Opera 12 review

Pros

  • Smart themes and minimal interface
  • Turbo feature is a real boon
  • Excellent HTML5 support
  • Integrated mail and BitTorrent clients

Cons

  • Hardware acceleration not up to speed
  • Rare website incompatibility issues

Innovative Scandinavian software house Opera updates its web browser fairly frequently, but, unlike Google and Mozilla, it doesn't award a new full version number to each minor incremental update. So when the company that invented the browser tab, built-in search, and popup blocking designates a new full numeral – Opera 12 – it means something. Version 12 includes a new Themes feature, support for HTML5 web page access to webcams and paged formatting, Do Not Track support, along with plug-in isolation. You can download the new browser here at the Opera website.

The latest Opera isn’t all about additions, though, as some of the changes are elements which have been stripped out. Namely Opera Unite, Widgets, and voice support. A few users may lament the loss of Opera Unite, a radical new approach to the web whereby the browser becomes a server. The same holds true for Widgets – web connected apps that run using Opera – but in the wider scheme of things, Opera 12's tightening makes for a cleaner, more focused browser, where previously it was becoming overburdened with tools and features.

All this still makes Opera a fine browser with good speed and excellent HTML5 support. Its Turbo boost for slow connections and live Speed Dial tiles are unmatched. And it's still the only browser with built-in BitTorrent support. But lack of default hardware acceleration, occasional site incompatibility, and a slower startup time than competitors hold it back from achieving top honours.

Interface

Like all browsers in recent times, Opera has adopted the "less is more" approach to interface design. There's just one button in the browser's top window border to give you access to all its features and settings. Version 12, due to the removal of the features noted above, is now compact where it had previously been getting unwieldy. Of course, you can augment the interface with toolbars, including those for bookmarks, menus, and a Main bar, with standard buttons like Open, Save, Print, and so on.

By default, tabs reach all the way to the top of the window, and Opera has some nifty tab tricks of its own. When you hover the mouse cursor over a tab for a bit, a large thumbnail view of the site in the tab drops down providing a helpful bit of memory jogging. And its Tab Stacking lets you group tabs by dragging and dropping one on top of another. The groups are expandable by clicking an arrow to the group's left, and hovering the mouse over the group expands it to show the thumbnails of each included site.

Opera 12's new Themes adds a less drastic, quick and lightweight way to personalise the browser. They simply change the window border and the new-tab-page Speed Dial background. A gallery full of delightful options is already well populated, and installing a theme is a mere matter of a button click once you find one that tickles your fancy. They're sortable by Recommended, Top rated, Popular, and New categories.

Speed Dial

Opera was the first browser to include a helpful new-tab page featuring a grid of sites you visit frequently, in its case called Speed Dial. This helpful contrivance was copied by pretty much all other browsers, most recently by Firefox. Opera's flexible implementation doesn't restrict you to a preset number of rows and columns as previous versions did. You can enlarge the tiles, or let Opera automatically choose a size that works best with your screen dimensions.

In version 11.50, Speed Dial got even more powerful with Speed Dial Extensions. Now à la Windows 8, Opera's tiles can contain live updated information, if the site's developer has implemented this. For example, you could have a Speed Dial tile that displays the current local temperature, stock quotes, or football scores. The last time I checked, there were more than 130 nifty ones such as Radio Dial (which puts Internet radio on the dial), a top-ten daily pictures tile, a webcam viewer, and a Twitter timeline display.

In addition to doubling as a search bar, Opera's address bar highlights security information about the site you're visiting. Like Firefox, but unlike Chrome and Internet Explorer 9, Opera maintains a separate search bar at the top right that lets you swiftly flick between search engines, though you can't do this as easily when searching from the address bar as with IE9. Just as Firefox does, Opera lets you use any search provider you like simply by right-clicking in a page's search box.

For most sites, the address bar shows a globe icon. Clicking on the icon drops down a small panel showing whether the site has a clean security record. A link lets you drill down into more security report information, and report the site as fraud or malware. Secure sites show a prominent green area in the address bar saying Trusted. Opera also features search hijacking protection, preventing one of the most common and annoying malware tactics.

Do it with a gesture

Mouse gestures let users navigate, open new windows, and more with clicks, drags, and mouse wheel spinning instead of having to press buttons or choose menu options. The mouse gestures can really speed up your browsing, and they remind me a bit of the gestures available on Mac track pads. But they do require behaviour modification on your part, a barrier to widespread adoption. One thing that helps overcome this is the large black circle that appears when the program detects that you've started a mouse gesture, explaining how to use it. Simply holding down the right mouse button brings up the visual gesture helper.

Opera Extensions

From the Opera menu, the puzzle-piece icon leads to the Extensions choice, which grants access to the extension gallery and manager. Opera's gallery has 14 subcategories ranging from Accessibility to Productivity to Weather – over 1,100 in all – but still less than Firefox's 4,000 plus, and Chrome's 9,000 plus. As in the competition's galleries, each Opera extension includes a user star rating, and I could sort by most popular, newest, or highest rating.

In addition to the usual extension suspects such as ad blockers and site facilitators (submitting links to Reddit, for example), Opera extensions can change browser behaviour and appearance more than Chrome's can. One I tried let me open new links in background tabs only on a "long click." Another changed the standard scroll bars to a thinner version.

When you install an extension in Opera, privacy checkboxes let you control whether you want it to interact with secure pages or work in private tabs. After successful (and very quick) installation, a notification rises at the bottom of your screen to inform you of that success. Google took a while to add this option in Chrome, so it's good to see Opera learning from the competition's experience.

Beyond the call – Mail and BitTorrent

Opera is the only major browser that builds in a mail client – not to mention a BitTorrent client. The mail client can group by date, lets you pin important messages, and features a revamped settings dialog that lets you set threading, sorting, and grouping in all or individual views. It's actually pretty convenient having your mail client accessible via a browser button. And it's also very convenient to be able to click on a torrent magnet link and not have to launch a separate BitTorrent client.

Security and privacy

I've already mentioned the page security notices available from the address bar, but Opera comes with a multitude of other forms of protection against online threats. The browser includes malware, fraud warnings and blockers similar to what you'll find in all the other major browsers. To these it adds support for Extended Validation (EV) certificates, Secure Socket Layer (SSL) version 3, and TLS. Though not an actual security feature, the browser's relatively small market share means it isn't a prime target for malware makers, which actually results in added safety.

When it comes to privacy, Opera offers private tabs that, when closed, delete the history, cache, and all other data related to the tab. The browser's history-clearing tool even wipes out the page you're currently browsing. New for Opera 12 is support for the Do Not Track header message that tells compliant sites that you don't want them collecting data on you for an ad-targeting profile. You'll find this in the form of a check box labelled "Ask websites not to track me" in the Settings dialog's Preferences/Advanced/ Security page. All other major browsers besides Chrome now offer this privacy option, but in my testing, I found it wasn’t as effective as Internet Explorer's additional Tracking Protection.

Performance

Opera is unique in offering its Turbo speed-up technology. Turbo caches content from popular web sites on Opera's servers, compresses it, and sends it to the browser as a smaller amount of data than the full web page. Turbo's latest image compression method reportedly reduces the amount of data needed to be downloaded for a group of typical sites by 22 per cent. To enable Opera Turbo, simply click the speedometer icon in the lower left corner of the browser window. In my tests, the speedometer indicated that it tripled performance. An Automatic setting detects whether your Internet connection is slow enough to benefit from Turbo, and enables it if that's the case.

Even without Turbo, Opera feels reasonably fast in everyday browsing, but it has fallen behind on some speed tests of late. One clever performance idea implemented in Opera is the fact that plug-ins only load when they're needed. As browser makers have noted for the past few years, plug-ins account for much of the lag experienced in opening new tabs, and sluggish performance in general. For version 12, Opera now runs plug-ins in separate system processes, to isolate any instability they may introduce. Other browsers like Firefox and Chrome have been doing this for a while.

In my on-going tests using Google's V8 JavaScript benchmark, Firefox has overtaken Opera to become number two after Chrome, and the gap has increased. Opera 12 doesn't improve significantly over 11.60 on this test. On Mozilla's Kraken JavaScript benchmark, Opera is also number three, handily beating out IE9 and Safari. WebKit's SunSpider benchmark has gotten less useful as all browsers now ace it. Neverthelesss, Chrome has retaken the lead, but Opera is right in the thick of the competition.

Here are the full results of these benchmarks from my test machine, a 2.53GHz Core 2 Duo PC with 3GB of RAM running 32-bit Windows 7 Professional:

Browser

Google V8 (v.6) Score (higher is better)

Google Chrome 20

9353

Firefox 14

5633

Opera 12

3572

Opera 11.6

3481

Safari 5.1

2679

Internet Explorer 9

2048

Browser

Mozilla Kraken 1.1 Score in ms (lower is better)

Google Chrome 20

3579

Firefox 14

4347

Opera 12

12336

Opera 11.6

12727

Safari 5.1

15898

Internet Explorer 9

16794

Browser

SunSpider 0.9.1 Score in ms (lower is better)

Google Chrome 20

255

Internet Explorer 9

260

Opera 12

290

Firefox 14

294

Safari 5.1

304

Opera 11.6

308

Hardware acceleration – using excess power in your graphics processor to speed up webpage rendering – was a concept first introduced by Internet Explorer 9, to help enable increasingly demanding web applications. Opera engineers want to go beyond the hardware acceleration in other browsers by not just accelerating web pages, but also the browser interface itself. However, this means a little more waiting: Opera 12 is the first version to include hardware acceleration, but it's not enabled by default. Opera engineers claim that on some setups it won't speed up performance, so they made it a command line setting. Set this to 1 to see hardware acceleration in action:

opera:config#UserPrefs|EnableHardwareAcceleration.

With the feature enabled in Opera, I ran a couple of hardware acceleration tests: Microsoft's IETestdrive's Psychedelic Browsing, and Mozilla's hardware acceleration stress test. Though the Norwegian browser improved enormously on earlier non-hardware-accelerated versions, it still trailed Internet Explorer, Firefox, and Chrome. The Microsoft test should play a spacey sound as well as spinning a colour wheel at breakneck speeds.

Browser with ATI Radeon HD 4290/3.4GHz quad core

Psychedelic Browsing RPM (higher is better)

Internet Explorer 9

4414 (correct sound)

Firefox 14

4142 (no sound)

Google Chrome 20

3516 (correct sound)

Opera 12 (h/ware acceleration)

1012 (no sound)

Opera 12 (no h/ware acceleration)

37 (no sound)

Safari 5.1.7

26 (correct sound)

Opera 11.6

25 (no sound)

Browser with ATI Radeon HD 4290/3.4GHz quad core

Mozilla Hardware Acceleration Stress Test FPS (higher is better)

Firefox 14

60+

Internet Explorer 9

60+

Google Chrome 20

60+

Opera 12 (h/ware acceleration)

45

Opera 12 (no h/ware acceleration)

17

Opera 11.6

17

Safari 5.1.7

12

Startup time

How long do you have to wait before a browser is usable? That's another key performance question, and as with other benchmarks, browsers have tightened up their differences on this count. On my 2.53GHz dual-core Windows 7 laptop with 3GB RAM, after a reboot Opera significantly trailed all but Safari for Windows. That said, none of the browsers, including Opera 12, is likely to annoy you with its warm (subsequent) restart time, as you can see in the second column of the following table.

Browser

Cold Startup Time (seconds)

Warm Startup Time (seconds)

Internet Explorer 9

2.2

1.9

Google Chrome 20

2.3

1.5

Firefox 14

2.7

1.7

Opera 12

6.1

1.9

Safari 5.1

6.6

2.2

HTML5 and compatibility

Thanks to its new HTML5 parser codenamed Ragnarök, Opera 12 improves the browser's HTML5 support, placing it ahead of Firefox but still a bit behind Chrome in terms of overall features support. But Opera 12 is actually ahead of Chrome in some facets of HTML5, supporting Microdata, which allows web page code to include identifying tags, and the CSS Generated Content for Paged Media module, which allows book-like reading.

Another very cool new HTML5 capability is access to the computer's webcam and microphone with the getUserMedia feature. Chrome soon followed Opera with support for this. Opera has posted a couple of striking demos of the webcam and paging technologies here and here.

Even before this, Opera had long been a leader in HTML5 support, with HTML5 video, canvas, and much more available early on. Opera also supports WebP – Google's new web image format – WebM (video format), CSS gradients, and HTML5 WebSockets, which let sites maintain connections with web servers. Each version implements a few more HTML5 features, now including more audio and video capabilities, as well as microdata. It also adds full support for ECMAScript 5.1 (the latest form of JavaScript, actually), and even some CSS4 support!

As with previous versions, this one aces the Acid3 test from the Web Standards Project with a full 100 per cent. Another compatibility test, HTML5Test.com, attempts to enumerate supported HTML5 features with a maximum potential score of 500 points. Opera 12 boosted its score from version 11.60's 329 with 9 bonus points, up to an impressive 385, again with 9 bonus points. Indeed, Opera has now sped past Firefox on this metric, with Mozilla’s browser lagging behind on 314. Only Chrome bested Opera, with version 21 of Google’s browser recording a storming 437 with 13 bonus points.

HTML5Test.com isn't the last word though. It doesn't actually determine whether the HTML5 functions are correctly implemented, it merely tests for their presence. The body responsible for web standards, the W3C, is developing a test that will do so, and I look forward to seeing how the browsers score.

I tried out Opera on some of Microsoft's HTML5 demos at the www.IETestDrive.com site, and it actually outperformed Chrome on a few, with Google's browser crashing on the Chalkboard HTML5 benchmark, while Opera ran it, albeit slower than IE. Neither of these could run Browser Surface, which tests support for HTML5 touch input, nor could they display the OpenType open font test.

In more anecdotal real-world testing, I still run into the occasional site that says "Your browser is not supported" when I use Opera, but usually, if the site offers to let you proceed, it renders just fine. And even these cases are getting extremely rare. While this isn't really Opera's fault, one of the biggest reasons users choose a particular browser is because it works without incident on all the sites they visit. The new HTML5 Parser should eventually make this a non-issue. When the new Outlook.com mail service first launched, it didn't work correctly for me in Opera, but the incompatibility quickly vanished.

Verdict

Opera 12 remains an innovator among browsers. While the new version bids farewell to a few ground-breaking but little-used features, it also adds the first support for a couple of forward-looking HTML5 features. The Nordic browser can also top the rest with unique features like Unite, Turbo, BitTorrent, and a built-in email client.

But there are a couple of areas where Opera has lost ground to the competition, such as startup time and hardware acceleration. Google Chrome still maintains speed and HTML5 support advantages, as well as offering an even more minimal interface that gets the browser out of the way.

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