Usually when a product has single-digit market share (and a low single digit at that), it isn't considered to be very influential or even relevant. A notable exception is the Opera Web browser: Despite minimal market share (at least on the desktop browser side), Opera has been highly influential, often introducing innovative new browser features years before other browsers.
However, as the browser wars have heated up in the last year or so, Opera's lead over browsers such as Google Chrome, Apple Safari and Mozilla Firefox isn't as big as it used to be. And, in some cases, Opera's rivals are introducing features Opera doesn't yet have.
Still, Version 10 of the Opera browser shows that Opera Software still has a few new tricks up its sleeve. Opera 10 isn't the most innovative version of Opera that I've tested, but it includes capabilities and features that I expect to see in other browsers in the not-too-distant future.
Probably the most prominent new feature in Opera is the Turbo mode. When running in Turbo mode, Opera uses compression technology to attempt to speed up slow Internet connections. The main target for Turbo is users still stuck on dial-up connections, but the feature also can be useful for bad Wi-Fi connections and other flaky network situations.
Using both the release and beta versions of Opera 10, I've tested the Turbo mode under a variety of situations, including a dial-up connection, weak Wi-Fi connections and even a shared 3G Wi-Fi connection on the Bolt Bus from Boston to New York. All in all, I've been fairly impressed. Though Turbo mode didn't actually speed up slow connections, it did make most Web pages load faster than in other Web browsers under similar test conditions. I also liked that Turbo mode could be configured to kick in only when a connection started to slow down.
Overall, Opera 10 has adopted a bit of a new look and feel (which, to a certain degree, mimics the "chrome" style popular in many browsers today). Most welcome are the new features in Opera's tabbed browsing interface. Using Opera 10, I could choose to resize the standard tabbed bar in my browser and have it display thumbnails of the sites within the tabs. I found the thumbnail tabs to be very useful for scanning through the many sites I had opened, especially when multiple pages from the same site were open.
Opera was one of the first browsers to introduce the Speed Dial feature, which shows a thumbnail listing of sites when a new tab is opened (a feature that most other browsers have by now copied). In Opera 10, Speed Dial offers some welcome new capabilities, including increased customization options that let users control the layout (showing more or fewer thumbnails) and even add a custom background image to the Speed Dial page.
As previously noted, in the last year competing browsers--especially Chrome and Firefox--have begun to out-innovate Opera in some areas. One example is the ability to use cloud-based services (such as Web mail or hosted productivity applications) as the default helper application.
In Opera 10, users can launch a cloud-based Web mail service when they click on a mailto link in a Web page, and Opera provides a pop-up option to let users choose how to handle these links when they first click on one. However, compared with other browsers, which let users choose from a multitude of services, Opera 10's list is very limited and does not include popular services such as Gmail and Yahoo Mail.
A number of small improvements introduced in Opera 10 include the ability to allow users to easily resize the search field in the browser by dragging its edge with the mouse. Opera 10 also now has an inline spellchecker for use when filling out forms and fields in Web pages.
The integrated developer tool, Dragonfly, also boasts some new capabilities for viewing information on site codes and script, including increased DOM inspection options. In addition, users can now choose to have Opera update automatically when new updates become available, rather than requiring a download and install of an update, as previous versions of the browser did.
As usual, Opera does well when it comes to support for Web standards. During my tests using the Web Standards Project's Acid3 test, Opera turned in a perfect score.
In the past, Opera Software also has bragged on Opera's speed. Version 10 is hardly slow--running much faster than Internet Explorer 8 and comparable to Firefox 3.5--but in most of my tests, Opera was outrun by Safari and Chrome.
Opera is one of the last of the major Web browsers to include a built-in mail client. I've generally found this client to be pretty good, and the new version includes small upgrades such as improved rich text options. The mail client also now takes advantage of the browser's new integrated spellchecker.
Opera runs on most major operating systems, including Linux, Mac OS X and Windows. To download and check out Opera 10, go to www.opera.com.
Chief Technology Analyst Jim Rapoza can be reached at email@example.com.