Opera 10.5 leaps to beta, holds on to unexpected performance lead

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Just yesterday, we saw yet another daily build of what Opera Software was calling its "pre-alpha" of the Opera 10.5 Web browser, a product that the company certainly wanted folks to test, even though they were warned it wasn't even ready for daily use. With various software publishers' development schedules being organized so differently from one another, it's difficult enough distinguishing "previews" from "alpha previews" from "preview alphas" -- just yesterday, for example, Mozilla finalized a public "developer preview" of Firefox 3.7 Alpha 1, closing off its "Alpha 1 preview" track before starting, on the same day, its "Alpha 2 preview" track.


But Opera, perhaps breaching etiquette altogether and going for the sinister "Triple Dog Dare," this morning skipped right over Alpha 1 -- which we were all expecting -- and officially dubbed the latest build of 10.5 "Beta 1." In so doing, Opera also removed what it had been calling "10.2 Alpha 1" off of its list of test builds, and replaced it with 10.5 Beta 1 on its "browser/next" page.

There are a few elements of this new beta that still have a certain "alpha" flavor to them: for example, a button on the search bar that doesn't search for the contents already in the text box, but only after you type new text into the box. And a JavaScript control problem on a very simple conditional loop still forces an error condition on one of our basic JavaScript tests -- an error that one can excuse in a "pre-alpha."

That said, Opera is now officially back in the hunt for Web browser performance supremacy, warts and all. Today, after a huge set of Patch Tuesday updates forced a slowdown of our index browser (Internet Explorer 7 in Windows Vista), and even a slight speed gain in IE8 on Windows 7, triggered a reset of all our Windows 7 browser test scores slightly higher, Opera 10.5 held on to the lead over the latest development build of Google Chrome 5.

But the lead is much narrower than it was last week, by almost 44%. With the wind in Chrome 5's sails now, Opera has to paddle as fast as it can to maintain its distance from what has become the fastest evolving browser chassis in history.

We'll get back to performance in a bit; first, a look at some of the other new Opera 10.5 features we're noticing. Last December, we showed you the completely revised Opera front-end, which made us wonder why this wasn't being called "Opera 11." For Beta 1, we've noticed a few tweaks: First, there are fewer buttons in the Address bar than in the first "pre-alpha." Back and Forward are now paired, and a new "fast-forward" button (there's no textual name for it that we can see) is capable of paging ahead, within sequences of pages that haven't been loaded yet. We tried it with Betanews articles, and it works quite well -- you can get to Page 2 from Page 1 even if you can't find our page button.

The tweaked, but still revised, front end of Opera 10.5 Beta 1, with the tab bar opened up to show thumbnails.

The Search bar has been tweaked, and now bears the logo of the search engine you're using (Google remains the default). The search button has been moved to the right, but as we mentioned, there's times when it didn't function for us in the first beta build.

The Side panel is back in 10.5 (it wasn't working for us in the pre-alpha), and it remains the most convenient way for us to pull up bookmarks. One of our favorite Firefox add-ons is the All-in-One Sidebar, but as we've been reminded any number of times, its design inspiration comes from Opera.

The tab bar can still be slid open to reveal thumbnail previews, though in the beta, Web pages' icons ("favicons") have returned to accompany their title bars. When you hover over a tab or a little thumbnail, Opera 10.5 pulls up a big thumbnail, along with more space for the page's title and URL. The tab button with the picture of a tab in it, that didn't convey its meaning very well, has been replaced with a "recycle bin" button that makes more sense. From here, you can re-open closed tabs.

Controls along the bottom of the new Opera window are now rendered in their own tabs; and this is smart, because the tabs themselves are opaque. Opera has been joining the trend toward embracing the translucent window frame in Vista and Windows 7; in the pre-alpha, you could only see the charcoal-grey feature icons when the window was in front of something white or chalky-colored.

Version 10.5 is Opera's first to follow Firefox's lead in supporting the HTML5 <VIDEO> tag -- the ability (theoretically) to show streaming videos from the Web using a codec built into the browser. Unfortunately (and this isn't Opera's fault by any means), the biggest open test of the functionality of the HTML5 tag comes from YouTube, where the test uses the proprietary H.264 codec. While both Firefox and Opera can try to run these tests, they're geared (for now) for Google Chrome 5 and Apple Safari 4.

With pages using the Ogg Theora codec for the <VIDEO> tag -- the one Web standards architects intended -- Opera's built-in player performance appeared stable in early tests. Streaming movies did appear a little "mosaic-ed" for the first few seconds, almost like a JPEG image that's half-loaded.

We did notice problems with 10.5 Beta 1 and the Flash codec, especially in YouTube. When a new video player is repeatedly loaded into the same space as the one that initially inhabits a page, Opera has a tendency to blank out the reloaded viewer. You can hear sound, but you see nothing but the page background.

We're impressed by an Opera 10.5 feature that's out of the ordinary for any other browser, and potentially less of a security risk for users: Pop-up windows, including message boxes, are rendered by the JavaScript interpreter as part of the active page, not as separate Opera windows. That means you can't drag a pop-up window outside the page area, which might possibly become an inconvenience in some situations. But it reduces the opportunity for the type of cross-window spoofing that has characterized exploits of Internet Explorer and Firefox, because pop-ups are run in the context of the active page -- a much tighter sandbox.

We're not impressed with the first beta's upload ability: In fact, the browser does tend to crash following an upload. The built-in session manager (one less add-on you need to attach) does pick up where you left off when you reload the browser.

Next: The chase is on...

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