If your Internet connection is pathetic at best, prepare to become very interested in the latest version of the Opera Web browser.
Opera 10 is the latest rival to Internet Explorer, Firefox and Apple's Safari, which we first reported on back in 2006. It has a stack of new features, an overhauled tabbed browsing interface and promises a significant speed boost. We've taken the beta for a test drive and found, for the first time, that Opera is capable of impressing the crap out of us.
First, let's talk speed. Put simply, the slower your Internet connection is, the more impressive you'll find Opera. Opera Turbo -- a system that compresses Web pages you ask for, before they're sent down your line -- significantly increased the speeds at which our pages loaded when we throttled our connection from 100Mbps down to a pathetic 50Kbps. It was roughly twice as fast, in fact, which we'll present in graph form shortly.
There are two other major changes over version 9.6, and you'll notice two in the screenshot above. The first concerns tabs, which can now appear as Web page thumbnails. Vertically extending the bar of tabs transforms them from text to thumbnail. It's a logical step for tabbed browsing to take, and visually it's superb. But superb enough to warrant the reduction of Web page real estate? Crave is sat uncomfortably on the fence here.
So let's forward-ho to the other major change: the much-mimicked Speed Dial. It now includes the option to add a background image, and to extend the number of bookmarks it displays from nine to as many as 25 (or as few as four). It lacks the on-screen lick, spit and animation Apple's Safari 4 produces, but seasoned Operatics will both welcome the change, and chastise our deliciously mild criticism of it.
Earlier, we mentioned how much faster pages load over very slow connections when Opera Turbo is enabled. For us, this is Opera 10's killer feature. To test this we throttled the connection on our test machine* to just 50Kbps (roughly dial-up speed), then loaded ten pages twice: once with Opera in 'normal' mode, then once with Turbo enabled. The graph below shows just how much faster these pages loaded over 50Kbps with Turbo enabled (click for full-resolution PNG).
Safe to say, even having Opera installed as a backup browser for browsing over slow public Wi-Fi, is no mean idea. The drawback of note is that image quality suffers dramatically. Images are heavily compressed in order to achieve these download speeds, and as a result they can look horribly smeared with artefacts. Just take a look at this screenshot of the Apple homepage, as seen with Opera Turbo enabled.
In the real world, does Opera 10's apparent sluggishness really make a regrettable difference? For most people, no, and it's still faster than any modern version of Internet Explorer. But yes, if you want the cut off those precious milliseconds of Gmail loading times, Google Chrome is for you.
Finally, we should note that Opera 10 beta 1 scores a perfect 100/100 on the Acid3 test. This is the Web-standards compliancy test, and the industry standard for testing how well a browser can handle technologies used to design Web sites. Safari 4 is the only other browser to pass this test (IE8 scores only 12/100, incidentally).
So, should you switch to Opera? In a nutshell, probably not switch, no: Firefox is more customisable, Chrome and Safari are faster. Anyone who uses a laptop on public Wi-Fi, however, should have it installed as a backup browser, as should anyone who wants the best tabbed browsing on the planet.
The key point to take away and mull at your leisure? It's a much better browser than Internet Explorer, and we're considering it an essential install on our laptops for times when connections are flaky and painfully slow. And that, ladies and gents, is an achievement no other browser has yet garnered.
*Machine used: 2.13GHz Intel Core 2, 2GB RAM running Windows 7 Ultimate RC1.