Firefox vs Opera

In case you´ve been living under a rock lately, Opera recently announced that as of version 8.5, they will no longer be charging for usage of their browser.

In the past, previous versions were free for download. However, unless you paid for it, you were greeted by a built-in banner advertisement during the entirety of your web browsing. I had given it a try a few years ago, but simply had not found anything useful enough to merit either paying for it, or tolerating the ads. So, I switched back to Internet Explorer (pre-Firefox).

Those were dark days, my friend, dark days. Luckily, there has been a new dawn, of brilliant luminance, shining forth from the Firefox. Recently I’ve been using the beta of Firefox 1.5, and have to say that thus far, it’s been the most pleasant browsing experience ever. But, now that Opera has done the right thing, I wanted to give them a fair shot, an objective look to see if it’s worth making the switch. First, I’ll take a look at what I love about Firefox 1.5, and then I’ll critique Opera 8.5.

Note: I have left out Safari, because even though it is an awesome browser, the majority of users who are on Windows don’t have this luxury. I am also not critiquing Internet Explorer because there haven’t really been any notable improvements in the past five years, with the exception of the IE Dev Toolbar.

So, basically the purpose of this article is to take a look at the two main alternatives to IE6, because no self-respecting Windows user should still be forced to use this browser. In an attempt to be objective, I will be looking at both Firefox and Opera from a fresh-install, “out of the box” standpoint, as to not sway opinion based on extensions. Let us look first at the Fox…

Firefox 1.5 beta

From my stats logs, I see that the majority of visitors to this site are on Firefox already, so I’m assuming you already know what makes it so great. I will turn my attention instead to the improvements I’ve noticed in the 1.5 beta. Thus far, I have been very impressed by the ability to drag and drop tabs to arrange them in different order. This has made it very easy to arrange multiple homepages in the order I want them to appear, rather than having to manually re-open each one and then reset my homepages.

Another feature I really love, also related to tabbed-browsing, is the option to force all target=”_blank” and JavaScript pop-ups to launch in a new tab, or the same window, rather than spawn a new window. To me, this is the epitome of tabbed-browsing, giving power back to the user and taking it out of the hands of picky developers. As you may know, one of my pet-peeves is an all-Flash site that launches another window, just for the sake of aesthetics.

Opera, a fair shake

Now, shifting the focus, I will describe what I like about this browser. The coolest feature is by far the zoom feature. Rather than just resize the text like most browsers, it treats the entire page as a whole, and zooms in accordinly. It would be like having a newspaper in front of you, and gradually bringing it closer to your eyes, rather than just having all the titles and story text get bigger while the paper itself remained the same size. Basically, the zoom enlarges everything proportionally, very nice.

That being said, there is little else I have found about Opera that Firefox doesn’t already do better. A quick glance at the product features they’re boasting reads like a laundry list of what Firefox already offers. The one thing that stands out as possibly useful is Voice, which allows a user to talk to their browser. I can see this being useful for those with impaired motor funtion, and applaud them for taking these steps. However, for the average person, you’ll probably get some funny looks if you’re sitting in your cubicle talking to your computer, saying things like: “Opera next link, Opera back…”

Another interesting point on their list that they are supposedly the first browser to offer native support for SVG, Scalable Vector Graphics. This was a spec for an open-source alternative to Flash, pioneered by companies like Adobe. But, now that they’ve basically conceeded defeat and bought Macromedia, I don’t see SVG being all that important, in light of Flash.

So, those pleasantries aside, allow me to rip on the things I dislike about Opera. First of all, and this is huge – there is barely any support for negative CSS margins. Look at some of your favorite sites in Opera, and see what I mean. For designers, this means that many techniques for tweaking margins and padding are not available if your client cares about Opera.

Another big qualm I have is that when you display a site in full-screen, Opera looks for CSS of media=”projection”. This means that if you have a style type defined, such as for screen or print, when full-screened in Opera the user will see an unstyled page, with just line by line text. Luckily, it is easily fixed by changing your type to media=”screen, projection”.

In my opinion, this is a huge logical flaw on the part of Opera. Very rarely when a website is displayed in full-screen does this mean that the user has a projector hooked up to their computer. Most of the time, it will be people wanting to take screenshots of a site, or simply see more of the page they are reading. Why they chose to make this styled projection is beyond me.

I was also surprised and disappointed when I realized Opera does not have accesskey support. It’s odd that they would go to such great lengths to have a nice zoom feature for those who are visually impaired, and yet leave out something as simple as this. Basically, this means that embedded keyboard shortcuts don’t work if you are viewing a site in Opera.

Okay, almost done, but before I finish ripping on Opera, I want to point out one more thing I don’t like. This isn’t so much a bug as it is a non-sensical issue. In Firefox, when you press Ctrl-T this opens a new tab, and when you press Ctrl-N it opens a new window. It should be noted that Ctrl-N is a very common shortcut, and launches a new document in just about every single Windows program. In Opera, Ctrl-N opens a new tab, and in order to open a new window, you have do so some limber finger-work and hit Alt-Ctrl-N. Again, seems very counter-intuitive. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think it’s really a “shortcut” if it takes more than one hand to use.

Tweaked Out

Another problem with Opera is that of customization. It seems to have a whole lot of options that don’t add up to very much. For instance, there are Appearance and Preferences under Tools. I wonder, could these both not have been consolidated into one, as in Firefox? Also, I find it funny that Opera offers a Clock feature, since it displays the same time as in the system tray.

Also, with Firefox, it is possible to fully customize the position of pretty much anything, from the address bar, to every last button. Since I prefer to see as much of a webpage as I can, I have everything positioned on one bar, so no space is wasted, and I make the most of my screen. Even Internet Explorer 6 can do this by default. It is odd that Opera locks you into what can be put on certain bars, so one cannot achieve the same effect…


The illustration above shows a comparison of how I customize Firefox, and the closest I could do in Opera. Note that there is not a single bit of wasted space with Firefox, but with Opera, only 1/3rd of the browser top is actually put to good use. Also, though there are plenty of useless extra buttons available, one of my Firefox favorites is absent in Opera – the view downloads button.

Wrapping it Up

So, in case it has not yet become obvious, I heavily favor Firefox over Opera. While it is cool that Opera is now offering their browser free, I think it will be a few more versions before anyone should care. The only immediate effect of Opera being free is designers have yet another quirky browser to cater to. In order of preference, here is how I rank the major browsers out there: Firefox, Safari, Opera, Netscape, and Internet Explorer in distant last place.

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