Review of Opera 8.5

Released on 2005-09-27.

I’m really impressed with Opera 8.5 because it has taken a big step from a supergeek plaything towards an everyday browser with familiar functionality.

You can try the browser yourself via the Opera 8.5 free download on Opera’s website.

First Impressions and Setting Up

A website being viewed in Opera.

The screenshot shows how Opera 8.5 looks for me, after quite a lot of fiddling. The default setup is very simple yet modern, with the gentle gradients and shine which have been made so popular by Windows XP and Apple OS X.

All the advanced stuff is still in there for the geeky folks like me. The Tools > Appearences dialogue can be used to put anything pretty much anywhere you want it.

Unlike previous versions of Opera which I have tried, this one loads up very speedily. It’s a lot faster to start than the glacially slow Netscape, a bit faster thab Firefox but slower than IE6 on this XP Home SP2 machine. Elements of IE normally get preloaded by Windows for use in other applications.

Blending in with the Crowd

Opera using default Windows XP styles.

Here you can see one of the most important features for me. I can select the Windows Native style and it becomes a familiar and intuitive interface, inheriting whatever Windows theme you are using.

As well as doing the normal things in an intuitive way, there are some really innovative features which blend in seamlessly with the user experience. For example, holding down Shift and using the arrow keys makes for wonderful keyboard navigation. It simply moves the focus to the nearest element in that direction which can accept input, whether it’s a form field or a hyperlink. It is amazing that all browsers have not worked like this since they were first released.

Simplified Interface

Showing the simplified menus in Opera.

One of my major gripes with Opera is that every version of it I tried came with insanely long menu items full of features I didn’t need. Opera 8.5 doesn’t have this problem due to a radical simplification of the menus, as shown in the screenshot. You can display the relevant toolbar from the View > Toolbars menu. If you prefer to use dialogue windows for detailed settings (I normally do) then you can use the Tools > Appearance and Tools > Preferences menus.

Their interface layouts and use of function keys with Shift and Ctrl for menu shortcuts are quite similar to the ones that I make. They use the ancient, simple standard for dialogue windows with controls down the left and manipulator buttons on the right, with OK and Cancel on the bottom right.

All the dialogues resize but they don’t have maximise and minimise buttons. This is easy to do since I can manage it in my own programs. If the form resizes, you might as well include those buttons because there’s a chance the user will want to resize it to be massive and then would require a minimise button to click past it.

The exception to this is the Tools > Advanced > JavaScript Console which resizes, has a maximise button and a minimise button. Makes it a lot more conveniant...except that the minimise button in the taskbar just moves it below the other windows. The minimise command button is the one which actually minimises it.

It does remembers the normal size, even if you close it from being maximised, which is something a lot of programs get wrong.

Multiple Windows

Showing the ‘Window’ menu in Opera.

The screenshot shows the familiar Window menu of Multiple Document Interface (MDI) applications.

Opera now combines a more native style of Windows tab than is used by Firefox with the familiar MDI controls found in other programs. Having a Window menu to manage very large numbers of tabs is very useful. Having various options of arranging or cascading windows can be useful.

For example, tiling vertically allows price comparisons for products, although it requires some fiddly scrolling to find where you were. Most websites don’t respond well to being tiled horizontally. Now that Opera’s user base is growing it adds ammunition to the argument that websites should be made to collapse below 750px, perhaps?

Built-in Tools and Features

Opera’s ‘Small Screen Rendering’ mode being applied to a website.

The screenshot shows Opera comes with a very useful mobile phone emulator for testing device accessibility.

By pressing Shift+F11 on your keyboard or using View > Small Screen will make the viewport change to work like a modern mobile phone. It uses a version of Opera’s Small Screen Rendering (SSR) software from their Web browser for mobile phones. It seems that it uses the SSR engine when a site uses layout tables and has no media="handheld" style sheet. When a site uses <div> elements for layout and also has a suitable style sheet, it just displays the page as normal but with the appropriate CSS used.

With Opera’s customary attention to detail, the View > Full Screen mode (also available from pressing F11) will only use CSS as defined in a media="projection" style sheet. This means you can switch between small screen rendering, normal screen rendering and projection rendering at the push of a button or two.

There are a lot of other user agent simulators included. From high contrast style sheets used by visually impaired users to the old Opera text browser, being able to see how radically different the same page can look on different devices really highlights the importance of modern, interoperable design.

Web Developer Extensions

I miss the Web Developer Bar and HTML Validator extensions that I have in Firefox. There is an Opera Web Developer Bar (Opera Community topic) assembled from various bookmarklets, consoles and suchlike but it doesn’t seem as complete and well interfaced. Since getting the HTML Validator extension for Firefox, I’ve developed a habit of glancing at the status bar error and warning count for every page a I visit whilst watching the progress bar for it to load. I can’t use Opera 8.5 on a full-time basis until that sort of functionality is present in it.

This has certainly changed my view about the Opera browser, though. I now consider it a serious contender in the new browser wars and a very good piece of software in its own right.