Opera 8 is the first major release of a browser since Mozilla Firefox hit the Web. There are plenty of changes in the new version, but Opera hasn’t abandoned much; it’s more a case of reworking the browser's feature set to make it easier to use and understand. We’re reviewing the Windows version of Opera 8, although it will also be available for Mac OS X, Linux, FreeBSD and Solaris. Opera 8 is free to download, and as of 20 September 2005 no longer comes with an ad banner that you pay to remove.
The first thing you notice is the change in Opera’s user interface; it’s now much cleaner by default, with fewer menu items and toolbars. Previous versions of Opera presented new users with far too many options, buttons and panels, and the overall effect was overwhelming. The company listened to this criticism, and has responded by having very few options turned on by default; if you’re an experienced Opera user, you can easily turn them all back on again if you wish. Some menu options appear on the main menu bar once you start using the relevant feature -- mail, feeds and chat are the most obvious examples. Some of these options will disappear again if you remove all the accounts or other configuration items. Sometimes options don’t disappear until the browser is restarted. Opera was the first browser to introduce tabbed browsing, now seen on Firefox and other browsers. Tabs in Opera 8 now each have their own close button, which reduces the number of mouse clicks needed to close one. This scheme also takes up more screen space than Firefox’s single close button for all tabs, but is possibly more intuitive. Opera still supports sessions, where a number of open tabs can be saved and reloaded.
The address box in Opera 8 takes on some extra functions that are intended to feed back more information about the site you’re reading. The extra details are shown at the far right of the box, and will only obscure the longest of URLs. When viewing a Web site over SSL, Opera shows information from the digital certificate used in the connection. This is the organisation name in the certificate. The idea is that you can identify fake sites, such as those used in phishing scams, since the registered name would be different to that of the site you think you’re visiting. However, there are some problems with this principle, in that a clever scammer could use a self-signed certificate with a correct-looking name. Although this would trigger a different kind of alert, you’re then into rather technical territory. Equally, it’s possible for a legitimate site to have a certificate issued to a company name that’s different to the site name -- NatWest bank, for instance, has a certificate issued to the Royal Bank of Scotland Group, of which it's part, but the names don’t match. A single click on the security information brings up the complete certificate used by the site. This is still slightly cryptic for non-technical user, and we’re unsure whether this is of much use in preventing phishing and other attacks. For non-secure sites that link to an RSS newsfeed in the page headers, an RSS icon is shown in the address box. Click on the icon, and Opera will ask whether you want to subscribe to the feed; answering 'yes' adds the feed to your subscriptions and opens the Feeds page. Newsfeeds are now handled separately to mail messages, although the layout is the same as in Opera 7. Opera 8 has a Delete Private Info option. This removes practically all personal information, such as browsing history and cookies, and can also be configured to remove stored passwords. You can change what information is deleted by this option, and you’re always prompted to confirm that’s what you want to do. This option is particularly useful where systems will be shared among a number of people.
Opera is probably the most successful browser on handheld platforms, and the same rendering technology is included in this desktop browser. This takes the form of the Fit to Window and Small Screen views. The former takes any Web page -- even those (such as www.zdnet.co.uk) with fixed-width layouts -- and resizes them to fit the whole page into the current window. This uses a number of techniques, including reflowing the page and resizing images if necessary. For sites that use a fully liquid layout, Fit to Window is less useful, since you get much the same effect from the site’s own design. The Small Screen view emulates the very narrow screen of a handheld device, rendering any pages as best it can in that space -- much narrower than a PC screen. This feature is probably of most use to Web designers who want to make sure their site is still usable on a small device without having to dial up from a smartphone. Opera 8 is the first browser to offer native support for Scalable Vector Graphics (SVG). Although this is only a subset of the standard intended for mobile use, it’s still better than no native support at all, which is the case with all other released browsers at the time of writing. Adobe does have a plug-in that provides better support for SVG, but only for certain documents.
Voice browsing is included in Opera 8 (Windows version only), for both input and output. This means that you can control the browser through simple speech commands, assuming you have a microphone attached to your PC. Opera recommends that you use a headset to get the best signal-to-noise ratio, but we found that we could use a notebook’s built-in microphone with a fair measure of success in ZDNet's relatively quiet office. The speech recognition system doesn’t need -- and indeed does not support -- any training, but works by recognising a relatively limited set of commands. Most of these are intuitive, but all commands need to be preceded by the word 'Opera' for the browser to recognise them. For instance, without looking at the help we guessed commands such as 'home', 'back', 'next link' and 'bookmarks'. The speech output in Opera 8 is no better or worse than most modern speech synthesisers. However, getting Opera to read a Web page to you could be made easier: you need to highlight the relevant section of text with the mouse, rather than simply instructing the browser to read the page. The speech output also doesn’t take into account any semantic markup in the page -- <acronym> tags, for instance -- to alter the speech output or inflection.