diary of a mad
househusband

05 april 2000

 

 relapse of a browser junkie, ii: opera 4

Hi... my name is John. As you know, I'm a browser junkie. I just got a new browser-- but it's a new version of one I already had. It's just a replacement! Isn't that OK? I mean, that doesn't mean I've backslid, or fallen off the wagon, does it? Besides, this browser isn't free, and I've already paid for it. I'm just getting my money's worth, see?

I guess I'd better explain:

I've been a fan of the Opera browser since I first tried v2.12-- when? 1997? I was initially impressed by its speed, its user customization features, and perhaps most of all by the fact that the download fit on a floppy disk (I loved telling people that!). As do all browsers, every version has had quirks and foibles I disliked, but they grew fewer with each iteration. Every new version offered new things to like. It never became my principal browser, though, because it always lagged the Big Two in some aspects of Web page rendering technology.

One such area was Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Before CSS, Web pages had to be formatted using HTML (HyperText Markup Language)-- the instructions which tell browsers how to lay out a page. HTML allows only limited control over the appearance of a page, and is horribly inefficient: It's not uncommon for more than half of a Web page to be devoted to formatting instructions. You don't see them (though you see their effect), but you have to wait for them to download. Worse still, many designers were forced to use what Terry Sullivan calls pictures of words in order for their designs to appear reasonably intact in your browser. These factors have made most Web pages much larger than necessary, and have contributed mightily to the World Wide Wait.

Changing the appearance of even a small site made of such pages is a nightmare, because each formatting instruction on each page has to be changed individually.

CSS, on the other hand, allows the Web site designer to specify the layouts of hundreds, thousands, any number of pages from a single style sheet, with a much finer degree of control than HTML allows. Appearance changes thus can be practically instantaneous. Not surprisingly, Webmasters, Web site designer, and even humble Web site perpetrators like myself hungered for this control.

Microsoft and Netscape responded in typical fashion: Internet Explorer 3 included very limited CSS support; IE 4 and Netscape 4 incorporated more extensive but badly broken CSS implementations. Since they were deficient in different ways, only a narrow subset of CSS was actually useful. It was better than nothing, but not much.

About a year and a half ago, Opera Software lured Håkon Wium Lie away from his position as Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) Lead at the World Wide Web Consortium, and installed him as Opera's Chief Technology Officer. That caught the attention of the Web design world: Clearly, Opera was serious about CSS.

Within the next few months, Microsoft introduced Internet Explorer 5, with its first acceptable CSS implementation-- and Opera released 3.5, with its first ever CSS implementation, which was better than IE's. (See it for yourself, if you like, on the webreview.com compatibility chart)

Opera 3.5 was rather buggy, but 3.51 soon fixed most of the bugs. I began using it almost exclusively, resorting to other browsers only to check my Web pages. Versions 3.6, 3.61, and 3.62 brought more refinements. But CSS support wasn't perfect, and there were other page rendering flaws; I was waiting for the Big 4.0, hoping it would have the perfect CSS implementation.

I was gonna wait for the final release, and I successfully ignored the release of Beta 1 last month. But glowing reports about Beta 2, and the list of new features, turned the temptation up to a level I couldn't resist, and I clicked the download link.

The download is now up to 1.55 MB; it won't fit on a floppy any more (sob!). But, hey:

This browser kicks Microsoft's butt harder than Judge Jackson! This is the fastest graphical browser I've ever seen! It loads pages as quickly as the text-only Lynx browser! I have no doubt that by the time Opera is willing to accept my upgrade fee, after the release of the full version, this will again be my principal browser.

It took me only about ten seconds to find the first bug, and a few hours of surfing have turned up a couple more, but I see they're already on the bug list, so I'm confident they'll be fixed soon. Meanwhile, I fell in love with a new feature: Hitting the F11 key toggles a full-screen display of the Web page. IE 5 has something close, but there's still a small control bar at the top of the screen. The Opera full-screen display is just that-- the Web page only, with no controls at all. This is a splendid way to read my favorite message board, which is cluttered enough without the addition of unneeded browser controls. Unfortunately, the full-screen display currently has a bug which prevents it from reading the Cascading Style Sheet for the message board.

About that first bug I found: I first tested the browser on this site, and immediately noticed that the site navigation links at the bottom and right of the screen aren't bold like they're supposed to be.

Wouldn't you know that the only flaws in Opera 4.0B2 I've found so far are CSS failures?

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