Opera 10 beta review

Poor Opera. For years the definitive browser for the clued-in geek, it must now jostle for attention alongside fast, flashy upstarts such as Chrome and Safari. Can the new public beta of Opera 10 see off the newcomers?

The fightback starts with a redesigned front-end: the drab toolbar of Opera 9 has been replaced by a bolder design, with clearly delineated buttons bearing revamped icons. It does look more inviting, but functionally it’s near-identical and, truth be told, it now looks a little like Safari.

Thankfully, Opera keeps its tabs within the main window, which we think is more usable than the non-standard way Safari carves up the title bar. You can also now drag the search field to resize it, although this feels like cosmetic tinkering rather than a functional improvement.

In fact, the big new interface feature is wholly invisible when you start Opera 10. To find it, you need to drag the toolbar downwards; that’s not an intuitive operation, but when you try it you’ll be delighted to see your web page tabs grow into thumbnails of the pages themselves.

Sadly, no matter where you’ve scrolled to, the previews show only the top of the page you’re viewing – or sometimes, a section further down the page if something about the layout confuses them. Either way, they all too often don’t resemble the pages they represent.

As a final interface enhancement, you can also now customise the Speed Dial grid. Where Opera 9 always showed a grid of nine page previews, the new beta will accommodate anything from four to 25 pages. The latest beta of Safari has a similar option, so it’s good to see Opera catch up so quickly.

The rest of Opera 10’s new features are concealed under the bonnet. Inevitably, the developers are touting speed improvements, and the SunSpider JavaScript test bears that out: Opera 9 took 3.2 seconds to complete the benchmark on our test system, while the new beta finished in 2.6 seconds.

That sees Opera pulling ahead of Internet Explorer 8 (4.1 seconds), but it still lags behind Firefox 3.5b4 and Safari 4 beta, which took just 1.0 seconds and 0.8 seconds respectively. The crown in our tests went to the latest release of Chrome, version 2.0.172.30, which completed the benchmark suite in just 0.6 seconds.

Of course, JavaScript performance is only part of the story: it’s impossible to realistically measure responsiveness, but Opera 10 keeps the snappy feel of the previous version, with ultra-fast redraws when you scroll or resize a window. And, as before, a progress meter in the address bar shows how many elements of a page remain to load – a more detailed view than you’ll find in other browsers.

A different sort of speed enhancement is offered by the new Opera Turbo mode, a system that serves up compressed versions of web pages, with slightly reduced graphic detail, to reduce load times. Although Opera doesn’t set out the full technical details, this is a server-side technology, so be aware that any pages you access in Turbo mode are passing through a compression proxy.

At any rate, we’re not sure how useful this feature is: few of us are still on dial-up connections, where shaving a few hundred kilobytes off a download page might make a real difference. Ditto the one-click button to show or hide images on the page. These considerations might be welcome in the smartphone browser Opera Mini, but it’s hard to get excited about them on the desktop.

Those are the major enhancements. There’s still no support for Firefox-style extensions, but Opera 10 does get a few lesser me-too upgrades: an inline spellchecker, webmail support for mailto: links, online crash reporting and automatic updates are all good things to have, although they hardly set Opera 10 beta apart from the crowd.

Details

Software subcategoryWeb browser

Requirements

Processor requirementN/A

Operating system support

Operating system Windows Vista supported?yes
Operating system Windows XP supported?yes
Operating system Linux supported?yes
Operating system Mac OS X supported?yes

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