WhileFirefox,Google Chrome,Internet Explorer, andSafariget the lion's share of press when it comes to Web browsers, Opera has quietly built a formidable platform for surfing the Net. The latest version, Opera 9.62, adds new features including Opera Link, for synchronizing bookmarks and settings across notebooks and smart phones, and Feed Preview, for giving a site the once-over before hitting the subscribe button. Factor in the wonderfully useful Mouse Gesture controls, Speed Dial bookmarking system, and customization options, and you have a compelling browser that just may be worth the switch.
Address Bar and Panels
Opera's interface is pretty standard fare: The address bar finds Web sites that you've previously visited in a breeze. Like Firefox 3's Awesome Bar, Opera highlights words within a URL as you type them and returns them on the fly. To the right of the address bar is a search box that lets you send queries to Google, Ask.com, Yahoo, Amazon.com, Wikipedia, eBay, Yahoo Shopping, and BitTorrent.
To the left of the address bar is the Panel button (represented by a wrench icon) that gave us quick access to bookmarks, history, installed widgets, file transfers, and notes. The particularly interesting Notes lets you jot down ideas directly in the browser--no need to launch Notepad, TextEdit, or Wordpad. These notes stay saved in the browser until deleted.
Speed Dial and Magic Wand
Speed Dial offers a different take on bookmarks: Instead of accessing a favorite site the traditional way (via the bookmarks menu or bookmarks toolbar), whenever you open a tab, you're presented with a 3 x 3 grid that displays thumbnails of up to nine of your favorite sites. You can add a site to the grid by dragging a tag into it, entering a URL, or by selecting a suggestion culled from your browsing history and bookmarks.
If Speed Dial gets you to your favorite sites quickly, Magic Wand helps you to fill out online forms just as fast. By clicking Tools > Preferences > Wand, you can fill in your name, home/work address, e-mail address, mobile number, home/work phone number, city, state, and zip code, which can be saved and used in any online form that requires such information. We had no problem signing up for an e-mail newsletter by right-clicking the mouse and selecting "Insert Personal Data" for each field that we wanted to fill in. Unfortunately, there isn't a way to safeguard this data.
Tabs and Sessions
Opera 9.62 gives users plenty of options for managing tabs. We could drag and drop tabs to rearrange their order, view a preview by positioning the cursor over a tab, and save sessions (a designated group of favorites that you can have open automatically whenever you launch Opera). Closed tabs can be recovered by clicking on the trash bin to the upper right of the search engine box and selecting the page that you'd like to see.
One of Opera's most innovative features is Mouse Gestures, which enables you to control the browser without clicking on navigation keys or icons. For example, when we wanted to open a new tab, instead of clicking on the New Tab icon, we held the right mouse button, moved the cursor downward, and released, opening a new tab. When we wanted to move backwards through Web pages, we simply held the right mouse button and clicked the left button. There are nearly two dozen gestures in all (which can be edited by clicking Tools > Preferences > Advanced > Shortcuts), and they dramatically changed the navigation experience for the better. Once we became accustomed to using the mouse for navigation, every other browser felt crippled by comparison.
Opera Mail and Feed Preview
Opera Mail, or Opera M2, is a mail client built into the browser that's compatible with both POP3 and IMAP. We were able to set up our Gmail account and our messages began to download in chronological order. The interface isn't very visually appealing--it looks like a stripped down version of Yahoo Mail--but Opera Mail does its job extremely well; it even adds features that your Web-based mail client may not have, such as priority settings.
New to Opera 9.62 is Feed Preview, which lets users see the content of a site in an easy, at-a-glance, three-column format before hitting the large subscribe button. If a site has separate RSS feeds for content or comments, you can subscribe to either feed or both.
Opera 9.62, like Firefox 3, offers a wide range of customization options. Clicking Tools > Appearance > Skin > Find More Skins, you'll find dozens of skins that are separated into easy-to-navigate categories, such as Editor's Picks and Most Popular. Our favorite options are the Ubuntu and Vista skins, which feature designs that closely match the look of those operating systems. A dedicated widget drop-down menu enabled us to access hundreds of pages of widgets; we had no problem installing a clock and weather forecaster from the Highest Rated section.
Speed and Surfing Experience
Opera 9.62's sweet feature set would mean nothing if the surfing experience was less than stellar; we're happy to report that while it may not be the fastest, this browser is a decent performer. To test Opera 9.62's speed, we loaded ten sites (CNN.com, eBay.com, FoxNews.com, Hulu.com, Laptopmag.com, NYTimes.com, Wikipedia.com, Yahoo.com, YouTube.com) in the browser three times over the course of two days and timed how long it took for each page to load. When compared against Chrome (6.1 seconds), Firefox 3 (4.8 seconds), Internet Explorer 8 (5.4 seconds), and Safari 3.1 (4.6 seconds), Opera 9.62 was squarely in the middle of the pack (5.2 seconds). Opera 9.62's one significant flaw is that it occasionally rendered pages improperly. Sometimes, an advertisement or two may look distorted.
One especially nice perk is the Opera Link feature, which enables users to sync all of their bookmarks, notes, and Speed Dial settings automatically across multiple notebooks running Opera 9.62 and the Opera Mini browser on mobile phones. As with other browsers, Opera 9.62 has a built-in zoom feature for taking a closer look at text or images.
Security and Stability
Fraud Protection, powered by phishing information from PhishTank and malware protection from Haute Secure, is enabled by default in Opera 9.6, which automatically detects and warns you about fraudulent Web sites. Built into the far-right end of the address bar is a button that provides Web site ID verification. In our extensive hands-on time with the browser, Opera 9.62 didn't crash even when tackling rich multimedia content.
In a world of "me too" browsers, Opera 9.62 has enough innovative features to stand out from its competitors, and possibly entice you into making the switch. It may not have the private browsing feature that has recently become a staple, and the occasional Web page may not be formatted perfectly, but Opera's Mouse Gestures, Speed Dialing, and customization options compensate for these drawbacks.