If you're tired of the ever-increasing size and complexity of today's major Web browsers, you may be pleased to know there's now a reasonable alternative: the Norwegian-produced Opera browser. This new entry for Windows 95, Windows NT, and Windows 3.1 (coming soon for other operating systems) is not only functionally equivalent to both major players - Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer - but exceeds their features while using fewer resources.
The current stable version of Opera as I write this is 2.12, but the intrepid folks at Opera have just released beta 10 of the 3.0 version. I tested and evaluated beta 7 of the 3.0 version and found it crashed less often than the copy of Netscape Navigator 4.03 I had been using. (I haven't switched back, and don't plan to.)
Small and Speedy -- After looking at the current crop of browsers produced by large companies, the folks at Opera decided to give it a go themselves. They built an Internet browser from scratch without relying on the NCSA Mosaic code base like Internet Explorer. They left out extras the big boys include in their packages and instead focused on making a truly useful browser that incorporates Web, Gopher, FTP, Usenet news, and WAIS access. What they produced weighs in at just over 1 MB when installed. Compare that to 8.4 MB for Netscape Navigator 4.0.3 and 10.8 MB for Internet Explorer 3.02 - and that's just for the basic packages, without extras such as calendar programs. Opera also boasts tiny RAM and processor requirements - its developers claim that Opera will work fine on a 386SX-based PC with 8 MB RAM.
The French publication Magazine Planete Internet tested Opera 2.12 against the 4.0 versions of Netscape Communicator - the overloaded-with-add-ons version of Navigator - and Internet Explorer and found Opera was, in most cases, significantly faster at displaying Web pages than either of the others. In fact, when accessing CNN's Web site, it was 250 percent faster.
In two months of browsing I have encountered only two pages that I couldn't access via Opera, one of which was on Microsoft's site and required Internet Explorer-specific extensions.
In addition to browsing the Web, Opera includes a Usenet news reader. It doesn't allow you to download entire threads, but it does store any articles you retrieved while online in a cache that you can browse while not connected. Support for automated retrieval of articles is planned for a future release.
Opera can send email, but doesn't receive email. The Opera staff is building a stand-alone email client that you'll be able to link to the browser. Opera, like other browsers, can pass mailto URLs to other email programs.
Opera can use Netscape plug-ins, and it can link a specific MIME type or document extension to an external viewer. If Opera doesn't know what to do with a specific document type, it lets you choose an appropriate action via a dialog box, as do other browsers.
Beyond Equivalence -- The Opera designers have worked hard to make their browser both easy to use and powerful. With users' eager suggestions, they succeeded admirably. For example, rather than hiding all of the preferences and settings in a dialog box, most aspects of Opera's visual presentation are a single mouse click or menu choice away. Buttons for toggling image downloading and background images are on the navigation bar. You can turn the navigation bar, scroll bars, and button bars on or off via the View menu.
Opera also offers a unique 20 percent to 1,000 percent zoom, useful for people with vision problems, although folks with 20/20 eyesight may appreciate it as well. If you prefer to use your mouse as little as possible, almost every feature in Opera is accessible via the keyboard - even the links within a particular Web page.
Opera's contextual menus (right-click on objects in Windows 95/NT) provide access to controls for images, backgrounds, and frames. They also include commands to stop the active download, go to the home page, and clone the current window. The contextual menus even link directly to your bookmark lists, saving you a trip to the menu bar, although you can also display a docked list of bookmarks at the left side of the window, or, if you prefer, a floating list of bookmarks.
Platforms and Price -- Opera is currently available on Windows platforms - a 16-bit version for 3.11 or NT 3.51 and a 32-bit version for 95 or NT 4. However, Opera's designers recently ran a month-long promotion to gauge support for versions for Mac OS, OS/2, Linux/X11, and BeOS platforms. Though the Linux support was rather weak, Mac and OS/2 supporters turned out in droves, and BeOS made quite a good showing for such a new platform. According to the developers, Macintosh and OS/2 programmers are currently being sought, and porting to those platforms will begin as soon as possible. They realize no one wants a simple port, however, and are taking steps to ensure each group's browser takes advantage of the specific benefits and unique features of each platform.
The 2.12 version was priced at $30. The 3.0 version, when it's released, will be priced at $35. No pricing has been set for the other platforms yet, but they are expected to be in the same ballpark. Users who register their 2.12 version before the 3.0 version is released get a free upgrade. Both versions are available for a free, fully functional 90-day trial.
After trying the 3.0b7 release for a month, I decided not to switch back to Netscape Navigator. Opera loads faster, displays pages quicker, takes up less hard drive space, has better interface features, and is being pushed by developers who are responding directly to their user base. And, it crashes less often than Netscape Navigator, even though it's a beta release. I'm hooked!
[Matthew C. Miller is a systems engineer working in Des Moines, Iowa. When he's not finding new Windows 95 toys to keep him from actually having to work, he's at home exploring Mac OS and MkLinux.]