I love Opera. I love that they’ve kept the faith, kept making an actual for-profit browser for decades, long after the browser crown has gone to, well, everyone else over and over. I love that their little team keeps after it, keeps trying, and keeps making the most innovative browsers on the market, and then doesn’t turn around and sue everyone else for copying their best features1. Back when IE 6 was still the reigning champion and Firefox was still called Firebird I actually paid for an Opera license, and I would do it again in a heartbeat if they went back to a paid browser model.
Over the years, however, I have used the other darlings of browser-land, like everyone else. Firefox was my browser of choice for years, followed in due course by Chrome, and recently another stint with the ‘Fox, when it became obvious that Chrome was basically just inviting the NSA and advertisers to look over your shoulder the entire time you’re on the internet.
And I’ve loved my time with Firefox. No, it’s not as fast as Chrome. It never will be. But it’s (finally) also not as memory hungry, and is actually a pretty good citizen. And Firebug is a developer’s dream, of course. All in all it’s a very solid browser, and I have no real complaints.
So why leave? What changed my mind?
Heading for the Coast
There are a couple of things. The first one was Opera Coast, the world’s most interesting browser. Opera once again decided to take a look at what a browser UI should look like and decided that everything that had happened up to this point was wrong and started over. Coast operates under the assumption that either you are going to go to one of the four or five (or ten or twelve…it doesn’t judge) sites you always go to on your mobile device and shows you those. It says this right on the website:
We don’t care what you do with your time. We just want to make sure that if you decide to waste a little, you do it well. And, there’s no better browser to help you pass some free time.
Everything about Opera Coast is tuned to this ideology. You’re probably going to waste a few minutes on one of your regular sites. That’s cool, here’s an icon for it. But what if you want to go to a different site? Well, if you are going somewhere new you are going to do a search, right? Okay, pull down to search. Watch the awesome search thingy figure out what you’re looking for and start pre-loading sites while you’re still typing. And if you’re feeling even less directed the search area will show you a list of good time wasting sites without searching at all, a feature I have used more than once. If you decide you like one of these new sites you have the option of adding a chip to the home screen, making it that much easier to come back to the next time you have a few moments to kill.
All the techy parts of the browser are gone. You don’t have an address bar. When you are on a page there is zero chrome around the page except a little shortcut back to the home screen. All the interactions are intuitive and fluid. Opera has made a browser that actually makes sense on a phone.
Back to the Desk
So, having discovered Coast, I decided to see what desktop Opera looks like these days. It’s been a few years since I’ve tried it out, and it deserved another look. And a lot of the end-user consideration that has gone into Coast has gone into the desktop browser as well. Speed Dial, another Opera invention, has had a facelift and now is almost iPad-like in it’s use of tiles and folders. The new “Stash” feature lets you grab pages that you are visiting frequently for a while and keep them organized and visible. I can see this being helpful if you’re following a particular event and want to keep some sites handy while that event is going on, but once it’s over you can clear it out of your Stash and move on. This is definitely a psychological divide (it’s not that hard to delete bookmarks) but it works well.
And, again, if you’re just looking to kill some time you’ve got a Discover tab a la Coast.
Under the hood, Opera is using WebKit, the same engine that powers Chrome and Safari, so it’s sufficiently speedy and does all the typical browser stuff just fine. But the additional thoughtful touches in the UI have made it my current browser of choice.
Tabbed browsing, browser extensions, and a “speed dial” new tab screen are three highlights of Opera’s huge list of firsts. ↩