So Internet Explorer version 7.0 is finally with us. And so is Firefox version 2.0. Whoohoo. Such excitement.
Forgive my lack of enthusiasm, but my heart belongs to Opera. Back in the '90s I switched from IE to Opera for its compactness, speed, and security. While I've occasionally tried others, I've always come back to it.
Opera version 9 was released last June. It is now up to 9.02, and 9.1 may be available by the time you read this.
A browser prodigy, when Opera debuted in 1995 it could open multiple documents in a single browser window, a precursor of what are now tabs, which it added in 2000. No prima donna, its demands are modest. It sang like Callas on my outdated system in the mid '90s, and today, requiring nothing greater than Windows 95, 32MB of RAM and a Pentium 100 processor, it continues to play the Web's full repertoire, supporting all the bells and whistles set by W3C without dropping a note in terms of speed and security.
When it comes to features, Opera has always been a trailblazer, leaving Firefox and IE to play catch-up. For example, today's Firefox 2 saves your session in the event of a crash, so you can pick up where you left off when you recover. And you can save a group of tabs as a bookmark, new in both Firefox 2 and IE7.
Guess what? Opera pioneered these features back in version 7, released in 2003. Crash or prematurely close Opera and it's no loss, just relaunch for an instant encore. You can also save your browsing sessions under the File menu on the menu bar. And in version 8, Opera added a trash can icon to the page bar where closed tabs and blocked pop-ups are saved, just in case you need them.
Opera continues to lead the way with every major upgrade. Version 9 introduced thumbnail previews, which make it easy to find your way among multiple tabs -- just hover your mouse over any tab to see a thumbnail image of the Web page. Also new is the content blocker. See something you don't like on a Web page -- an ad or an offensive image, for example? Just right-click and choose "Block content" to make it disappear. Opera remembers your choice, so the next time you visit that page the content remains blocked.
Opera 9 also incorporates Widgets, small Internet applets that run directly on your desktop and can be saved on your system for quick future access. There are games, newsfeeds, reference tools, image tools, even a text editor. Mac OS X, Windows Vista and Yahoo have similar offerings, but the beauty of Opera's Widgets is that you can run them directly from the browser without having to have a Mac or get Vista or download Yahoo's Widget Engine. As of this writing there are more than 800 Widgets to choose from on Opera's Web site, written by programmers from all over the world.
Also native to Opera 9 are BitTorrent file transfers, available from Firefox only by downloading and installing an extension. BitTorrent is a file-sharing system in which users access files from each other rather than downloading from a central server. This load-sharing vastly speeds file transfers. Find the download you want by searching BitTorrent (available on Opera's configurable list of search engines) and initiate the download with a click. But if you use it, remember, BitTorrent requires sharing files you download with others. The sharing is terminated when you close Opera. BitTorrent is enabled by default, but it can easily be configured to limit bandwidth use, or disabled completely.
Tweak to your heart's content
This brings up another of Opera's strong points: It has always been highly configurable. If there's anything you don't like, chances are you can change it, often just by dragging and dropping. There are six toolbars to choose from, configure and place where you want. You can add colors and skins to personalize your window -- or strip it back to the bare bones.
The default list of a dozen or so search engines is editable. Opera can emulate a text browser, show images and links only, show only pictures that have links. You can block image downloads, which speeds things up on a dial-up connection. You can reconfigure your keyboard or create macros to open applications from Opera. Java can be turned on or off, cookies blocked or allowed, and so on, and so on.
Admittedly, finding and applying Opera's configuration tools used to be like trying to conduct Wagner's Ring Cycle without a score. Then, in version 8, the company consolidated the configuration options into four easy-to-use submenus under Tools on the menu bar, where they can easily be found for quick tweaking.
To really get under the hood, in version 9 there's a new Preferences Editor (enter "opera:config" in the address bar). With it you can configure anything, from Author Display Mode to Colors to Fonts to Security to Widgets. Each setting gets its own line with a checkbox or pick list, and each can be easily reset to the default setting which makes it fairly safe to tinker. Nevertheless, this is a powerful tool, so novices should stick to the menus if they aren't sure what they're doing.