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Oh, what an alpha! Opera for the Mac truly sings!

By Tony Leggett (pocwactso@macedition.com), 6 March 2001

There’s a new browser war coming to the Mac. This time the battle won’t be between dinosaurs like Netscape and Internet Explorer. It will be between innovative developers like iCab and Opera – fighting for the mindshare of the growing number of users discerning enough to pay to avoid the bugs and bloat of mainstream browsers.

Opera, the latest addition to the family of Mac browsers, released February 22, truly puts many seasoned Mac software developers to shame. While it’s only an initial technology preview (essentially an alpha release) with many documented missing features, its stability and performance outshines your average late-beta release, or indeed some final candidate releases. To this reviewer at least, it certainly is a refreshing change to the headaches of Netscape 6. (And while this really shouldn’t matter to most, it is also nice to not feel "dirty" about using IE5.)

"THIS VERSION OF OPERA IS NOT FOR PERMANENT USE"

That’s the splash screen message that greets you every day you load Opera. It’s the standard alpha-release warning: it’s not feature-complete and you use it at your own risk (Netscape 6 should really consider the same splash screen). The team at Opera document its missing features, including:

There are also some features only partially functional such as bookmarking, keyboard navigation, printing, cookie handling and Secure Socket Layers (SSL). Opera’s preference panels are also only partially implemented. Do remember, it is only an alpha.

That’s gotten what Opera doesn’t do out of the way so we can now concentrate on what it does do. For the most part, what it does do, it does very well.

A lean, mean download

Aside from Opera’s server being swamped in the first-day rush, the download and installation is a snap. Unlike Netscape 6’s unreliable module-based installer, Opera’s installer works as advertised. Downloading in pieces isn’t necessary with Opera as the whole package is a quarter the size of the (approximately 10MB) Netscape 6 behemoth.

The system requirements of the two browsers likewise paint a stark contrast. Netscape 6 recommends a 200MHz 604 or better and a good 30MB of disk space. Opera is happy with any PPC and fits snugly into 4MB of disk space. What’s more, Opera plans support both for 68k machines and Carbon shortly. I leave it the reader to decide which product is bloat.

A stack of standards

You name it, Opera’s got it or will have it shortly. To get the buzzwords out of the road, Opera supports HTML4, CCS1 and CSS2 and every encryption standard (such as SSL2 and SSL3 – albeit not fully in this release) you care to name. While MacEdition’s CodeBitch will cover the finer nuances of Opera’s standards support in a later article, to this POCWACTSO everything seems to work as advertised. Especially notable is Opera’s CSS support, which the otherwise excellent iCab doesn’t yet have.

The need for speed

This thing is damn fast – it’s almost enough to convince people not to upgrade from older machines. You know a browser team is fairly confident about performance when they include a page-load timer in the toolbar. Part of it may just be perception, as total load times are marginally quicker on some pages, but Opera enables you to be more productive with partially loaded pages. If the browser’s got the body of the text, it spits it onto the page while waiting for the rest. Opera’s superior threading greatly reduces the time you’re staring at a spinning beach ball and a blank screen.

One way to demonstrate Opera’s superior page rendering is to take Internet Explorer to a large text-intensive page like an animated discussion at Slashdot (or the fine folks at MacSlash). Of course this isn’t exactly scientific, but loading the above article in IE5 (with a 56k modem and 333MHz G3) take just over a minute and a half, yet take Opera just 34 seconds.

Images load smoothly with the exception of some animated GIF ad banners. With iframe graphics Opera seems intent on getting the data before popping them into place. I don’t mind this; the browser seems to be saying, "Gimmie, gimmie, gimmie!" rather than ruminating over where it’s going to place things it doesn’t yet have. While your options with images aren’t as extensive as iCab, Opera still has some nice features that set it apart from the major browsers that make turning images off all but impossible. The sooner you learn the joys of the little blue image toggle button, the happier you will be...

Stability: The music stays in key

In examining the new release I put Opera through a couple of idiosyncratic and completely unscientific tests (at the POCWACTSO files, we wouldn’t have it any other way). The first test involved the "extension-set-from-hell." I have two machines – a bronze PB/333 for work and a venerable PowerMac 5500 for mucking around. The 5500 has had years of abuse and neglect through reckless software installations and ad-hoc System Folder prunings, leaving a very unruly extension set ominously entitled "experimental." It’s wobbly but functional enough for Netscape, MS Office and IE5. Early versions of iCab had had issues with it so it seemed a good way to get a feel for finicky betas. But despite this motley collection of system patches, Opera didn’t bat an eyelid.

Next up in the list of bizarre tests was "surf-with-a-ridiculous-amount-of-windows-open." Many people like to browse with multiple browser windows – who wants to stare at a slow loading page when you can look up the latest news at three other sites at the same time? If a browser doesn’t cope well with this, many users will avoid it. To be fair, iCab and Netscape cope fairly well with wanton window manipulation. However, Internet Explorer becomes decidedly unhappy with any more than 6 to 10 pages open – it becomes sluggish and eventually has its infamous less-than-graceful memory leak. Thankfully, Opera coped with a cacophany of open windows (close to 20 at last count) with the best of them.

As already mentioned, there was also the Slashdot test which consistently crashed IE5 until its memory allocation was doubled to 16MB. Opera’s RAM consumption is not as petite as iCab’s – it’s comparable to IE except that it doesn’t have IE’s leak, and it’s miles ahead of Netscape.

Of course, there are some kooky eccentricities with Opera, just like with any pre-release browser. First off, while Opera is difficult to crash, it has a habit of not wanting to let you go if you choose to quit with no open windows. Providing you leave at least one window open, Opera seems happy to quit when it’s supposed to.

Another subtle bug is Opera’s tendency to hijack your cursor when you leave the application running in the background. You can be working away in another application, and should you move the mouse to where there is an active link in the browser window behind it, you’ll find the mouse flickering the pointing finger. Both of these bugs should be easily fixed.

Plug-in support seems satisfactory, although only QuickTime and Flash were tested. Hidden WAV files have a habit of being not-so-hidden using the Quicktime plug-in. After two days’ use and just as I was suitably impressed with Opera’s stability, it decided to crash hard – ironically, on my stabler laptop.

But for an alpha these are small cheese compared to the litany of bugs that plague Netscape 6 to this day. It’s miles ahead of my experiences with Netscape 6, where the original installer simply refused to work or crashed. The updated installer for Netscape 6.01 did work, only to have Netscape 6 freeze on its first run. These comments may upset some of the "true believers" but I can only call it as I see it, and so far Netscape 6 is bloated tripe.

Interface

The interface is usable but could still do with a little work. It’s "Macified" without an all-out attempt for a drop-dead gorgeous GUI (something for which NS6 and IE5 deserve some credit). Still, erring on the cautious side of a platinum plain interface, as opposed to a nauseating technicolor yawn, is quite prudent for an initial release. The world has had enough loud colours thrust upon it for one month...

Fans of skins and themes ala iCab and Netscape 6 will be pleased to know that Opera also supports customised buttons. Look for colorful creations such as "psychedelic iMac vomit" within a matter of weeks...

Some users may also be a bit baffled by the odd placement of some keyboard shortcuts. This is partly because the keyboard shortcuts aren’t finalised and because Opera has a stated goal of complete keyboard navigation for users with disabilities.

Funky fonts

By funky, I don’t mean "groovy" or "good" – I mean "odd." Because Windows assumes 96 pixels per inch while the Mac assumes 72 pixels per inch, lengths and heights specified in inches or millimetres will look different across these platforms. Different browsers – indeed, different users of the same browser – can also set their default font to different sizes. Therefore to ensure consistent rendering across browsers, many Web designers use the CSS font-size attribute, specified in pixels, and not points, ems or percentages. If you specify font sizes in pixels using CSS, you will get the same look in CSS-capable browsers regardless of platform – except for this technology preview of Opera 5 / Mac. On Mac Opera, text that is specified as 12px, for example, ends up being about 10 or 11 pixels. You can see an example of this in the left-hand sidebar of this page. On some sites, the text ends up unbearably small. It is clearly a glitch in the CSS rendering code of this version of Opera – one that I hope will be promptly fixed.

Opera does provide a lot of font customisability and a handy document/user fonts and colors toggle mode. However, the default font settings are inconsistent and it’s fiddly to readjust. At first this wasn’t too cumbersome, but inconsistent fonts across a range of Web sites eventually made this feature quite irritating. The font handling definitely needs some work.

Bottom line

If you’re still in the world of 56k modems and don’t have an unhealthy obsession for visiting Java-applet-addled sites, what on Earth are you doing reading this in Netscape or Internet Explorer instead of Opera? At the moment, iCab probably has the wood on Opera with niceties like custom image filtering and its HTML validator (a feature already present in the Windows version of Opera). However, being CSS-aware is a big plus for Opera.

A quick wish list of features for the final verison of Opera would include the above-mentioned iCab features. Also, being able to customise your cache folder location would be helpful. Opera using a RAM disk as its cache folder would scream. Add to that a cleaner interface and cleaner fonts and this plain old customer at the very least is sold.

To the coding boffins at Opera, all I can say is, Encore! Encore!

Have you tried Opera yet? What do you think? Let us know!