An unexpected gem

Playing with the Opera Web Browser

Opera after 20+ years

The Opera Web Browser is almost exactly 24 years old at the time of this writing. It appeared on my radar back around the Internet Explorer 6 days. When I first tried it out, almost 20 years ago, it didn’t look like anything to me. When using it, many sites appeared broken and opera’s features seemed incomplete. That is about all I can remember from the early days of Opera. I put it back on the shelf and didn’t touch it again except to occasionally debug an issue with some web application or site I was working on at the time.

Fast forward 20 years later. I decided a few weeks back that I was uncomfortable with Google running everything in my digital life. I have several domains that use Google Suite for email, in addition to my own personal gmail account. I use Google drive and docs for online collaboration and storage even outside of work. And of course I was using them as my default search engine and Chrome as my default browser.

I know a little bit about the online advertising world and the privacy concerns people have about digital advertising. So my discomfort with “Google Everywhere” has grown significantly. I decided to try a more private web browsing experience.

My first foray was looking into the Tor web browser. Tor and Opera share some similar privacy features: Blocking 3rd party cookies and tracking scripts, some VPN-like features and similar capabilities. However, Tor still works best if you sign up for a VPN separately and configure it. I also found browsing with Tor a bit slow. Even launching the app takes a while as it sets up its anonymizing network connection. It also kept prompting me every so often about privacy concerns, such as browser fingerprinting. This all may be fine for you if you want the absolute most private web browsing experience, but I have to get some work done. I lose my patience very quickly when I am hassled repeatedly by a piece of software about alerts and notifications, even when they are helpful.

The Good

So onward to Opera. I installed Opera last week and started using it as my default web browser. I have to say, I’ve been pleasantly surprised.

The first thing you notice when using the browser is that its FAST. Sites load very quickly, the app itself loads and quits in a couple of seconds. Even with the VPN turned on, most page loads are still pretty snappy, which is a feat in itself given how much VPNs typically slow down an internet connection.

Which takes me to the privacy features. Again, if you want the absolute best in online privacy, you might take another look at Tor or other options. I’m certainly no expert in browsing anonymously. But Opera gives you some tools right out of the box that generally don’t interfere with your web browsing experience. The VPN can be turned on and off with a single click. Opera also has a built in ad blocker, so you don’t have to download and install a 3rd party plugin.

Beyond that, Opera has asome great usability features. When using Chrome, I was a big fan of the Workona plugin. This let me setup a group of tabs for specific tasks. I would have a group for my work gmail and calendar, a group for my personal version of the same, a group for online learning such as the Udemy electronics class I’m taking, and so forth. Opening one of these groups would launch a window with all those tabs open at once.

Speed Dial Is Nice.  You can save groups of tabs instead of just single sites

Opera has a simila feature called Speed Dial Folders. This is pretty similar to the usual start screen you see in Chrome or Safar, except you can save all open tabs as a folder and reopen them all at once. It’s not quite the same as Workona, but close enough for my typical workflow.

The built in Messenger app for facebook is also nice. I try to avoid most social media, but I still use Messenger to connect with friends and colleagues. Downloads are easy to find (chrome always seemed to hide my recent download and I had to hunt to track it down.) There’s also a 1Password plugin to manage my logins, which is a deal breaker for me if its not availalbe to the browser I’m trying out. Compatibility so far has been a non-issue, but this is 2019, not 2003, so I’d expect things to be much better on this front.

>Messenger is just around the corner...a click away.  Names and faces have been censored to protect the innocent.

The Bad

Nothing is without its drawbacks right? Opera does have a few glitches, but these are not dealbreakers for me at least. First, the VPN can slow you down. As I continued to use opera, I tended to use the VPN less and less, as I wanted the fastest results possible. I suspect this is the case with most VPNs and not just Opera’s, but as I haven’t used a separate VPN before, it’s hard for me to judge the relative speed.

Secondly, the ad blocker, as you would expect, occasionally breaks sites. And not always in an obvious way where the Washington Post or a similar news site kindly asks you to turn off your ad blocker. For instance, cmd+enter would not work in Gmail until I turned the ad blocker off, and Netflix just refused to play videos. It took me a while to realize that the ad blocker was the root cause of these, and just not opera overall. Again, this is probably true of many ad blockers, and you can probably just add these to your exceptions list and call it a day.

Conclusion

Overall, its a really solid web browser and may usurp Chrome from my dock. I’ve only touched on a handful of features, so there’s a lot more to explore and like about this oddball web browser that only has a tiny slice of the market. I also can’t say whether its just as secure as Tor, and there are certainly other privacy feautures you can install to make a browsing epxerience more secure. But having everything in one easy to use and very fast package, is pretty compelling. Opera has become my primary browser for several weeks now and very rarely do I miss Chrome.

It’s worth taking Opera for another spin, like I did 20 years later.