Opera 17 review: blazing fast Mac web browser with unique features
New version of Opera web browser based on Google Chrome
Opera 17 fastest browser in our web test
Off-Road mode enables you to browse blocked sites like Pirate bay
Opera is a classic web browser that’s been around for some time. It’s consistently proved to be a small, but popular, alternative to big names like Safari and Chrome.
Our Opera 17 reviews looks at the new Chrome-based version of Opera, and asks why you should get Opera instead of using Safari or Chrome.
First some basics: Opera is a pretty-looking if somewhat standard web browser. At the top is a unified search field and like Safari the homepage offers links to your favourite sites (in this instance known as Speed Dial).
It also has a Discover page which is used to find interesting things happening on the web. Unlike Safari’s Shared Links these are curated by the Opera Team and we found them typically from big UK news sites (The Guardian, BBC News, Sky News, and so on). There is also a read later mode, known as Stash which saves pages for later viewing.
Opera 17 special feature: Off-Road mode
Opera has always had one special feature over other browsers, and that’s optimised server support, officially known as Off Road mode (explained here in the Opera FAQ).
Rather than accessing web pages directly, Off-Road checks with the Opera main server to see if it has a copy of the web page. This is then delivered to your browser in an optimised form, making it much faster on slower networks. If Opera doesn’t have the page it loads as normal, so you don’t really notice any difference.
Google itself has been experimenting with a similar feature but it doesn’t seem universal yet. It’s original purpose was to speed up the Internet, although most people in the west now have desktop internet connections that are generally fast enough to load web pages without too much waiting around. The speed and bandwidth argument has shifted from web page loading to HD video buffering and online gaming.
Here in the UK you may have a good reason to install Opera. Recently key ISPs such as Virgin have started to block some websites, which doesn’t matter in Opera.
Opera 17 (left) accessing The Pirate Bay while Safari (right) displays Virgin's blocked screen
Bypass Virgin’s Pirate Bay block: the Opera Off-Road workaround
Opera’s Off-Road mode can circumvent the block on ISP-banned websites in the UK. The Pirate Bay in particular. Because you’re not actually browsing the web site itself, but Opera’s cached version of it it appears as normal in Off-Road mode.
This makes Opera the best web browser available for viewing and downloading web sites that are blocked in the UK. It’s certainly a lot easier than using web proxies. Whether you should be visiting these sites is a moral maze that’s for you to navigate, but if you want to access The Pirate Bay then Opera is the way to do it.
What market share does the Opera browser have?
Opera has a 1.3% to 2.6% worldwide usage share of web browsers according toWikipedia. The browser has been more successful in Eastern Europe, including about 51% market share in 2009 in Belarus, 47% in Georgia, 43% in Ukraine, 39% in Kazakhstan. So it’s clear that it’s more popular in some parts of the world that are web connected but perhaps without the latest connection infrastructure. Because of this Opera has probably gained a foothold.
Mind you even two per cent doesn’t fare too badly compared to Safari's five per cent of market share. And because it’s based on Chrome we don’t have any real concerns about developer support.
What is missing from Opera 17: Bookmarks
Opera 17 seems to have a beef with Bookmarks. There’s no bookmark bar itself so you can’t really add bookmarks. Instead it seems to be pushing users towards using the Speed Dial instead of Bookmarks.
This is a somewhat bold move, although it makes a lot of sense. We’ve found ourselves using bookmarks less these days, as services like Safari’s Top Sites give us our usual clicking habits, and the smart search fields and Google itself seem to offer faster access. But the Bookmarks bar is still a hell of a thing to get rid of.
Sync is also something of an issue. You can sync Opera against all your other devices, but it’s not easy to keep it in sync with Safari or Chrome. If you own an iPhone you’ll probably keep everything in Safari and want to have that synced up. It’s Apple’s locked down that's to blame. But there's no denying that Opera suffers for it.
Opera 17: speed test and web benchmarks
We placed the Opera 17 web browser through our web test of course (currently Peacekeeper). It returned a surprisingly fast speed fo 3205, slightly faster than our current pacesetter Chrome. This is become the new version of Opera is now based on the Chrome engine but must have a slightly more optimised code. So Opera really does have the web page rendering chops to go alongside its unique features.
Opera is an interesting alternative to Safari, mostly because it’s now running on the Chrome engine so is as fast as Chrome but with a friendlier interface. The Off-Road mode is the compelling feature though, especially now that some ISPs in the UK are blocking key websites like The Pirate Bay. If you want to access these blocked sites Opera is worth the download just for that. It’s also a pleasingly fast browser. A good choice.