As a ten-plus year user of the Opera web browser, it really pains me to write this review, but at the same time it also gives me the chance to pass along some good recommendations to users and educate them on what I believe was a very poor management choice in terms of this browser’s recent user interface (UI) redesign.
Let’s start from the beginning.
All the way through, and including its most recent version 12.x releases, the Opera browser has managed to hit specific milestones and do a lot of things its peers are still struggling to emulate: it permits an incredible amount of freedom in having a highly customizable interface, it gives superior page load times and application responsiveness, and it provide for the single most streamlined browsing experience in that it absolutely minimizes the amount of hand travel and click counts needed for both page navigation and repetitive tasks.
One of the first things long-time Opera fans will recall is the browser’s light footprint on the operating system. Download it, and you are getting an installer file that’s barely above 12MB. No one else has really been able to match this in the mainstream. On mobile platforms, the installer is closer to 8MB. When fully installed and loaded, the browser offers a faster feel than its contemporaries: it loads pages very quickly, does not stall out, and generally maintains its composure and feeling of extremely high responsiveness.
The one exception to this was the stock browser in Android 2.3x, which is marginally faster due to its own design integration specifically with that operating system (but even so, it’s a miniscule difference).
By and large, Opera stomps any other browser into the ground in terms of performance, even on a single-core smartphone like the one I have. Opera was arguably the first to bring tabbed browsing to the mainstream, followed closely after by Mozilla/Firefox and later IE. Tabbed browsing has existed since 1994, but if we’re to be honest, after checking out all of the browsers of its era Opera seemed to be the first one that really stood up and found a way to make it useful. The handling and navigation methods have largely remained consistent across versions, with a few small improvements such as the addition of stacking and window preview, but at its core the feature I as a user have come to rely on is the manner in which it gives the best experience in terms of changing between windows and easily opening or closing new ones.
That brings me to the next key feature: Opera was the first on the market to bring mouse gestures to the mainstream, something that has still not caught on in other browsers despite how this feature is so ergonomically significant in that it saves the user from having to make an incredible number of hand movements, clicks, and time spent navigating from one page to another. Don’t want the current tab? Right-click-and-hold-and-move-left-and-release. This works anywhere within a page, and avoids the annoyance and repetition of having to move the mouse back up to the top of the screen and find an X shaped button to nix an unwanted tab.
Functionality like this is what set Opera apart from the rest, and moreover, it is something that comes straight out-of-the-box without needing to download anything extra or fiddle with add-ons. Its complement of other built-in gestures similarly serve to speed up navigation and augment the software’s sleek, ergonomic feel. I’ve seen others try to imitate this many times in other browsers by creating aftermarket plug-ins, often clumsily. The bottom line is others have been slow on the uptake, and haven’t been doing it as well as Opera has done for nearly a decade.
With its Speed Dial, Opera was once again a serious innovator. A few years ago one might have never thought we’d eventually see all browsers eventually close in and take aim at an on-launch multiple homepage interface. Today, it’s still slowly coalescing, and yet Opera has been the only one to properly hit that nail on the head. Its browser allows the user to customize what shows up in the multi-frame page that loads in the browser. Firefox, out-of-the-box, is still struggling with an almost useless history based design that loads images of the last few pages visited. That’s not what users want.
There’s a damn good reason why the old “one page” homepage concept stuck with browsers and users for so many years: it was simple, static, and reliable. Unless the computer got bogged down with spyware or someone manually changed settings, it didn’t change and could be relied on. Opera’s implementation of a multi-homepage interface takes this idea to its logical extension: you get a start page “container” displaying rows of as many homepages as you want, and you can customize the dimensions. Simple, to the point, minimalistic … definitely the design that makes the most sense.
Other reasons I love Opera?
The Link feature: this lets you carry your settings to your Opera PC and mobile device browsers via the cloud. Sign up for an account, make your speed dial and bookmark settings, and guess what, you’re good to go. It saves all of these things automatically as you set them. It’s especially useful if you ever need to reload an operating system or install Opera for the first time on any device. Just sign in to Link, and everything is automatically rebuilt for you. The config page: you can jump into opera:config at any time and set out exactly how you want your browser to behave at the rendering engine level. If you don’t want it to load Flash widgets at the same time as the rest of the page, for example, there’s a standard option called “On Demand Plugin.” Set it, forget it, and go on with your day. You can also use the config page to change what directory your downloads appear in, to name one of the hundreds of other options.
A modular user interface: Opera lets you pick and choose the graphical elements of the browser which appear on the screen. This includes task buttons, address bar elements, page information, print options, image display options, navigation buttons, and text fields. It lets you set these and display them in whatever order and visual layout the user prefers. I have yet to see a competing product on the market that even comes close. Again, the ergonomic implications are fairly obvious: you can optimize your browser for minimal hand travel and interaction, and speed up common tasks. I’ve made great use of this feature for the many years Opera has implemented it, and have zero doubt that others do as well. On top of this, you can also download skins using the integrated appearance manager that takes the level of visual customization even further.
Now, what if I told you that nearly all of this has, over the span of one month, simply disappeared or changed?
Enter the mobile version of Opera 14. No meaningful config page, no visual tweaks, a clunky and inefficient UI, lack of streamlining for tabbed browsing, and in fact virtually no resemblance at all to its predecessors besides the name.
What happened? I wish I knew.
The one thing the community does know at this point is that Opera has recently chosen to drop its Presto rendering engine in favour of using Webkit.
Now either that strong Norwegian beer was even stronger than usual among Opera’s developers on the night of the big decision, or someone thought it was actually be a good idea to fix something that was never broken in the first place.
So, they bravely sallied forth and redesigned the ENTIRE. FREAKING. UI. Then, to add insult to injury, the resulting code bloat apparently wasn’t taken into consideration for its poor performance on single-core and Android Gingerbread smartphones to drop out through the floor. You see, I’m one of the 45% of the Android market who’s still using that version of the OS since my service provider contract locked me into Gingerbread and single-core hardware just a few months before respectable parallel processing hit the mainstream in smartphones. In other words, Firefox doesn’t work on this phone (too unresponsive to browse at all), and the built-in web browser included on the OS is older than dino poop.
This is what drove me to Opera 11 and 12 in the first place. These versions solved the performance and speed problem, offered modern rendering and features, were fully up to date and relevant to the online world, and turned out to be an ergonomic dream.
Those who don’t know any better about this week’s Opera 14 release are calling it revolutionary. Oh, if only you knew. I’ve been using Opera since version 5 came out for desktop computers and would go with a slightly different term — screwing the pooch.
Version 14, as I’ve found out, pushes the user into more hand travel, more unnecessary clicks, and more efforts to get the silly thing working in the first place. It’s stripped out Opera Link in the menu system and made it a webpage interface, forcing the user through a bunch of unnecessary steps to get the same end result when reloading page bookmarks and Speed Dials. The options menu is similarly stripped down of all but the most barebones features for basic Web navigation, there’s an unwanted section called “Discover” which you can’t remove (so horizontal flicks of the finger may accidentally land you there while browsing), and most oddly of all, the Opera Preferences Editor is no longer available to mobile users. This basically means goodbye to the On Demand option for Flash, download folder customizations, and virtually everything that seemed to make Opera superior to any other browser on the Android platform.
While this is supposedly being marketed as a full release, I wouldn’t call such an unpolished, dumbed-down travesty “full” in any sense of the word, and I sure wouldn’t stop at calling it beta. This thing looks, handles, and feels a lot more like an alpha version churned out by a bunch of drunk monkeys dancing the Harlem Shake on a table full of typewriters at a college party.
If you think I’m exaggerating, ask some other long time Opera users what their experience has been. Yes, it really is that bad. I’ve seen forum after forum lit up with posts from panicked users that feel like someone’s yanked the carpet out from under them. There are tons of queries being made about restoring lost features, fixing the clumsy nature of the new user interface, or adding customization.
In my humble opinion, the developers threw the baby out with the bathwater this time around. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel just to roll out Private Browsing, or any of the other incremental updates in version 14. Hell, the desktop version already has most of this firmly in place, to the respect of the userbase, without any of the clutter and confusion we inherited in this new release.
On the other hand, if one thing can be said about Opera’s developers after all these years, it’s that they’re a perceptive bunch and tend to pick up the slack very quickly when it comes to criticism of a product. They’ve also been ahead of the curve for a long time on features and usability. Considering I’ve also noticed tons of extremely helpful suggestions being given by users on their forums as to how they can improve on version 14, it sounds like maybe we’re not going to end up with a total loss when it finally hits the desktop later this month. That’s my hope, anyway. Further evidence from past releases also shows they’ve been pretty good when it comes to incremental improvements and especially fixes of major annoyances. As one example of this, a major bug that caused version 10 to crash was fixed inside of two weeks.
For now though, I can only hold my breath — and hold onto version 12.
Better luck next time, guys.