While Opera 11.5 calls itself a browser, it feels like it really wants to be more than that. But in trying to do so, this perpetual innovator’s latest version falls short.
Version 11 () narrowed Opera’s performance gap with rival browsers, but it’s begun to fall behind again—and its underwhelming new abilities can’t quite compensate.
Behind the widget curve
Opera’s site trumpets 11.5’s new twists to Speed Dial, a feature similar to Safari’s Top Sites launch page. It’s still easy to add new sites to Speed Dial’s grid of big, clickable buttons, or set your own background image. Now you can also add extensions that Opera says will dynamically display quick, useful Web information: weather reports, clocks, RSS feeds, and more.
These new extensions resemble widgets from the Mac OS Dashboard—but sadly, they’re not nearly as useful or elegant. Many of the widgets available had to be configured on their own separate Web pages. Others offered only a tiny snapshot of a site’s front page.
Music blog aggregator The Hype Machine’s extension has a play button next to the name of its current top song, but clicking it just takes you to the site. The weather report, powered by a Norwegian site, consistently underreported my local temperature by five degrees or more. One of the five feeds built into the RSS reader extension produced nothing but blank space. And whenever I removed an extension from Speed Dial, I had to download it all over again to restore it.
I appreciate the Opera designers’ desire to add a little extra convenience and personalization to a commonly viewed screen. It’s too bad the feature ends up feeling half-baked at best.
Opera also touts its Opera Link cloud connectivity, promising to automatically sync bookmarks, passwords, and other settings between computers. (Safari , Firefox , and Chrome have a similar sync feature, too.)
My attempts to sync Opera on my MacBook and Mac mini quickly became frustrating. Even after I’d reset my Opera account password, I initially couldn’t get the laptop bookmarks to appear in the mini’s browser. They eventually showed up after a half-hour or so, but Opera never warned me that it might take that much time to sync them.
The sync also didn’t seem to include Speed Dial extensions, and the Speed Dial buttons that did match up appeared in scrambled-up order on the synced computer. On several occasions, Opera wouldn’t let me close the browser until it finished syncing my settings, which took up to 30 seconds.
In addition, Opera talks up 11.5’s new “featherweight” user interface. It certainly pleases the eye, but I had to switch between 11.5 and 11 several times before I actually noticed a difference. (The interface buttons have lost their borders. That’s about it.)
Every feature except the really cool ones
Opera still includes a nifty mail client, an ambitious but inelegant file-, message-, and music-sharing service, and the ability to run downloadable Widgets, including—for some reason—aquarium simulators and scientific calculators.
But despite its decent benchmarks, Opera 11.5 can’t run many of the cutting-edge HTML5 applications that Firefox and Chrome handle easily. It worked with some demos in a Mozilla gallery, but doesn’t support WebGL 3-D graphics or CSS transforms. And yet again, Netflix won’t stream video to Opera, although Hulu works fine.
Two steps forward, two steps back
I tested Opera 11.5 on a 2GHz aluminum MacBook with 2GB of RAM. Its competition: Safari 5.1, Firefox 5, and Chrome 12, along with a freshly downloaded copy of Opera 11.01 for reference. The results? Decidedly mixed.
Opera 11.5 posted perfect scores on the Acid3 Web standards test and a check for CSS3 support. In an HTML5 compatibility test, it beat its previous edition’s score by more than 30 points; its score trailed Safari and Chrome, and tied Firefox.
However, Opera 11.5 finished dead last in XHTML rendering speed, a half-second slower than its previous version, and nearly 1.5 seconds slower than Safari’s winning time. Opera also placed last in CSS rendering speed, just barely behind Firefox, but well behind Chrome and Safari—and again, nearly half again as slow as its previous version.
Benchmarks: Opera 11.5
*With WebGL enabled; without it, Safari 5.1 scored 293/11 bonus.
Macworld’s buying advice
I admire the Opera programmers’ ambition, but I wish they hadn’t fallen so short. A Swiss Army Knife’s worth of odd features, and a relative lack of horsepower, make version 11.5 feel more like a toy than a cutting-edge browser.
[Nathan Alderman is a writer and copy editor in Alexandria, Va., and solemnly promises that he’s not being paid off by the folks who make whichever browser you don’t like.]
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