Opera and she’ll stick with Firefox, so no problem there…
- Secure Login? It’s called Wand and it has been built-in into Opera for the last decade or so.
- Del.icio.us – OK, I won’t be able to access my favorite tags as quickly, but someone already came out with a few handy buttons for a better integration with the popular social bookmarking service.
UPDATE: For a list of the features provided by Firefox extensions which are included in Opera, see Rijk’s Top 150 Popular Firefox Extensions and Opera
Because I’m addicted to betas, I immediately downloaded Opera Kestrel, i.e. Opera 9.50 beta 1. I never actually liked Opera’s default theme, so I started looking around for new skins (yes, eye-candy matters sometimes) and came across the Ximple series by serafins. In particular, 2nd thought – Jimple quickly became my favorite.
“Opera is the Web pioneer that delivered tabbed browsing in 2000 […]”
Opera tabs feel stable and mature. Why? Probably because tabs are used more consistently to open not only web pages but also:
- Downloads (“Transfers”)
- RSS feeds
- Widget Management
- Page Links
I think this is a great feature and Firefox should definitely consider it: v3.0 comes with new download and bookmark managers, but they’re still dialogs. Yes, I know, there’s probably some extension which allows you to display them in the sidebar, but that’s not the point: Opera brings more consistency to the overall browsing experience by using tabs wherever they should be used.
Additionally, Opera tabs…
- Can be rearranged, exactly like Firefox tabs
- Can be restored, if closed accidently, by re-opening them from the Trash can
- Can be locked, meaning that they can’t be closed accidently
- Can be duplicated
- Can be saved in groups (sessions) and re-opened later on
- Can be restored if Opera crashes
When you open Opera for the first time, and whenever you open a new empty tab the Speed Dial is displayed. What I originally thought it was one of the most annoying things introduced by Opera 9 turned out to be actually useful and very addictive.
The idea behind it is simple:
- Show a default page with 9 slots
- Allow users to drag links to those slots
- Display preview of each slot (which is cached and can be updated by refreshing the page)
- Allow users to quickly access pages saved in the Speed Dial via CTRL+1 .. CTRL+9 or simply by clicking them.
Simple and effective. Once you get going with it, you’ll overcome the initial feeling of imposition and you’ll use it more and more: I literally can’t live without it now!
While I was testing Opera, my girlfriend came along and asked me to look something up on IMDB. I normally had IMDB as custom search engine in Firefox, but unfortunately Opera didn’t seem to allow users to customize their search engines…
Totally wrong. Not only Opera lets you add any search engine to the search bar, it also does it with style and in the easiest way possible:
- Go to your search engine or any website with a search form
- Right click the search field
- Click Create Search…
- Specify a name and a keyword for your search engine
Done. You’ll now be able to search that particular site directly from the search bar. As you can see, I added Wikipedia, IMDB and even the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages in this way.
Besides creating searches, Opera lets you do a lot by right-clicking anywhere on a page:
- Block Content: Right-click an empty area of any webpage and select Block Content to select which ads, scripts and images will be blocked from now on.
- Validate: Validate the HTML source code of the current page.
- Translate: Translate the current page into a foreign language with just two clicks.
- Open With: Open the current page in another browser installed on your system.
- Edit Site Preferences…: Choose to block/allow cookies and popups, identify Opera as another browser, set a different encoding, enable/disable scripts, images, flash, etc. These setting apply to the current web site only.
- View source, reload page every X seconds/minutes, send by email, etc.
Opera Widgets must not be considered as Opera’s counterpart to Firefox extensions. Instead, Opera Widgets can be used as poor man’s Vista Gadgets on Windows XP, and they do their job most remarkably.
I’m personally very fond of these ones:
They all have a common trait: they all behave as standalone programs, as they should be. The Wikipedia one, for example, can display Wikipedia entries directly inside the widget, unlike some others which just take you to Wikipedia, which is rather pointless.
Although widgets live within Opera, they can be displayed “always behind”, which means they’ll be glued to your desktop and therefore will be visible whenever Opera and other applications are minimized.
Needless to say that anyone brave enough can make widgets for Opera by following a simple Widget Specification.
Everything you can do on the Internet
The term browser applied to Opera is somehow misleading. Personally I would have called it something like “Internet Suite”, because that would be a better choice due to the features it offers and the things it can do.
Traditionally speaking, a web browser can be used to browse web pages, read feeds (sometimes) and navigate through FTP directories. Here’s what Opera can handle:
- Web Pages – No need of explanations here.
- FTP – FTP directories are listed very clearly, overriding server’s settings with a more user-friendly layout.
- Local Files – This was a surprise for me. Typing
file://will automatically load a list of the drives currently available on your machine. Similarly, auto-completion for directory and file names is supported! I almost started using Opera as my everyday’s file manager (almost).
- Feeds – An embedded feed reader can be used to subscribe to RSS/Atom feeds and view them… in a tab, of course.
- E-mails – Opera is also a pretty decent email client. As of version 9.5 full IMAP support has been added, which definitely makes the difference.
- IRC – Opera can be used as an client, which works pretty well. Who needs ChatZilla anymore?
- News – Opera can be used to signup and retrieve news from newsgroups.
- Gopher/WAIS – Although not used everyday, Opera can handle these old protocols as well.
- BitTorrent Files – By default, Opera can act as a BitTorrent client as well, so you can just open .torrent files through the program and then monitor the download progress in the Transfers window, like with any other normal download. While this feature is indeed useful, it is also possible to disable it and still use your favorite BitTorrent client.
Portability and Synchronization
Let’s spend some words about portability. Sure, there are two “Portable Opera” apps out there, and they work well enough, but one thing I’d like about a web browser is the ability to synchronize my preferences, customizations, themes, passwords etc. etc. across multiple computers.
Firefox is getting there, although the technology is still at a very early stage.
Opera is doing something similar through Opera Link, which allows you to synchronize automatically your Bookmarks, your Personal Bar and your Speed Dial. All you need is to get a (free) Opera account, login to Opera Link and enable the synchronization feature from the File menu. From now on every time you’ll modify your Speed Dial or Bookmarks, the changes will be sent to your Opera Link page. Similarly, whenever you start using opera somewhere else, if you login to your Opera Account you should be able to synchronize your Bookmarks and Speed Dial.
Here are some thoughts on this type of technology:
- It’s not totally private yet. While it’s great to be able to sync bookmarks and speed dial, the problems arise when you finish using your friend’s computer for example… what happens to the bookmarks you just sync’ed? The only way to delete them would be to have your friend to log in to his Opera account and re-sync them. Not enough privacy for my liking.
- Your passwords, notes, widgets, etc. etc. cannot be synchronized yet, but that will hopefully be possible in near future.
- Sync’ing bookmarks is pointless for me. Although Opera still hopes to compete with Del.icio.us & Co., that will be very hard to achieve. I stopped using in-browser bookmarks long ago.
- Link seems and interesting feature considering that Opera is available on virtually any operating system and a lot of different devices (mobile phones, Nintendo DS & Wii, …).
At any rate, it is still possible to “carry around” your personal opera settings by following the instructions provided on this page which explains pretty much everything you need to know aboud Opera files and local storage.
Opera looks more “polished up” than Firefox in most cases. The superb usage of tabs for nearly everything is one example, and another one is the possibility to apply skins (themes) on-the-fly, without having to restart the browser.
Firefox can do this via the Personas extension, but Opera had this built-in for a long time.
To apply a new skin:
- Go to the Skins Directory
- Download a skin you like
- Opera will download and apply the skin immediately, and it will ask you whether you want to keep it or not. If you choose not to, it won’t save it in your profile (very useful for quick previews). Neat.
Another quality opera always excelled to is accessibility. Besides using the interface in the traditional way, it is also possible to:
- Use mouse gestures – I wasn’t a big fan of this until I bothered reading the excellent documentation Opera provided for them (which is significantly better than the Firefox’s equivalent). It can be quite useful at times.
- Use keyboard shortcuts – Believe it or not, you can literally use Opera without a mouse.
- Speak to it – Opera’s voice integration is getting better and better. Not only you can effectively tell your browser what to do, you can also use the built-in text-to-speech function (Windows only) to have it read entire pages for you. It actually works quite well and it can parse punctuation well enough to apply the right intonation. Just for fun, I had it read it an Italian page… and it actually worked as expected: it was like listening to an American reading an Italian text using US pronuntiation!
Finally, power users will be delighted of the way opera lets you hack the program settings, as you can:
- Use Tools > Quick Preferences to block/unblock popups, cookies, Java applets, images, etc.
- Use Tools > Advanced to access detailed information concerning cookies, cache (it lists every image/object cached!), plug-ins, Wand passwords, etc.
- Use Tools > Appearence… to access and manage appearance-related settings, like skins, toolbars, buttons and panels
- Use Tools > Preferences… to access general preferences (all the rest)
- Type in opera:config to view and tweak Opera’s internal settings, somehow like Firefox’s about:config, but much cleaner and easier to use.
After using as main browser for a few weeks now, I can say that it’s great but not perfect yet. It’s very advanced, faster and more mature than any other browser, of course,but there are a few things which should be fixed or improved.
- It’s not open source – This may not matter to someone, but some people consider this an essential requirement for their browser, and that’s why Firefox is their most obvious choice. Although Opera is free, it is proprietary software after all, which means is definitely not as open as you may want it to be. Personally I’m not too bothered, as I’m starting to think that too much openness may lead to too many unuseful and bloated extensions and make the program somehow “unpredictable” and heavy.
No address bar search – Amazingly, only Firefox seems to have this feature built-in. I’m referring to the ability to type whatever in the address bar to be redirected to the site returned by a Google’s I’m feeling lucky search. It is possible to emulate this feature in Opera by creating a custom search for I’m Feeling Lucky and assign it a short keyword like “l”. In this way, for example, typing in
l h3raldshould lead you to this website. Not quite as immediate as in Firefox though.
No find as you type – Another big disappointment for who comes from Firefox or Safari: Opera still uses a dialog box to perform page searches. No spell clecking – Again, both Firefox and Safari now offer text fields spell checking. Opera doesn’t yet. No HTML mail composer – Opera’s built-in mail client can display HTML emails but doesn’t yet allow users to create them. Auto-start widgets? – This is a feature enhancement Opera Dev Team should consider: allow users to configure certain widgets to start automatically when Opera starts. Google Reader + Flash problems – Sometimes I experiences some scrolling problems when reading news which contain embedded flash movies on Google Reader.
- Corporate Sites – Unfortunately some corporate web site do not support Opera or are not displayed correctly in Opera. Unfortunately there’s nothing much we can do about it but trying to “mask” Opera as another browser (via right-click > Edit Site Preferences…)
Default Browser Problems – Setting Opera as default browser on Windows doesn’t seem to set the file icons accordingly (or worse, it resets them to the default file icon).
- It is possible to have Opera to redirect you to the right after typing a few words in thr address bar by setting Google’s “I’m feeling lucky” as default search engine (thanks EJ902).
- Spell Checking is supported via GNU Aspell (thanks cvm) or by using Ospell for inline spell checking (thanks Dava).
- Find as you type can be triggered by pressing
.and typing (thanks cvm).
- It is possible to auto-start widgets by saving a session with all your widget open and reloading it at every startup [CTRL+F12 > General > Startup > Continue saved sessions] (thanks Tamil & Ameer).
- As of the latest snapshot, setting Opera as default browser and handler for HTML files doesn’t cause any problems thanks Ayush).
Despite the few annoyances listed in the previous section, Opera 9.5 beta 1 truly impressed me. I was waiting for Opera to get better before switching and now I’ve not been using Firefox for a few weeks.
Although Opera offers a lot of features, there’s still room for improvements, especially for what concerns integration with third party services: I would really like to see some sort of integration with del.icio.us, and that could be possible via widgets at least.
Regarding the new Opera Link feature, it looks very promising and a potential competitor for Mozilla Weave even though it will be used mainly to get more and more users to register to the Opera community (I did, at least), which is indeed very active any way.
To conclude this article, which still barely scratches the surface of this very powerful application, I’d like to praise two more things about Opera:
- Their website network, and in particular their truly excellent documentation knowledge base, which is very comprehensive of references, tutorials and interesting articles. I am a full time technical writer myself, and I’ve hardly ever come across better documentation.
- Their extensive support and compliance to web standards, which makes Opera the most advanced browser ever made.
If you’ve not tried Opera before, or if you’ve always dismissed it because “X browser is better”, you may want to give it another shot: for me it was definitely worthwhile!