A Quick and Painless 'Opera'

With its blazing speed, this Norwegian import will keep Netscape and Microsoft on their toes.

Jon Kaufthal

On the front lines of the much-hyped "browser wars," Microsoft and Netscape are battling it out for your desktop. Netscape's Navigator, the long-time champion, is quickly losing ground to the younger Microsoft Internet Explorer. Both in their fourth generations, the two browsers have slowly grown to become more and more complex in the contest to offer new whiz-bang features that the other guy doesn't have. With both now being given away for free, consumers have two vary capable and impressive browsers from which to chose

But as the products have grown, they've become bloated. Download sizes have swelled to around 10MB each for a minimum install, and launching a browser window can be frustratingly slow. What Netscape and IE offer in terms of robustness, the lack in speed and stability.

Opera 3.10 is an underdog newcomer in this clash of titans. Developed by a ten-person firm in Norway, Opera challenges some of the fundamental assumptions we've made about browsers. Rather than taking on the big boys on their own court, Opera attacks Netscape and IE right on their Achilles heels: speed and size.

At a bit over 1MB in its third release, Opera is a quick download and will fit on a single floppy disk. Launching the browser takes far less time than either of its competitors. But what will really impress you about the browser is the speed with which it renders Web pages. Rather than making you wait a few seconds for your Web page to come up, Opera typically displays pages in about a single second (assuming your connection speed isn't slowing you down--something no browser can fix). While this may not sound like a big deal, clicking around your favorite sites becomes immeasurably less painful as a result. To keep track of time, a timer at the bottom of the window tells you how long you've been waiting in seconds -- in addition to the standard percentage thermometer bar. And to speed download time, Opera has buttons for turning off images and / or backgrounds (something the other two support, but bury in an options menu), While Opera doesn't quite do everything the other browsers do, it does more than enough for most pages. The browser supports JavaScript, forms, frames, tables, multimedia, secure sockets, animated GIFs, imagemaps, and more. It can't yet handle Java of Style Sheets, but that support is slated to be included in the browser's 4.0 release, due out by this June.

The browser also offers some nice features not included with Netscape and IE. A toolbar item lets you view (and print!) a page at anywhere from 20 percent to 1000 percent of its original size, a feature that comes in handy more often than you might think. And Opera let you view several pages from within the main window, as opposed to launching a completely separate window, a la IE and Netscape -- a process that takes far more time and memory.

But don't dump your browser just yet. Opera's biggest weakness probably has nothing to do with the product itself: it's not free. While we've been spoiled by Microsoft and Netscape, Opera argues that "quality costs money." You can download the browser free for a thirty-day trial, after that you'll have to shell out $17.50 to register it ($35 for non-students). Another drawback is that Opera is currently offered only for various flavors of Windows. Mac users and others should be satisfied soon, though -- the company is hard at work on versions for a number of platforms.

While Opera's interface is confusing at first, you'll get the hang of it after soon enough. And the browser includes a mail client (outgoing only), as well as a reader for newsgroups.

With all of these features at just over a megabyte, Opera is definitely worth checking out. Click over to http://www.operasoftware.com and download a copy -- you may just find that its speed more than makes up for its other shortcomings.