[Click to Enlarge] Opera 11 features a cleaner look, a new mail pane, tab grouping, a speedup, and ... extensions

"Lights Out" is one of our favorite extensions. It makes watching YouTube videos much easier on the eyes, by blacking out the background..
New browser packs extensions, tab-stacking, faster speed, and lots of other perks

For those of you that missed it, on Thursday Norway's Opera Software ASA released Opera 11.  We've used plenty of browsers in our day, and we can tell you that the Opera browser, like Google's Chrome browser, is headed in a very good direction.

Before we get started, we suggest you take Opera 11 out for a test drive of your own.  You can grab the browser here.  The browser is available in Windows, Linux, and OS X.

I. The Browser

i. Looks

Opera 11 has always looked pretty nice.  With the latest release, Opera has made its Aero Glass a bit more transparent.  Overall the look is cleaner.  All the key buttons (such as your close tabs button "recycle" button on the top right, or you turbo button on the bottom left) are all in easy to reach locations.

The browser looks remarkably similar to Mozilla's Firefox 4.0 beta 7, with a few subtle differences.  It breaks the refresh button out to the left, where Mozilla has this on the right as a smaller button within the address bar.  And the "feedback" button has been replaced by the more useful "Tab Recycling" icon, which allows you to reopen closed tabs.

Firefox 4.0b7 and Chrome 8 were our two previous favorites in terms of looks.  But Opera may be the best looking browser we've tested yet.

We do have one complaint, though.  We would like to see Opera adopt Firefox's method of pressing the "Alt" key to temporarily get the traditional menu bar.  You can get such a bar in Opera, but you have to manually select it ("Menu" > "Show Menu Bar") and deselect it ("File" > "Show Menu Bar").  If this tweak was added, we couldn't imagine a much better interface.

ii. Extensions

As to the functionality, Opera has a lot of nice upgrades.  The biggest one is extensions.

From the Opera homepage you can go to "Add-ons" > "Opera extensions" to access the growing catalog of extensions.

Right now the catalog is relatively small -- only 215 extensions (Mozilla's Firefox has close to 12,800).  Nonetheless, there are some useful ones already available.  We test drove "AdSweep", which is the Opera extensions equivalent of Firefox's "AdBlock".  In our tests it worked flawlessly, blocking ads even on traditionally ad-rich pages like Sports Illustrated.  

We also tested out a pair of video related extensions -- "Turn Off the Lights" and "FastestTube".  For being so simple, we love Turn Off the Lights.  It essentially makes the Browser window black, except for the currently watched video.  For watching internet videos, we now view this as virtually essential.  FastestTube, by contrast, allows you to download YouTube videos.  In our tests this worked with some videos, but others appeared to disallow videos (such as a clip).

In short, there isn't that big an extensions catalog yet, but the current catalog already greatly enhances Opera's web browser.

iii. Turbo

Turbo, introduced with Opera 10.0, is one of our favorite things in Opera.  When tethering to a smartphone, Turbo allows much faster page loads.  If you are using any browser other than Opera when tethering (unless it's work mandated, of course), we'd say you're doing yourself a disservice.  

Note Turbo can not work on https pages due to technical details (but that's a good thing for security).

iv. Tab Stacking

Our second favorite feature in Opera 11 is a new one -- tab stacking.  Firefox 4.0b7's tab grouping is similar, but left us with mixed feelings.  You had to jump into a different window and the process wasn't entirely intuitive.  By contrast, tab stacking is flawlessly executed.  You drag one tab on another, and voilà! it's stacked.  To access your stacked tabs, just click the little arrow next to them to expand or contract a particularly stack.

Tab stacking is an absolute godsend when you have a large amount of tabs open.  It allows you to instantly access groups of similar tabs (e.g. product searches/views or your favorite news sites) without having to view them 24-7.

v. Mail Client

Another feature we really like is Opera's mail panel.  Basically it feels like Thunderbird and a browser fused into one.  Accessing it is a bit less than intuitive (though Opera's tutorial does a pretty good job of explaining).

To access it, you must first go to "Menu" (top of screen) > "Mail and Chat Accounts..."  A dialog will then comes up that allows you to add the necessary details that you need to access your email.

Once complete, you can click the "Panels" button on the far bottom left.  Then just click the envelope icon (left) and the mail panel will instantly appear and begin to populate.  Note, clicking "Inbox" opens a new tab, with your email inbox, as do the other links.

Our only complaint here would be that we'd like to see the envelope icon automatically accessible when you press the "Panels" button.  Rather than being forced to add the account by sifting through "Menus", it would be far more intuitive just to click the envelope icon and have it automatically launch the setup process if an account hadn't been added.

Still the mail client is superb, so we can't complain too much.

vi. Mouse Gestures

Rounding out the features, there's a new visual interface to mouse gestures.  To intentionally or unintentionally access this new interface, just hold down your right mouse button.  Your list of gestures is instantly displayed.

To be honest, despite testing several versions of Opera over the last few years, we'd never taken the time to really use mouse gestures fully.  Now that it's been presented in a more intuitive way, we've finally started to use them.

Mouse Gestures, we would say, take a bit of readjusting by your brain.  But when you learn how to use them, you'll be quickly performing them, and you'll have to touch the address bar ("Back", "Reload", etc.) far less.  

vii. Safer Address Field

The final improvement worth noting is the addition of new icons next to the address you visit.  Regular web pages say "Web" (or "Turbo" when Turbo mode is active), while https sites show up as "Secure".  The bar also warns you about untrusted sites.  You can click the little icon to get more details about the page you're on.

viii. A note on compatibility

We've had issues with Opera in the past in using sites designed primarily to work with Internet Explorer/Firefox.  As we did not code these sites ourselves, we're not sure quite where the problems lay.  But revisiting these sites, in Opera 11 they all work spectacularly.  In fact, we did not encounter a single site that did not work properly in the browser, thus far.

Compatibility was a big thing in the past preventing us from using Opera as our daily browser.  But we now no longer have misgiving.

II.  The Benchmark

So Opera 11 has a ton of features and looks great.  It also sports a new JavaScript engine that's supposed to be significantly faster.  But how fast is it, exactly?

This time around we stuck with our test procedure from our last "Browser Wars 2" entry.  Our basic goal was to be as comprehensive as possible, including any accurate tests we could find.  

We compare Opera 11 to Firefox 4.0 beta 7, which you can get here, and Chrome 8, which you can get here.

For basic benchmarks, we have included an overall test (Peacekeeper by FutureMark), a CSS Test (How to Create's CSS loading test), two pure Javascript-only tests (Sunspider and Celtic Kane's JSBenchmark), and a composite test of various Javascript and DOM tests (Dojo Toolkit's "TaskSpeed").

We also continue to use Microsoft's rendering tests -- FishIE TankPsychedelic Browser, and Flying Images -- which show off the advantage of hardware acceleration (which still is not up to snuff in Chrome and Opera, as you'll see).  Note, Microsoft also makes all of these tests, so there may be some sort of favoritism there -- but we hope not.

Additionally, we've run Mozilla's Kraken, a lengthy Javascript benchmark that represents Mozilla's crack at making a test similar to Sunspider.  As with the Microsoft rendering tests, we hope there's no tweaks to give Firefox an edge here (but there might be).

The results are as follows:

(Note: IE 9 test results for these same tests are available in the linked previous Browser Wars 2 entry)

i. PeaceKeeper

1. Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 5328
2. Opera (v11.00) - 3627
3. Firefox 4.0b7 - 2594

ii. CSS Test

1. Opera (v11.00) - 9 ms, 4 ms, 5 ms
2. Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 10 ms, 6 ms, 6 ms
3. Firefox 4.0b7 - 30 ms, 8 ms, 8 ms

iii. Sunspider

1. Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 314.3ms ± 3.6%
2. Opera (v11.00) - 459.7ms ± 0.4%
3. Firefox 4.0b7 - 510.0ms ± 6.4%

iv. JSBenchmark (10 trials)

1.Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 434 ± 17
2. Opera (v11.00) - 280 ± 6
3. Firefox 4.0b7 - 260 ± 6

v. Dojo Tool Kit

1. Opera (v11.00) - 329, 710, 481, 458, 331, 164, 166, 170, 312
2. Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 207, 1110, 442, 457, 492, 181, 200, 202, 345 
3. Firefox 4.0b7 - 185, 1358, 599, 761, 551, 345, 337, 339, 553 

vi. FishIE Tank (1000 fish)

1. Firefox 4.0b7 - 35 fps
2. Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 3 fps
3. Opera (v11.00) - 20 fps (did not render properly)

vii. Psychedelic Browser (Hallucinogenic Mode)

1. Firefox 4.0b7 - 599 RPM
2. Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 38 RPM (standard mode only...)
3. Opera (v11.00) - 10 RPM (standard mode only...)

viii. Flying Images (256 images)

1. Firefox 4.0b7 - 50 fps
2. Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 15 fps
3. Opera (v11.00) - 9 fps (rendering issues)

ix. Kraken

1. Firefox 4.0b7 - 12119.4ms +/- 0.8%
2. Opera (v11.00) - 20804.8ms +/- 1.2%
3. Chrome (8.0.552.224) - 25400.9ms +/- 0.4%

x. Conclusions

Unlike some past rounds of browser wars, it's tough to call a clear winner here.  Opera 11 and Chrome 8 tend to split the Javascript/CSS tests.  But Firefox runs away with the rendering tests, thanks to its GPU acceleration.  Firefox 4.0b7 also earned the best score in Kraken, but Mozilla writes this benchmark, so we have a sneaking suspicions its written some sort of optimizations in its JS engine to enhance its results, given that its JS engine was far slower than Opera and Chrome's in third-party tests.

III. Final Thoughts

We would strongly recommend that readers test out Opera 11, as it's proven itself to be a great browser in our testing.  While many have embraced Firefox, it tends to lag a bit behind Opera and Chrome in terms of features and speed.  Firefox 4 certainly has some promising new features, it remains to be seen whether it is enough to hold off a surging Chrome.

Opera 11 could propel the Norwegian browser maker to similar success, we feel.  Assuming enough people actually try the new browser, we're guessing a number will enjoy it enough to make it their day-to-day browser.

Of course Opera, Google, and Mozilla all have their work cut out for them as there's always the dark horse candidate in this race -- Microsoft Internet Explorer 9.  After years of inferior releases, Microsoft finally looks ready to release a modern browser.

For now, Opera can celebrate the fact that it got this impressive release out the door ahead of Firefox 4 and IE 9's release versions.

All testing was done on a 64-bit Windows 7 Professional Edition. The hardware used was a MacBook Pro with an Intel Core 2 Duo Processor T9600, a NVIDIA GeForce 9600M GT GPU, and 4 GB of DDR RAM.

"Well, there may be a reason why they call them 'Mac' trucks! Windows machines will not be trucks." -- Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer

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