A Closer Look

Opera Browser, Still Perfecting Its Pitch

By Michael Tedeschi
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 30, 2006

Suddenly, the Web browser is in the spotlight again -- and it's looking better than ever.

These days, browsers come with tabs so multiple Web pages can be opened in a single window. Colorful icons represent commands such as "back" and "refresh." And of course, there's the ability to add a search bars from Google, Yahoo and others.

There's also a variety of browsers to choose from.

Microsoft is in the final tests of a new Internet Explorer, trying to hold off the growing defection of its users to the popular alternative: Mozilla's Firefox. And then there's Opera, which isn't really as new a player as one might think.

The Opera browser, which has been around for years, recently released its ninth version. Opera was the first browser to offer many enhancements that are now included in others, including tabbed browsing. And its latest version has some cutting-edge features, such as voice recognition and one that allows you to add notes of your own to a Web site.

Yet, Opera ( http://www.opera.com/ ) still stands in the shadows of IE and Firefox and has yet to gain any real traction against them. And it's yet to be seen whether the newest version is enough to get satisfied users of IE and Firefox to consider a switch.

If you're still using IE 6, then yes, Opera's offering makes the switch worth considering, if only for the more robust security and convenience of tabbed browsing. For those either already using Firefox or are willing to download the final beta version of IE 7, the answer is less clear-cut.

Opera certainly makes it easy to switch -- it flawlessly imports settings such as bookmarks, mail and RSS news feeds. It also allows users a high degree of customization, from selecting how individual sites load to saving multiple sets of tabs for easy opening.

Opera's trash can is probably the most useful new feature to the everyday surfer. Accidentally closed a tab? Just click on the icon to see a list of all the sites you've opened and closed recently.

Thumbnails and notes allow users to navigate and manage those multiple tabs more easily. Put your cursor over a tab, and you'll see a thumbnail of the page as well as its title and address. With the notes tool, surfers can keep a running commentary on useful sites, such as "Greasylake.org has really good information on Springsteen's latest tour."

For true multi-taskers, Opera 9 can read Web pages and respond to voice commands. This works best with simple commands and sites that are primarily text; the browser reads everything on a page -- even photo titles -- in a clear but monotonous voice.

But some of Opera's new features seem too cutting edge -- they show promise but are not particularly useful yet. Widgets are mini-applications that run inside the browser. They do not suffer the security risks of Microsoft's much maligned ActiveX controls, but there are not a large number available yet.

If we're lucky, developers will continue to create useful items such as the excellent Free Dictionary or the various weather-feed widgets to complement simple yet addictive games such as Circular Tetris. Right now, most of the widgets seem more interesting than useful.

Many of the features Opera pioneered, such as tabbed browsing and the ability to open multiple home pages, are available in the latest version of Firefox and in the beta version of IE 7. Both of those browsers have large developer and support bases to answer questions and create new add-ons.

Because all three browsers incorporate many of the same key functions and because Opera has a smaller support community, Opera 9 is at a distinct disadvantage for gaining new adherents -- unless, of course, you are looking forward to using some of those cutting-edge tools. Then you may find yourself a quick download away from a different take on what a Web browser can incorporate.

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