The beta release of Opera 10 shows that the company is generating its own browser innovations instead of trying to copy Firefox or Internet Explorer. With a slick new user interface and some interesting features, Opera 10 looks like it will be worth considering as an alternative to the two main contenders.
The Opera 10 beta was made available to download on 3 June for Windows, Mac and Linux users. We tried out the Windows version and were impressed with the polish of the application, which proved stable in our tests and feels more like a finished product than a beta.
We also found it very responsive, and it's the only browser we've tested that achieves a perfect score on the Acid3 test page from the Web Standards Project designed to test compliance.
On the downside, however, Opera 10 is hit by the same problems as other less widely used browsers, such as Apple's Safari and Google's Chrome, in that some web sites are still optimised for Internet Explorer or Firefox, and either do not display properly or reject it completely as an unsupported browser.
This seems to be mainly an issue with web-based business applications rather than the more commonly accessed sites on the web, few of which presented any difficulties.
The first thing you notice about Opera 10 beta is its striking but simple styling that sets it apart from Firefox and IE. It supports tabbed browsing, which Opera had long before Firefox and IE, and sports a set of VCR-like buttons for controlling navigation.
As well as Bookmarks, Opera 10 beta includes Speed Dial, a set of thumbnail links to web pages that appears when you open a new blank tab. This feature was introduced in Opera 9.2 but is now more customisable, allowing users to set a background image and how many Speed Dial thumbnails appear, or completely disable the feature.
Thumbnails of all open tabs can also be viewed by enlarging the tab bar near the top of the browser window.
The chief new feature in this beta is Opera Turbo, which is designed to speed up browsing over low-bandwidth connections. It does this by routing web requests through a proxy server, which compresses the data before sending it back to the browser. Turbo can be enabled or disabled manually - it is off by default - or set to kick in automatically if the browser detects a low-speed connection.
We tested Opera Turbo by using a mobile phone as a modem, linked to a laptop by a Bluetooth wireless connection. Without Turbo, browsing was agonisingly slow, while enabling it improved page load times significantly, although you also get some loss of graphic detail in images. While it was an improvement, we would hesitate to agree with Opera's claim that Turbo offers broadband-like speed over a dial-up connection.
Users new to Opera will find the Wand feature handy, which saves credentials for web sites that need a user name and password. Most browsers have similar functions, but the Wand seems to make it especially simple; if you open a page for which you have previously stored credentials, you can simply hit the 'forward' navigation button and Opera logs in for you.
However, while you can delete stored passwords from the Wand Manager, Opera still does not seem to have any way to let you edit them.
Opera supports plug-in applications called widgets, and there are a host of these available from the Opera Widgets site. Most of these are fairly whimsical, however, whereas Firefox has many genuinely useful add-ons that block adverts or let you control whether to view Flash content on pages.
Opera also includes a built-in email client and news feed readers, and now supports an automatic update feature in line with most of the major browsers on the market.
Overall, we were impressed with the beta of Opera 10 but, while the new browser is definitely worth checking out, it has few compelling features to tempt users who have already downloaded the current releases of Firefox or IE.