Rounding out this week of browser reviews: to be honest I can’t recall the last time I took a serious look at Opera – regardless of when it was, 9.02 is a much improved and simplified experience. The toolbars look sharp, the clutter and over-featured UI of previous releases is gone, and I felt invited to spend some serious time putting Opera through its paces.
- Opera has the correct UI hierarchy for tabs – they appear above the address bar, as conceptually the tab is the highest order UI element in any browser (I complained about this in my first review of Firefox). To take this all the way, tabs should be above the menus too, but there are some problems with following the model this far.
- The notes & links sidebars rock. I’m a sucker for good sidebars as I designed them for IE4 & IE5 when they were new (and I was young). Everybody else has stood pat, but the notes field says “hey, I know you need scrap paper” and the links field says “Dude, relax. Here’s an easier way to use this page as a launching pad to other sites”.
- Tight, lightweight, clean visuals. I never thought I’d see the day, but Opera has a cleaner visual design than IE. It’s not even close. They handle the new tab usability issue gracefully (no birth defect button).
- Lots of unique clever goodness. The ability to start where you left off, save sessions (your suite of tabs), undo close page (Holy shit!), hotclicking and more. These are mostly done well and at worst give you the vibe of thoughtfulness: these Opera guys have clearly thought about what’s annoying in the browsing experience and tried to fix it.
- Shortcut keys - if you’re a market trailer, you must support the shortcut keys for the market leaders. No questions. It’s easy to implement, at least as an optional mode. Most frustrating: Cntr-H, which is history in IE and FF, closes Opera! Pressing Alt-D (Address-bar), my most used shortcut, resulted only in misery.
- Active tab confusion: its hard to tell which tab is active. There’s not enough de-emphasis of non-active tabs, and the active tab needs stronger outline in connection to the browser frame (FF does this well).
- Help! I couldn’t figure out some of their unique features, so plunged into help for an overview. Searches for “wand” & “transfers”, two labels for features in their UI, turned up nothing. I don’t expect much from help, but with the web and wikis, I expect basic coverage of anything in the UI. (Transfers = Download manager as I eventually figured out on my own). There was a welcome to Opera first run page, but I couldn’t figure out how to get back to it (Why isn’t it listed in the help menu?)
- Vestigial weird UI. My old complaint about Opera was that it tried too hard: too many features designed in well intentioned, but awkward, goofy ways. 9.02 is much improved in this respect, but there are still some weird spots. The find on page UI is all too happy to highlight every instance of the first letter you type (shocking), and then switches to selecting the first, and highlighting the rest (I couldn’t figure out why: first instance is enough 95% of the time). There are some other oddities like this (print preview is a mode, not a separate view, the scrollbar has a bright yellow mouseover effect), but fewer than previous Opera experiences.
In summary, Opera is sweet! (Download here) I preferred it over IE7 for its personality and moxie alone, but until they soften a few more rough edges, I’m staying with FF.