Thursday, December 16, 2010

Opera 11 joins the add-ons club

Mobile Opera may be driving the Norwegian browser company's growth, but that doesn't mean that the desktop browser is getting ignored. Debuting today, Opera 11 for Windows, Mac, and Linux, has only gotten more stable since the beta version of the browser launched last month.
The most request of the new features is the lightweight extension API framework, which brings to Opera a long-missing ability to directly add to and customize the browser. Having launched while the browser was in beta, there are already several popular extensions available, including ad-blocker NoAds; YouTube downloader FastestTube; Image Preview Popup for looking at images before loading the sites they're on; language translator Translate; and the well-known cross-platform, cross-browser password manager LastPass. Most extensions will install visibly as buttons to the right of the location bar. At the time of writing, there are 200 extensions in Opera official add-on gallery, a small number compared to Firefox or even Google, but a reasonable rate of growth since the alpha debut of the feature in October 2010.

An Opera representative has stated that the company intends to keep its Widgets framework, supporting it and extensions concurrently. It's similar in concept to Firefox's Panorama but groups tabs only in the tab bar. To use it, drag a tab onto another. You'll see the bottom tab replaced by an arrow to the right of the tab. Click it and the tabs in the stack will slide out to one side. Mouse over the stack to see previews for all the tabs in the stack. To break up the stack, drag a tab off the stack.

Another change comes to the security badge system, which marks sites as "verified safe". Click on the gray "Web" globe icon to the left of the URL bar to check a site's status. Getting information returned was quick on some sites, yet occasionally slow to stalled for others. The badges are colored yellow for "secure", green for "trusted", and blue for when you're running Opera's Turbo mode, designed for assisting people surfing on slower connections. Opera's badge system includes a smart tweak: quick links for reporting a site as fraud or malware. Meanwhile, the Turbo badge will also display estimated data savings.

Other improvements include load-on-demand plug-ins, which can help reduce page load time and mitigate some security threats from third-party plug-ins like Adobe Flash, Apple QuickTime, and Microsoft Silverlight. The feature was impressively smooth in its implementation. Opera 11 claims the a performance improvement of up to 30 percent, as well as a general improvement in performance in general has been improved. Opera says that Opera 11 beta 1 is 15 percent to 20 percent faster than Opera 10.63 on Linux, and that the browser size on disk has been reduced by almost one-third.

Tab stacks are a tab-grouping mechanism similar in concept to Firefox's Panorama, but completely based in the tab bar. To use it, drag one tab on top of another. The bottom tab will disappear, and an arrow will appear to the right of the tab. Click it and the tabs in the stack will slide out to one side. To break up a stack, drag a tab off the stack. Mouse over the stack to see previews for all the tabs in the stack.

Finally, the mouse gestures tutorial has been given a visual refresh, making it easier to learn them.

CNET's benchmarks of the browser weren't finished at the time of publication, and will be updated here later on Thursday. However, preliminary results indicated that the browser remains competitive with the stable versions of Google Chrome and Apple Safari in terms of page load times, including cold boot results. Next generation browsers from Mozilla and Microsoft have only been released in beta and were not included in these tests, although their betas score relatively comparable speeds.

Although Opera 11 includes new features and improved performance results, it doesn't make great strides in its HTML5 compliance. This isn't a major problem, as HTML5 standards are still developing and Opera is known generally for being an early adopter of them. The browser already supports the video and audio codec WebM, geolocation, Web Workers and App Cache. However, while Opera supports HTML Web fonts, it hasn't yet incorporated the Web Open Font Format, which it has co-sponsored. Opera spokesman Thomas Ford told CNET that the company expects to add support "sooner rather than later".

Opera remains a closed-source and niche approach to browsing that lacks the open-source appeal of Firefox or the corporate backing of Chrome, Safari, or Internet Explorer. Yet because of its longevity, in use since 1995, along with its competitive feature set, page-load speeds, synchronization, and mobile options, it's also a viable alternative to other browsers. A full review of Opera 11 will be available on CNET later on Thursday.

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