The browser wars are heating up again, and the first major browser update of 2008 is Opera 9.50. Available for Windows and Mac, there are some impressive new features worked into this release, even though it's not listed as a major-point update.
There's no reason to repeat the basics of why Opera is such an excellent browser to use. Suffice to say that it covers the essentials with built-in tabbed browsing, mouse-over previews, a customizable search bar, advanced bookmarking tools, simple e-mail and chat integration, mouse gestures, keyboard shortcuts, and drag-and-drop functionality.
Truly, it's Opera's extras that push it to the top of the class. Integrated theme support previews themes from within the interface, and the new default is a redo that nicely balances "dark" and "light" aesthetics. It could be worse, I suppose--they could've gone for raver green. I've always felt that Opera's desktop widgets were a poor replacement for extensibility, which Opera still lacks. They're fine if you're looking for widget action that doesn't depend on the Google, Yahoo, or Windows Vista desktop widget holders, but this is probably a personal preference thing more than anything else.
Many of the new features that I saw today in Opera can be found in Firefox 3, which has release candidates out now and a final version due this coming Tuesday. Of course, Opera can claim dibs on such utilities as the Wand, which combines autofill with saved passwords, built-in torrent support, and real-time fraud prevention bolstered by Haute Secure's antimalware technology. The Wand now loads a password-encrypted page before asking the user to save the password, preventing failed password entries from cluttering up the log.
Personal data synchronization has become a must-have for any browser worth its weight in code, and Opera performs well with Opera Link. Once you register, it enables users to keep bookmarks, the Personal bar, Speed Dial, and Notes synced to any version of Opera being used, including the cell phone iteration, Opera Mini. The Notes feature isn't new, but it's absolutely one of the best things about Opera: a savable notepad built right into the browser, allowing users to keep track of thoughts in a lightweight but integrated manner.
Improvements to the search tool, Quick Find, make it possible to search for full in-page text from the address field, the history panel, and opera:historysearch. This cuts out having to hit the Find hotkey combo to bring up the search window. The Status bar has been restored as a default, addressing many user complaints. Spatial navigation--the function that lets you navigate elements on a page with a hotkey combo--has finally been introduced, too.
The full list of changes and fixes made to Opera 9.5 can be read at Opera's Web site.
Overall, I really like this browser. I still think that the lack of extensibility will hurt it, but on most features it has what it takes to unseat even the biggest-name browsers. You just need to hear it sing.