Since this story posted, Opera released an update to its browser. Version 6.04 contains several bug fixes.
Before we downloaded the new Opera 6.0, we were ready to hate it. This version suffers from severe code bloat: the download itself weighs in at 3.2MB (10.7MB if you want to include Java support), a 50 percent increase over Opera 5.0. But once we launched the software, we were pleasantly surprised. The new user interface alone is worth the download and cleverly merges the best from Opera's old UI, Netscape, and Internet Explorer. If you love Opera, this download is a must. If you're tired of the incessant Netscape/IE battle, Opera 6.0 is a worthy alternative--if you don't mind a few niggling bugs.
As many windows as you want
Previous versions of Opera for Windows supported the multidocument interface (MDI), in which every browser window you opened lived within the main Opera window. Thus, no matter how many browser windows you opened, you'd see only one Opera icon in the taskbar at the bottom of your screen. Opera's two main competitors, Internet Explorer and Navigator, both use the single-document interface (SDI), in which every open browser window shows up as a separate icon in the taskbar.
With Opera 6.0, you get a choice between MDI and SDI. When you fire up the browser, a dialog box lets you choose between the two. But even if you select SDI, you're not stuck with it. Opera's new SDI actually lets you open multiple browser pages in one Opera window. A New Page tab now appears at the top of the SDI window; clicking this tab creates a new browser view, but within the same SDI window.
So why would you need this much flexibility? Suppose you're shopping for a tech product: In one Opera window, you can open several different buying advice sites, such as ZDNet and CNET. In another Opera window, you can open a bunch of shopping sites, such as mySimon and Buy.com. This way, Opera doesn't clutter your taskbar with dozens of tiny, unlabeled browser icons; you have only two Opera icons to choose from.
Yet another new UI
Of course, Opera had to make some additions to its user interface to add all this new functionality. Unfortunately, Opera also changed the existing UI: the reorganized Preferences dialog now sports drab, gray icons that pale in comparison to the brightly colored icons in previous versions; the default toolbar buttons also have lifeless new graphics; and Opera's new skin feature (similar to Netscape 6's, it lets you set a background and foreground graphic for the browser), is unnecessarily convoluted. Since we liked Opera's old interface, we're not impressed by these major UI changes--and we're glad that you can switch back to Opera's Classic interface, which looks a lot like version 5.0's.
Hits and misses
What's worse, parts of the new UI simply don't work at all. For example, in the Edit > Find dialog box, we clicked the Help button and nothing happened. We tried under both Windows 98 and Windows NT on several different machines and got the same: zip, nada, nothing. And don't think you can escape any of these headaches by spending $39 on Opera's paid version. Although the fee browser doesn't display banner ads, it's otherwise identical to the free browser.
Still, we do like the new Hotclick feature. With Hotclick, double-click any word in a Web page, and Opera displays a pop-up list of options that let you copy the word into the Windows clipboard, search for the word on Google, or even attempt a translation of the word to and from multiple languages. But the search is somewhat limited; for example, the Dictionary option searches only Lycos Infoplease, and there's no way to change the default dictionary site. And Hotclick doesn't always come up with exactly the resource you want. We double-clicked the word Shrek (the movie) and selected the Price Comparison search, but the engine returned only books, not the DVD or VHS prices we wanted. Hotclick is much easier to use than similar search features from IE and Netscape; we just wish it were as flexible as those other browsers in letting us pick and choose what search engines to use.
Unfortunately, when it comes to multimedia, Opera turns to Netscape Navigator. If you already have Navigator installed on your PC, then Opera can load up the installed Netscape plug-ins that it recognizes to give you support for things such as RealAudio and QuickTime. But it doesn't recognize IE plug-ins, such as the Windows Media Player.
In terms of performance, Opera also suffers a bit by comparison. In CNET Labs' official tests, Opera loaded complex HTML pages with lots of nested tables faster than Netscape 6.1 and IE 6.0. But the alternative browser placed far below the competition in both the cached-pages and the mixed-text-and-graphics tests. While these results demonstrate Opera's marked improvement over versions past, they probably won't persuade any satisfied Netscape or IE customers to switch browsers. (For our detailed performance chart, click here.)
Quirky but solid
If you're happy with your current Netscape or Microsoft browser, there's not much reason to switch to Opera 6.0, unless you really want the nifty SDI interface that lets you group sets of open Web pages into separate windows. If you already use and like Opera, however, this a must-have upgrade.
Editors' note: Since we posted this review, Opera released version 6.01 for Windows. This version fixes several bugs and adds some new features, including an AllTheWeb news search. Opera recommends this upgrade for all 6.0 users.