Editors' note: On September 20, 2005, Opera stopped charging for its ad-free browser. We revisited the product and revised our rating upward. (9/20/05)
The Opera 8 Web browser has a lot going for it: a tabbed interface, tons of customizable skins, and some innovative navigation tools. Opera has always been on the cutting edge of browser innovation and was once considered the best alternative to until Mozilla Firefox came along. Now, as of September 20, 2005, the Opera browser is free, but its reputation in the public's mind as a "paid browser" may take a while to subside. Opera 8 offers a few features found in neither IE nor Firefox. If you're an early adopter or if you're dissatisfied with IE, Netscape, and Firefox, then Opera's definitely with a look. We downloaded and installed Opera in less than three minutes. Although $39 is a reasonable price for software that is as sophisticated and reliable as Opera, we doubt many users will pay to browse the Web. A free version of Opera also exists, but it includes a small advertising banner across the top of the browser window. As adware goes, the Opera banners are innocuous. Still, with screen real estate at a premium, we didn't like the added distraction at the top the page.
Although the software doesn't automatically import your bookmarks from Internet Explorer, it will walk you through the steps to do it manually. At first launch, Opera offers users a hypertext tutorial. This is a great feature, although the Opera interface is intuitive and Explorer-like enough for consumers to use without any training.
Opera offers a few improvements on conventional browser design. Like Firefox, Opera offers tabbed browser windows and a built-in Google Search bar in the upper-right corner. The search bar comes with a drop-down menu that connects you to other engines, including Amazon, eBay, and CNET Networks Download.com. On the left-hand side, Opera's collapsible panel displays your favorite sites, History, Transfers, and Notes. Notes is an applet that not only allows you to type in messages but also copy and save text from Web pages with a single right-click.
Another interface tool is the Zoom option. Click the Eye icon on the toolbar, and enlarge any Web page by as much as 1,000 percent. This is a boon for users who are visually impaired and those of us who spend lots of time reading Web pages. Also, any Web page can be stretched or shrunk within Opera without losing any content on the page. This feature is one reason why Opera is rapidly gaining popularity with handheld and cell phone users, and you won't find it in any other browser.
Many little things within Opera are easier than with IE. Hit F12 to see a list of your current browser preferences. This is handy when configuring Opera's built-in pop-up blocker on the fly. Other browsers require you to dig through various toolbar options instead. When it comes to features, Opera offers pretty much everything found in IE 6, plus tabbed Web pages, an RSS reader, and more built-in security. Like Firefox, Opera's main appeal is that it is inherently more secure than Internet Explorer. As the dominant browser, IE 6 is the main target of criminal hackers. Opera uses no code from either Internet Explorer or Netscape Gekko (the two dominant Web browser engines); it is homegrown by Opera Software. The browser supports SSL v2 and SSL v3, as well as the successor to SSL v3, TLS 1, encryption standards that help you securely transmit data over the Internet. Opera includes built-in support for 128-bit encryption, which is essential for secure online transactions. A built-in password manager, dubbed the Wand, keeps track of your passwords. So far, only a few minor security flaws have been reported in previous versions of Opera.
Opera 8 comes with a built-in RSS reader that makes it easy to sign up for and manage feeds; it's one of the better RSS readers we've seen, with the ability to sort entries by date and mark them for later reference. With Opera, every word displayed onscreen becomes a link to more information. With the HotClick option turned on, you can double-click any word on any page to see options related to the text, such as links on the Web, a dictionary definition of the word, or encyclopedic listing from the Web for that word. This feature takes time to get used to, but it can be very addictive.
For e-mail, the Opera browser includes its own e-mail client, which supports POP3, IMAP, SMTP, and NNTP. The client also supports full text-indexing of messages and built-in antispam filters. You can also block mail from specific addresses and domains.