Opera, the most popular third-party browser after Netscape and Internet Explorer, released a public beta of version 7 this week. After taking an early look, we can say that all signs indicate that this for-pay browser could be launching a new strategy in the browser war.
Opera 7 for Windows Beta 1, like previous versions of the browser, is available as a free, ad-sponsored download, or you can register the beta for $29 to get rid of the ads and improve the built-in e-mail client and tech support. (CNET does not recommend installing beta software on your primary PC, so paying for beta software seems downright silly.)
When you fire up this beta, you'll immediately notice a brand-new interface, with dark- and light-blue accents, a more rounded (Windows XP-influenced) appearance, and large 3D icons on the toolbar that are somewhat reminiscent of MSN's cartoonlike tools. You can now drag and drop toolbar icons to rearrange them, too--a nice touch. Overall, the streamlined and modern new look is much more attractive than 6.5's drab interface. The new version still supports skins, but you can now change your browser's color scheme simply by clicking the View menu.
We're pretty annoyed that Opera's intrusive left-hand Hotlist, which displays favorites, e-mail tools, and contacts, now lacks version 6.5's quick-close button. To hide the column, you must now click View > Hotlist, then choose Off (alternatively, you can simply press F4, a handy trick). The Bookmarks, Mail, Contacts, History, Transfers, and Windows buttons above the Hotlist have been reorganized and redesigned into six oval spheres that pulsate when you roll over them and glow white when selected.
Like both Netscape and IE, Opera's Hotlist has folders, such as Bookmarks, that now expand within the left-hand pane when you click them, a welcome improvement over the previous version's toolbar-based method. But surprisingly, the Opera 7 beta didn't import any of our IE bookmarks, as 6.5 does. We're hoping that's a beta bug.
Speediness and solid e-mail
In our brief trial run, the Opera 7 beta seemed to render and load pages only slightly slower than Opera 6.5, but both seemed slightly slower than Internet Explorer 6. However, the differences were negligible in casual use.
Opera's new e-mail client looks impressive right off the bat; its new account wizard lets you easily import mail, and it automatically grabbed all our e-mail, settings, and contacts from Outlook Express. The e-mail client supports POP3, IMAP, and ESMTP; lets you sort e-mail by contact or by attachment; and features an integrated spam filter (though we couldn't find any controls for configuring it in this beta version). We also found we could search our mail folders much more quickly with Opera than with, say, Microsoft Outlook, though this beta lacks a way to stop a search once you've found your desired item.
If you dislike clutter, you'll be happy to see that version 7 still supports Opera's multiple-document interface (MDI) as well as the more familiar single-document interface (SDI) that Internet Explorer uses. But while Opera 6 users had to choose between the MDI (in which all open windows show up under one main Opera window) and the SDI, the new version lets you access both views at once (click the Windows button to view all your open windows in the Hotlist pane) or use tabs at the top for Mozilla-style tabbed browsing for impressive flexibility.
Beware the beta
In a brief look at the browser beta, we noticed a few preproduction quirks--all the more reason to try out the free version only. For example, after we spent a few moments in the e-mail program and returned to the Opera home page, other pages loaded fine, but version 7 stubbornly displayed the page's source HTML, no matter how many times we refreshed. Version 7 supports a nifty feature called small-screen rendering, wherein Web designers can press Shift-F11 to see how their Web pages will look on small-screen devices, such as handhelds or cell phones. That's a really cool trick, but when we tried it, we couldn't get Opera 7 to return to the full-screen view, even when we moved on to other Web pages.
No doubt, however, such quirks will soon exit the Opera 7 beta. And judging from our early look, Opera 7 has potential as a serious competitor to the somewhat disappointing Netscape 7.0 and the perennially insecure IE 6.