dW

Jan 1st 2011

This One Goes To Eleven

A few weeks ago Opera 11 was released. Usually I try to have my reviews of Opera releases a bit closer to the release date, starting work on them usually around the time the first release candidate is seeded. I’ve been a bit occupied.

So, it goes to eleven. That phrase comes from a hilarious Eighties film, This Is Spinal Tap. It’s one of the best films of the decade, and shame to anyone (especially those alive in the 1980’s) who haven’t seen the movie. Opera actually created their own spoof of this scene from the film in their promotional material for the beta. I was disappointed they didn’t follow up with it for the final release; it would have certainly been hilarious. It’s not like they needed the extra hilarity as Opera 11 looks like it was the most downloaded Opera release ever.

As is usual with a new Opera release, there’s quite a bit new. However, what’s important for a long-time user are bug fixes, and Opera 11 has plenty of those for us loyal users. Eleven is not without its problems, though. Nothing’s perfect.

Bugs & Other Annoyances

In my previous Opera review I chose to use video to demonstrate glaring bugs in Opera 10.50. I received a lot of positive feedback about the video, so I shall do it again:

To watch this video you need Adobe Flash.

Yes, Flash sucks ass. I can completely understand if you don’t have Flash installed, can’t, or have it disabled. I just can’t afford to use the HTML 5 methods because my host still has byzantine restrictions on bandwidth, and no third party website will allow me to serve standards-based video. I absolutely abhor Flash, but it’s a necessary evil.

Of everything discussed in the video the few things worth repeating are the asinine behaviors of the mail panel, inline print preview, and the state of HTML5 form elements. What Opera should do is keep the count badges and return the mail panel to what it was prior to all the weird experimental scrolling behavior. Like I said inline print preview is quite important to me personally. I even devoted a single post to begging Opera to fix it and not disregard it for Mac users. It looks as if my plea so far has fell on deaf ears. It’s a shame as it’s a feature unique to Opera and infinitely useful for developers. HTML5 is fast becoming really important, and the way users interact with the Web is going to change for the better. However, if the primary methods users are expected to interact with a webpage — form elements — are half-assed then it does nothing but hurt the user; the color picker is especially heinous and altogether useless.

I plan on tackling the interface more thoroughly in a later post very similar to the one I’ve already done, and I expressed my distaste for a couple of things from that category in the video already. The ensuing post will showcase in detail my suggestions for improvement. My intent with doing these reviews is to provide a thorough review of the application, but if I write in detail about the interface I’ll just be repeating the same thing again in more detail. I just find it’s best to keep that information all in one place.

Extensions

My Extensions Manager Page

Out of all the new features in Opera 11 extensions are the most notable. For a very long time Opera has refrained from implementing extensions in its browser while by now nearly all of its competition has embraced them. Opera’s lack of extensions was always a feature in my opinion. Firefox’s extensions have the tendency to thoroughly slow down the browser, and speed isn’t Firefox’s strong point to begin with if it even has one. Most extensions available were either built-in features in Opera or could be accomplished by utilizing built-in features.

Opera’s implementation is similar to Safari and Chrome’s, but they’ve adapted their standards-based widgets for extensions. Opera always practices what it preaches, and extensions are no exception. I had little trouble creating my own when Opera 11 was in its beta stages even with very little documentation (as documentation was still in the process of being written). The way I see it Opera extensions are glorified User JavaScripts — in fact my extension is nothing more than a direct port of my original User JavaScript with some long thought-of improvements. The other two extensions I have installed are also directly-ported User JavaScripts. The extension manager GUI provides a much better way of managing these scripts than was available to us before, and this applies to every single feature extensions have the ability to replace.

I have a feeling as if extensions are sort of separate from everything else in Opera. The way they’re handled gives that perception. Extensions presently can be programmed to be accessed as buttons in the GUI, but the buttons cannot be moved anywhere like long-time users are used to in Opera. They can’t be removed from a toolbar without disabling or uninstalling the extension. The only place they can reside are to the right of the address input on the address bar. Users have been able to add buttons that do extra behavior for ages now in Opera, but the methods to do so were really only reserved for power users. By manually editing a toolbar configuration file using a really esoteric syntax custom buttons could be created; after saving the file the button would show up in the Appearance dialog and could be placed anywhere the user wished. I’ve demonstrated this before in my weblog a couple of years ago when I created a custom button for adding items to an Amazon wishlist. It’d be beneficial to open up this behavior for extensions as well. The only method of accessing extensions that appears to be missing in my opinion would be as a contextual menu item, and that method of access would be of greater interest to me as personally I don’t like littering my interface with superfluous buttons — especially ones with icons which are for the most part horrendously ugly. All my presently installed extensions add no extra bits to the UI.

In adding to the perception that extensions are somewhat separate from everything else if a user has installed an extension which adds a button to the address bar and then copies their toolbar setup to another install the extension’s button will be there in the new install regardless of whether the extension is installed or not. This is obviously a bug, but it does indeed demonstrate that at least with this release extensions were just duct taped onto Opera. I think it’d be safe to predict that later releases would provide better integration.

The Opera Extensions Download Page

The only thing I’m not really happy with is the Opera extensions page. It’s a disaster area. Users aren’t allowed to simply comment on an extension; they’re required to provide a rating. Any particular extension’s page is filled with ratings which are nothing more than users’ asking questions of the developer without a prayer of being answered directly because if the developer himself has used up his one rating for his own extension then he cannot comment again. These shortcomings were mentioned back when Opera 11 was in its alpha stages, and little has changed from then. I’m simply not updating my extension there unless I can provide some support to my users without having to waste my personal time writing a dedicated website for the extension; in fact I’m considering removing it. Unite application developers are provided with a bug tracker and a comment area separate from ratings to provide support. Hardly anyone uses Unite. Why didn’t Opera just appropriate what they already created there for extensions? The URL structure of the page is also quite disturbed. Opera advertises its extensions as “extensions”, yet the base URL of the webpage is addons.opera.com. Why? A casual user thinking up the URL for the webpage might think to type in extensions.opera.com, but that location provides a 404 error. It would be less confusing to choose only one name for extensions; semantics are important.

Tab Stacking

A Collapsed Tab Stack with a Tab Preview Hover Box

There’s some arguments on whether or not Opera actually introduced tabbed browsing as Opera’s initial creation didn’t exactly resemble tabs, but there’s no denying Opera pioneered its use anyway. Tabbed browsing is a feature we take for granted these days, but it doesn’t scale well. The more tabs that are open the harder it is to navigate between them, and when page titles start becoming truncated tabbed navigation becomes almost completely useless. A user can specify to show the extender menu for the tab bar through the Appearance dialog box or they can simply use the Window panel, but those methods only alleviate the problem. Tab stacking is Opera’s attempt to solve the problem completely, but like older features it only really mitigates the problem because once you have your tab bar filled with tab stacks the behavior’s the same; the methods mentioned before that make tab navigation with numerous tabs easier to endure are necessary once again. However, it’s indeed a welcome addition.

Grouping tabs together — essentially what Tab Stacking does — isn’t anything new either. There’s been extensions for Firefox to accomplish it for ages, and Mozilla itself is trying to introduce a feature called Panorama (previously called Tab Candy) which groups tabs as well, although completely different from the way Opera is doing it with Opera 11. It groups them by treating grouped tabs as has been seen with windows in virtual desktop managers like Compiz or Apple’s Spaces; it’s not at all in my opinion that accessible for novice users because its use of a separate dashboard to manage the tab groups adds complexity to the simplicity of tabbed navigation. In that regard it’s vastly inferior to Opera’s Tab Stacking, but Panorama’s implementation does allow for far more scalability.

Tab stacking in Opera works by simply dragging tabs on top of each other, creating a collapsed group with the newly added tab as the one on top of the stack. Expanding and collapsing of the stack can be accomplished by clicking on the arrow to the right of the stack. Hovering over tab stacks shows previews of what the content is within them, just like regular tabs. Through the tab preview users are able to navigate easily between tabs in a stack without having to repeatedly expand and contract a tab stack. It’s really simple and easy.

More Secure Address Field

The Address Field with a Security Dropdown

Security is quite important, and Opera has always taken its users’ security seriously. However, with this new address field I believe they’ve gone a bit too far.

There’s always been a sense of redundancy in the address field because there’s a favicon on both the tab and its corresponding address field. Opera found a way to solve this redundancy in Opera 11. They’ve chosen to attach a security info button to the left side of the address bar where the favicon historically has been. In my opinion it’s a perfect place for it; it’s more accessible and useful in that location. Personally, I don’t like how it expands and contracts horizontally, but it still serves its purpose well.

In the way the application displays the address itself is where I believe Opera goes too far. I’m personally adverse to de-emphasizing everything other than the host, but as it is rather subtle it’s an unobtrusive security feature. Anyhow, completely hiding parts of the URL is just absolutely dumb.

Query strings are an essential part of the modern Web as nearly every Web application under the sun makes use of them internally, and many servers aren’t configured to hide them behind pretty URL’s. In other words, the URL is the page’s address, and information contained within the query string is necessary for identifying the page’s location. Hiding that information is akin to a postman’s looking at a mailing address devoid of a street number; it’d tell him which street to mail it but not which house to deliver it to. Furthermore, a user can visit twenty completely different pages in a particular Web application, all of which are currently using URL’s, yet the user’s address bar will never visibly change.

The Address Field with Show Full URL Toggled

Thankfully nearly all this ridiculous behavior can be removed by changing a single setting: opera:config#userprefs|showfullurl. The security button is thus reduced to a single icon, and the full URL is shown in the field; too bad the playing down of everything but the host remains. Oh well; you can’t win them all.

Visual Mouse Gestures

Visual Mouse Gesture Interface

Opera introduced mouse gestures on April 10, 2001 with the release of Opera 5.10. Until now it hasn’t changed much at all. Opera 11 has introduced a visual guide for users to let them know what exactly they are performing. As the user uses the feature more and becomes more familiar with it the guide will cease to display. This is a good thing in my opinion, but I find the guide overly large. It feels large especially on small screens. I’ve never been much of a user of mouse gestures because I always found them cumbersome. With gestures on I found that I would trigger them accidentally more than intentionally. That’s still the case today, so I’m not really the person to turn to for a thorough review of mouse gestures; I’ll try.

Nevertheless, I did notice that gestures themselves were more difficult to perform in Opera 11 than they were in previous versions. In fact they seem to be rather erratic. Even after adjusting the threshold it requires a lot of effort to get Opera to accept the gesture; this goes against what gestures are for. They should be methods to quickly perform actions, but if you can’t quickly complete a gesture to perform an action what’s the point of them?

Other New Features

Extensions, Tab Stacking, a more secure address field, and Visual Mouse Gestures aren’t the only new features. There’s Google search predictions and quite a lot of improvements and bug fixes to page rendering. Every single change between the last release of Opera and Opera 11 can be viewed in the changelogs:

  1. Mac
  2. Windows
  3. Unix

Assessment

I find Opera 11 to be a decent release. It’s definitely better than Opera 10.5 in my view, but there’s some glaring problems and inconsistencies in it. There’s been no advancement with Macintosh platform integration, and truth be told that aspect has deteriorated. There’s been some focus on the Macintosh skin, but it’s mostly been in the wrong places and in the wrong direction — most notably the new absolutely useless mail panel. It is, however, stable (at least on my platform), and it serves its purpose well despite the blatant problems it has. I’ve seen lots of situations where the Mac team has desired to show the upper echelons of the company that there’s a user base for the Mac so the company would devote more resources to it. That’s a rather backwards way to assess the problem. Opera’s not going to get many Mac users without first devoting resources to them; the same logic applies to all platforms. The last time that was done with much gusto was with Opera 10, and for the most part things have gone downhill from there in regards to Macintosh integration aside from a few minor improvements.