Opera won't unseat Internet Explorer as the No. 1 Windows browser in the foreseeable future. But judging from its latest version, Opera 7, the plucky Norwegian browser is actively gunning for the No. 2 spot against Mozilla/Netscape. Opera 7 is roughly the same size as the previous version yet adds a cadre of new and improved features--from a slick, new e-mail client to simplified password management. Sure, the interface looks a bit cluttered, and we found a few HTML page-formatting glitches along the way, but this is a solid upgrade. Current Opera users, especially those who use the built-in e-mail client, should upgrade now to get the benefits of the nifty e-mail program. And even if you're happy with your non-Opera browser and e-mail, give the free trial a whirl. You may find the e-mail client tough to resist.
To begin our Opera evaluation, we installed the smaller, non-Java browser. The program managed to detect the already-installed Java engine on our PC, so we had no problem playing those all-important games at Yahoo and MSN.com.
Unlike Netscape's installation, Opera 7's does not pepper your computer with advertising links and icons. In fact, through March 1, Opera's free download won't display any ads at all for the first two weeks that it's installed on your PC. After that, you'll have to decide whether to put up with ads or pay the $39 to buy the ad-free, licensed version. Our view is that the Opera user interface is cluttered anyway, so the built-in banner ads (no pop-ups yet, thankfully) will probably blend right in.
Opera 7's default interface could save more viewing real estate, with fewer graphics.
We're not OK, however, with Opera 7's rather cluttered user interface. Buttons and icons mess up the screen, leaving a lot of wasted space--so much wasted space, in fact, that we'd not recommend you try using Opera 7 on any resolution lower than XGA (1,024x768). At lower resolutions, there just won't be enough room to see much of the actual Web pages. If you have a small monitor or an older laptop that doesn't support XGA, we recommend staying away from Opera 7.
For example, even on the highest-resolution monitors, you'll notice a strip of white space below the large toolbar icons. When you hover your mouse over one of those icons, the name of the icon appears in the white space below. It's a cool visual effect--very Windows XP-like--but the extra white space leaves just that much less room to show Web pages in the browser window. We prefer the little floating text boxes that IE and Netscape use when you hover over the toolbar icons, rather than wasting precious screen real estate.
Successive Opera releases have traditionally introduced innovative features, such as the tabbed browser window, later mimicked by Mozilla/Netscape. Opera 7 continues that tradition with a collection of clever new tricks.
In particular, the fast-forward button caught our fancy. With it, you can run Web searches and check out all the resulting links without having to scroll to wherever the Next link appears on the page (traditionally, the very bottom of the page). No matter where you are on the page, just hit the fast-forward button, and Opera will automatically go to the next page of the list. (Most search sites, such as Google, use a Next link to indicate the next page of your search result.)
Note the fast-forward icon in the upper-left toolbar. It lets you quickly go to the next page.
Another handy feature, the Password Wand, launches a little dialog box whenever you enter a password on a Web page, asking if you want to save the password. If you click Yes, the next time you visit that same login page, Opera will display a little gold frame around the username and password boxes. Then, just click the magic wand icon in the toolbar, and Opera will fill out the username and password boxes for you--very handy for managing your myriad login screens. This process actually seems quicker than IE's Auto-Complete, because one click of the Wand not only fills out the username and password, it actually submits the form. In IE, the same action would require these steps: Start typing your username; select the right one from the IE Auto-Complete list; hit Enter to prefill the form with the selected account data; hit Enter again to submit the form.
Our one concern with Opera's Password Wand is that there's no master password to protect it; Mozilla's password manager, on the other hand, does require a master password. In other words, anybody could walk up to your computer and use the Wand to enter your passwords. A word to the wise: it might be safe to use the Wand for your My Yahoo or Amazon.com passwords but not for the passwords to your bank and brokerage accounts.
M2 integrates smoothly into the browser. Note that the e-mail app has its own tab, just like the other Web pages.
From the outset, Opera 7's refined e-mail client, M2, is quick and responsive. To save you massive data entry, M2 can import existing e-mail and settings from popular IMAP/POP3 applications such as Eudora and Outlook Express. Further, once you've set up your e-mail account, the program will automatically check for new messages every five minutes. You can also configure the mail check to run on a different schedule (Mail > Manage Accounts), or you can just click the Check button at will.
Better still, Opera 7 lets you access e-mail from within your browser rather than launching a separate e-mail program--a real time-saver (clicking the Mail buttons in the Netscape and IE browsers brings up Netscape Mail and Outlook Express, respectively). Double-click the Unread folder, and a new tab appears in your browser window displaying your most recent messages. In fact, M2 is about the most seamlessly integrated e-mail app we've ever seen. In one single window, you can switch quickly back and forth from the e-mail program to any Web page.
Some pages that rendered just fine in both Mozilla and IE, such as the MSN.com home page, didn't fare so well in Opera 7. Opera cut off text on some sections of the page, so you couldn't read the headlines properly. But this glitch probably isn't Opera's fault. A company representative pointed out that while Opera 7 supports Web standards, MSN.com intentionally feeds a different version of the page and style sheet to non-IE browsers. Hence, its pages don't always appear as they should.
See how the headlines in the middle of this page are cut off? Opera 7 isn't displaying the HTML correctly.
We also encountered some multimedia functions that we didn't care for. Media that would normally display within a Web page instead popped open in a separate viewer. For example, when we tried to view one of the video stories on News.com, Opera 7 insisted on opening the video stream directly in a separate Windows Media Player window, rather than playing the video in a standard browser pop-up window. According to Opera, this procedure is actually an improvement over the last version's, given that CNET's own review of Opera 6 found that the browser had problems playing media files at all.
CNET Labs benchmarks
CNET Labs ran its speed benchmark tests using VeriTest's i-Bench 3.0. VeriTest makes no representations or warranties as to the result of the tests. Our i-Bench Web server was a Dell Dimension XPS B733r equipped with a 733MHz Intel Pentium III microprocessor and 384MB of RAM, running Windows 2000. Our client was a Toshiba Satellite 3005-5304 Notebook with a 1GHz Pentium III processor and 128MB of RAM, running Windows XP at a screen resolution of 1,024x768. iBench measures the relative performance differences between products and versions of products and is used by software engineers to see how code changes affect performance. Because connection speeds and user environments are so diverse, you may not experience the speed differences that we've measured in our high-speed tests.
i-Bench tests (All numbers are in seconds)
CaffeineMark 3.0 tests measure performance related to the browser's use of the Java Virtual Machine. Contrary to our findings in the i-Bench trials, Opera 7 performed on a par with Netscape and IE in handling Java according to CaffeineMark, scoring slightly higher overall. Each browser had particular tests in which it performed best. Pendragon Software's CaffeineMark 3.0 tests were run without independent verification by Pendragon Software, which makes no representations or warranties as to the results of the tests. For more information on what these scores mean, click here.
Remember the old adage: You get what you pay for. Although the paid and free versions of Opera 7 don't look that different, their support options diverge dramatically. If you choose the freebie Opera download, you'll have to try to solve your problems at the Opera support Web page and searchable knowledge base. You may also subscribe to one of Opera's newsgroups, where you might be able to get help from fellow users.
Registered Opera users get additional e-mail support. This concession may not seem like much, but when you're utterly stuck, nothing beats live contact. After registering at Opera's customer-support Web site with the registration code you purchased from Opera, you can use a Web form to send your question to the support team. A tech responds to the problem via e-mail and posts the reply on the customer-support Web site so that the next time you log in to the support site, you can view a full history of all your support questions. Having the history stored in one place is very handy--one of the nicest online support systems we've seen. The time difference between the United States and Norway may affect reply times. But usually, if you e-mail your questions in the evening, you'll have a response waiting for you come morning.
There's no phone support for Opera 7, but given the cost of long-distance calls to Norway, the omission is understandable. Fortunately, the aforementioned e-mail support for paid users is pretty good.