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Opera 10.5 lags in my speed tests

Opera hopes its JavaScript engine will be the fastest on the market. But when CNET's Stephen Shankland compares the latest rough builds of several browsers, Opera falls short.

Opera, which was bumped down to fifth place in browser usage after Google Chrome burst on the scene, has embraced a super-fast JavaScript engine as part of its bid to stay relevant.

Unfortunately for Opera, my tests show more work is needed.

The beta version of Opera 10.5 arrived Thursday morning, and I thought it a good time to compare how some of the cutting-edge versions of the browsers were shaping up in performance--especially because Mozilla has released a preview version of the next version of Firefox.

Before we dig into the statistics, let's start with some important caveats. First, these benchmark tests don't show all there is about browser performance, much less browser features.

Second, these tests were run on a single machine--a dual-core Lenovo T61 with 3GB of memory running Windows XP SP3. Different machines will produce different results.

Third, these are emphatically not finished products, so expect bumps, glitches, and hitches.

The Opera version is the only one to sport a beta label. I called the Firefox software version 3.7a because Mozilla did, but this preview version may not actually be called 3.7 when it's released. The Chrome version is 5.0.317.2, part of the developer-preview channel and still a relatively early branch of the new 5.0 tree. Finally, for WebKit--the foundation of Apple's Safari--I downloaded the latest nightly build, called r54649.

A year ago, when Opera announced its new JavaScript engine, called Carakan, it set a lofty goal: "The Web is a changing environment however, and tomorrow's advanced Web applications will require faster ECMAScript execution, so we have now taken on the challenge to once again develop the fastest ECMAScript engine on the market," Opera programmer Lars Erik Bolstad said at the time, referring to a standard group's official name for JavaScript.

On my machine, though, Carakan lagged Chrome in JavaScript performance on both the SunSpider 0.9 test from the WebKit team and the V8 test from Google, named after Chrome's JavaScript engine.

Stephen Shankland/CNET
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Carakan did, though, edge out WebKit and trounce Firefox, and it's a significant step ahead compared with Opera's older JavaScript Engine, Futhark.

JavaScript is used for many mundane programming chores on Web pages but in recent years has assumed a much more central role in powering Web applications such as Google Docs and Yahoo Mail. Since 2008, browser makers have been focusing developer attention on better JavaScript, and even laggard Microsoft has indicated it's going to become more competitive with Internet Explorer 9.

And slower JavaScript is a real issue now. Drawing a line in the performance sand, Google announced that starting in March with Google Docs, the company is phasing out support for Internet Explorer 6.

Another performance measurement is how well a browser handles what's called the DOM--the document object model that describes the structure and components of a Web page. As Web pages grow more complex, DOM processing does, too. So I ran the DOM core tests from Firefox, too, to get a view of this aspect.

Here, WebKit topped the list, followed by Chrome, Firefox, and very much in last place, Opera.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

New Opera features
So what exactly is in the new Opera besides Carakan? Two significant features are support for Windows 7 display features and support for HTML5 video encoded with Ogg Theora.

Under the covers, Opera gets the new Vega graphics library for various graphics tasks--including potentially, a faster Direct2D interface on Windows.

Also arriving is support for another HTML5 feature, local storage, which lets applications work even while a computer is disconnected to the network and can help Web site performance.

But there are some missing pieces Opera had hoped to get in. One that was pushed back is support for downloadable fonts for fancier Web typography.

Also missing is geolocation. That lets an authorized Web page know where a computer is physically located, which can be handy for tasks such as showing a person's location on an online map. Opera users will have to wait a little longer for it: "Geolocation is disabled in the public beta until we iron out the last details with our location," Opera's Adam Minchinton said in a blog post.

And despite some bug fixes in Opera 10.5, Microsoft's Silverlight and Oracle's Java plug-ins don't work and there are problems with Adobe Systems' Flash and Apple's QuickTime.

New Firefox features
Opera isn't the only seeking users' help hammering a new browser into shape. Mozilla also just released a new preview version of its Firefox browser.

Firefox currently is at version 3.6, and Mozilla is working on a modification called Lorentz designed to help avoid plug-in crashes. After that, though, comes a Firefox prototype based on version 1.9.3 of the Gecko engine that underlies the browser.

It's this latter software Mozilla wants help testing through a preview release. Most of the features are under the covers, but there are some that users might notice, too.

One important one is WebGL, a technology to bring hardware-accelerated 3D graphics to the Web. However, WebGL is disabled by default.

And for Apple fans, the software moves text handling from the older Apple Type Services for Unicode Imaging service to the newer Core Text interface. It's one of the changes that's leading Mozilla to drop support for Mac OS X 10.4 or earlier.

New features, of course, have the potential to slow browsers down--there's a perpetual tension in software between streamlining existing code and adding new capabilities.

All four of these browsers are in growth mode, with new features arriving rapidly. Those who spend a lot of time on the Web, though, should take heart that, in this competition, better performance is one of those features.