Opera 12 takes the stage late | The Download Blog - CNET Download.com

Opera 12 takes the stage late

Less bloat, better plug-in management, faster site loading, and smarter security badges are the hallmarks of Opera 12, but the browser no longer feels as innovative as it once was.

A little bit behind schedule, Opera 12 makes its public debut today with numerous changes that mostly focus on faster browsing. But where the Norwegian browser used to take the lead on feature development, it now feels more like an understudy.

You can get Opera 12 for Windows (download), Mac (download), and Linux (download). There's nothing explicitly wrong with it. In fact, version 12 makes a number of good improvements.

Most importantly is an overall focus on speed. Quirky features such as Widgets, Unite, and Voice have been killed off, which means that there's less bloat in the browser. But no doubt that those executions were performed also because of a lack of user interest. After Opera's April announcement that it was sunsetting the feature, an online petition to open source Unite's code could only muster 258 signatures out of its goal of 1000, as of press time.

A handful of new features in Opera 12 (pictures)

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One thing that Opera 12 is still working on that competitors have moved forward with is hardware acceleration, which is when the browser uses the graphics processor to render animations faster and more smoothly. It's in the browser, but you must manually activate it -- a change from the Opera 12 alpha. Jan Standal, vice president of desktop products for Opera, explained in a phone conversation earlier today that this was because Opera has not been able to get the performance gains expected.

"There's the WebGL part [of hardware acceleration,] the general animation part, and the user interface part. We're doing everything at the same time. So, it's a very ambitious project to go for the whole package at the same time," Standal told CNET from his home in Oslo, Norway.

"What we realize now is that the results for the hardware acceleration weren't good enough for the [already built-in] software acceleration. The software acceleration has been so optimized that the hardware acceleration has to provide real benefit [to work]," he said.

Standal said that Opera would re-evaluate their hardware acceleration development progress again in "four to five months." Bottom line? It's still a long way off for Opera fans.

Opera has continued to incorporate HTML5 support into Opera 12 as the still-developing, next-gen HTML code standardizes. In Opera 12, Web sites can access your local hardware, such as webcams. However, because of its slower update cycle, Opera is hardly leading in this area. Google and Mozilla are further ahead, as Google drives Chrome as a gaming platform and Mozilla prepares a Firefox-powered mobile operating system currently called Boot2Gecko.

Opera 12 offers a new range of themes, based on the same lightweight system that powers Opera's extensions.

Opera 12 offers a new range of themes, based on the same lightweight system that powers Opera's extensions.

(Credit: Opera)

There are other changes in Opera 12 that pull it closer to parity with the competition, but have already been implemented widely. These include separate processes for plug-ins like Flash and QuickTime, so that when the plug-in crashes, the browser doesn't burn up with it; a lightweight add-on structure powered by HTML5, JavaScript, and CSS emphasized for extensions and themes; and redesigned location bar security badges that are easier to read.

The problem is the competition. Chrome and Firefox introduce improvements on regular six-week intervals. Internet Explorer and Safari are tied to big operating systems, and get plenty of traction separately and as their OSes update. It's disappointing to say so, but it's hard to find changes in this new Opera release that the four other top-shelf browsers aren't doing as well or better.

Opera's playing its cards closely on the matter of the competition. "Big change is coming up with [Windows 8] Metro," said Standal. "We have not announced our plans for this, but we are following it very closely." And as far as WinRT is concerned, the locked-down, mobile-only version of Windows 8 that restricts third-party apps from taking over default services the way that iOS does, Standal was even more reserved. "Platforms that are more open tend to have more variety and higher quality applications," he said. "We believe in open competition."

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