Browser Battles: Opera, CrossOver Chromium and Flock
What a relief we felt when Firefox was first released. It replaced “None of the above” as our favorite browser, and we finally were rid of the monolithic dinosaur Netscape. Since then, Firefox has been relatively unchallenged in its supremacy.
As of late, some new challengers are seeking to steal some of Firefox's thunder. In this article, we take a closer look at three of them: Opera, CrossOver Chromium and Flock.
Opera clearly has ambitions, because although always good, recent releases have shown vast improvements, a wealth of smart features and a sleek Euro style. CrossOver Chromium is Google Chrome running on Wine. Though Chromium is betaware, it gives us a sneak peek into Google's plans to re-invent the browser by going minimalist. Will Chrome do to Firefox what Firefox did to Netscape? Finally, Flock seeks efficiency not in raw speed but in doing everything in one place and integrating the Net experience in one “portal”. You may find that one of these browsers is a better fit for you.
Although Linux-friendly for ages, the Opera Web browser, which is based on the proprietary Presto layout engine, has failed to reach critical mass in the collective Linux consciousness. Lacking the massive community involvement and open-source credentials of Firefox, most of us don't even register Opera. In the 2008 Linux Journal Readers' Choice Awards, less than 5% of respondents picked Opera as their favorite Web browser (compared to Firefox's 86%).
Although I'd also love to see an open-source Opera, I somewhat understand the company's unwillingness to release its source code. I recently spoke with Opera's CTO, Hakon Wium Lie, who explained the company's position on open source:
At Opera, we believe in open standards, security, speed, performance and features—these are values that we share with the Linux community....We're very proud of our source code, and we'd like to show it to others, but we haven't found a business model that allows us to do so while still charging for commercial use. Ideally, I'd like to see an open-source license similar to the Creative Commons noncommercial license. The license would say, “here's the source code, feel free to use and reuse it, but we'd like a cut if you make money from it”. Anyway, on the Web, I believe open standards are much more important than open source.
Personally, I don't see why an open-source Opera could not only scale up its market share but also leverage that increased popularity to rake in a hefty share of revenues from partnerships with search engines, like Firefox does. However, I'll leave that discussion for another day. The reality is that the Opera browser is good—surprisingly even as good as the Windows edition—which makes it worthy of our scrutiny. Let's have a look.
Although I have used Opera on and off over the years as a backup browser, I never really gave it a hard run for its money. When I dove into the new Opera 9.6, I was pleasantly surprised at its features and ergonomically sound look and feel. From a style standpoint, I like Opera better than Firefox on Linux. The Opera folks clearly put much thought into design elements.
Opera makes up for its open-source “deficit” with cool features and customizability. Although the browser is speedy enough, Opera is about the features, not leanness. Many features that are Firefox extensions are already built in to Opera.
Here are some core features that distinguish Opera from its rivals. The Opera browser has the most interesting startup options of any Linux-based browser. First, upon opening a tab, Opera's default is Speed Dial, a sort of home page with nine customizable thumbnails for your favorite Web sites (Figure 1). Second, Opera lets you decide how to start each session—just as you left off, your home page, a blank page, via dialog or from a saved session. The built-in session manager is a powerful feature, given how many different tabs/windows the typical user has open concurrently. One can have saved sessions for different modes, such as home, work, finances, news, hobbies and so on.
I also found Opera's “philosophy” of default tab-oriented browsing pleasant, which I personally think is nicer than Firefox's tab mode. As you open new pages, Opera opens each substantial (that is, non-squished) tab, complete with mouse-over preview, across the top of the browser. Although you certainly can configure Firefox to act in a similar way, Opera feels more comfortable and looks nicer in tab mode.
A number of other built-in features make Opera worth a look. The Wand allows you to save user names and passwords and autofill them upon subsequent site visits. Opera Link is a service that synchronizes bookmarks, the Speed Dial contents, browsing history and other elements across computers or other devices that run Opera, including mobile devices that utilize Opera Mini, the mobile version of Opera. Furthermore, RSS (with label-able feeds), IRC, a mail client and BitTorrent support are built in.
For those who appreciate aesthetics, Opera goes well beyond its pleasant default skin. Changing Opera's skin is easy, because a surprisingly wide range of skins are easy to preview, download and install with just a few clicks.
Besides the myriad built-in features, Opera also offers a range of widgets that collaborate with the browser. Widgets get their own tab from which one can view, install and manage them. They can appear anywhere the user wants. Although numerous, useful widgets exist, Opera's philosophy is to have more core features built in than does Firefox. The result is a heavier but more immediately customizable browser.
On the negative side, though I didn't find Opera to be noticeably slower than its peers, I had some occasional page-rendering problems. On one site, the search box slid behind the main menu and was completely unaccessible.
Despite such problems, I'd argue that Opera's plethora of features makes up for the speed deficits and its rendering problems. Of course, the trade-offs are yours to weigh, as well.
James Gray is Products Editor for Linux Journal.
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