I’m Like the Phantom, Really

Hello hello hello. It’s me again. I spent today avoiding tax returns and calculus. My tax return didn’t require calculus, you understand (hmmm, at what point in the year did my profits start heading down?), that’s just some A-Level work I’m behind on. That’s all for tomorrow. Instead I transferred my goldfish to the Biggest Tank Ever, which took all afternoon. I have learnt today that water is heaving per kilo than…er…smarties, and thinking you can carry a small tank full from one room to another is a very bad thought. I now have two goldfish in a tank large enough for thirty slightly smaller fish, so they should get plenty of exercise.

The other thing I have done today is returned to my favourite web browser, Opera. I do this every six months or so, as Opera is so very smooth and pleasant. It’s an addiction, really. Normally, after a month or two I move onto something else; there’s always something that starts to annoy me. This time around I was inspired by the release of the Opera 8 beta. Its major new feature is voice support, which isn’t of much use to me, but they also say rendering has been improved and that’s always been my main issue with Opera. It just had trouble with some websites, and that got on my nerves.

I’ve been using Firefox for a few months now, and it’s certainly very good. I’m not vehemently anti-IE like some people, but MS do seem to have dropped the ball in terms of features. Once you’ve used tabbed browsing, you don’t want to give it up. So here’re my likes and dislikes about Firefox.

Likes:

  • Plugins – these can be written by anybody, and can add all sorts of useful features. For example, I’ve got plugins that:
    •    automatically check my gmail and let me know when something new arrives
    •    put winamp (and other player) control buttons on the status bar
    •    add a googlebar
    •    add a ‘view this page in IE’ link to the right-mouse menu, for those pages that won’t render properly
  • Optimized builds – Moox has specially compiled versions for your specific processor, which really did result in a significant speed increase, for me
  • Tabbed browsing – goes without saying
  • RSS Feeds – Firefox will automatically check RSS feeds for you.
  • Mouse Gestures – being able to close a tab without moving the mouse to the top of the screen is very cool, if lazy

Dislikes:

  • Clunky – creating a new tab is slower than it should be, and makes the browser flicker. Firefox also uses vast amounts of RAM, although plugins could be contributing to this
  • Toolbars – they can’t be moved around, and aren’t very customisable. In fact clicking ‘customize’ on my computer results in a blank box appearing that won’t go away until I restart the browser
  • Options – I can’t configure it as much as I’d like
  • Inline find keeps popping up when I try to type in forms. This gets old real quick, as it steals the focus. This is likely a bug that’ll get fixed soon.

So, how does Opera compare? Well, let’s get the bad parts out of the way first:

  • Opera doesn’t really support plugins. Well, it does, but there’s a full API and it’s not terribly easy to write one. The kind of useful quick-weekend-project plugins that Firefox has just don’t exist. So I won’t be able to add functionality without waiting for new releases. Now that the rendering seems vastly improved, this is the major drawback in comparison to Firefox, in my opinion.
  • Opera doesn’t have the support or fame of Firefox / IE. Any web developer worth their salt will ensure that their site works fine in IE and Firefox, but may not bother with Opera. This is fair enough, but there’ll be the odd site which won’t work properly, I guess.
  • Gmail doesn’t work right. This is due to some javascript issue that Opera are trying to work out with Google. With version 8 (beta) you can get into gmail and see your emails, but they’re squashed into a small width so end up tall and thin. No big deal, but it’s a shame given gmail’s popularity.
  • Opera isn’t free. The free version places a small ad at the top of the screen that’s about 25 pixels high. To be honest I don’t even notice it any more, and may well buy Opera at some point in the future (I already have the mobile phone version, so adding a PC license is very cheap).
  • There’s no googlebar. Pretty much every part of the googlebar is emulated, including the very useful inline find option, but they’re all in separate places and it’s arguably not quite as convenient.

So, that said, here’s what I really like:

  • Opera is smooth, clean and professional. Creating a new tab is instantaneous. It opens quickly. The user interface is clear and easy to use. It’s just a nice browsing environment.
  • Everything, like everything, is customisable. If I want to have a toolbar on the right-hand side of the screen, no problem. If I want this toolbar to have a google search box in there, that’s easy. If I want to add a special box that searches myobscuresearchengine.com then all I have to do is edit an .ini file. I can put bookmarks anywhere I like. I can also customise the right-click menu; for example, I find it handy to have my bookmarks available from the right-click, and that’s easy to add. Every colour and icon in the program is customisable, too. Plenty of skins are available, if you’re into that.
  • Opera’s built-in mail client. Because I access all my email via IMAP now, it’s easy to change email program. This way I get a message pop up whenever a new message arrives. It also uses a gmail-like filtering system (the source of many which-came-first forum posts) which lets you create folders that show you only a certain type of email. For example, the ‘Unread’ folder shows you all unread emails, no matter what email account they’re in. Or a folder which shows only emails from my family, without actually moving any emails around in the system. When you view an email a ‘quick reply’ form appears underneath it, too.
  • The email system also supports RSS feeds, and an ‘RSS’ logo appears on the address bar if the browser finds an RSS file on the website. Clicking this automatically adds it to your monitoring list.
  • It’s also a newsreader, if you’re into browsing newsgroups. I gave that up a couple of years back when I realised I was starting to slip into the criticism mentality.
  • It’s fast. Faster than default firefox, I think, but slower than the optimized builds.
  • Notes – these are basically post-it notes that you can add text to by highlighting it on the site and right-clicking ‘add to note’. This comes in handy way more often than you’d think.
  • “User mode” – this is great for debugging when website building. It can show you all the structural elements of a website, emulate a text browser, make the page high-contrast for partially sighted people, and a few other options.
  • There are buttons available for a huge number of options. Hide/show images is very handy, as it’s been known for me to find a website with some obscure driver, but that contains porn banners.
  • The new version improves the interface substantially, from what I’ve seen. Everything you need is available at the click of a button, but not at the expense of screen space.
  • You can set many commonly-used form entries, which are then available from a right-click menu. Also the ‘magic wand’ feature will fill in username/password fields automatically.
  • Mouse-gestures work in exactly the same way as in Firefox, except there’s no visual indication.

I’m really hoping that the rendering improvements will stop me getting annoyed, now. With a bit of luck I won’t ditch it after a month or two, this time! If you decide to try it out, a good tip is that if you export Firefox bookmarks they can be imported into Opera as Netscape bookmarks, which retains their folder structure. There’s also a way around the google preferences bug, if you come across that.

I’d recommend you give Opera a try if Firefox/IE is annoying you in any way. I certainly like it.