Opera, the True Underdog Browser, Releases Version 12

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Harry McCracken /

When people refer to the five major web browsers, they’re talking about Internet Explorer, Chrome, Firefox, Safari and Opera. With under two percent market share according to most sources, Opera is by far the least major of the majors, if you’re talking about sheer usage. The venerable Norwegian browser is, however, a nice product with lots of features, and one that’s frequently among the first to add new stuff.

Today, it’s releasing Opera 12, a new version for Windows, OS X and Linux. There are no radical changes that would prompt vast numbers of happy users of other browsers to switch. (Which is not a surprise: The last game-changing innovation in browsing was probably Chrome’s minimalistic emphasis on speed when it debuted back in 2008.) But there are some meaningful new features, such as:

  • Support for Do Not Track, the standard that lets you prevent advertising networks and other companies from monitoring your wanderings around the web.
  • Widgets that let the little web-page previews in Opera’s Speed Dial page provide dynamic content–for instance, there’s a Gmail one which shows the most recent messages you’ve received. (This replaces Opera’s stand-alone widgets, which the company is discontinuing.)
  • Support for access to webcams, without requiring the use of Flash. (This will only get interesting when web-based services such as video chat apps support it, which they surely will once all major browsers are on board.)
  • Themes that let you add wallpaper-type backgrounds to the browser frame with a couple of clicks.
  • “Experimental” support for hardware-accelerated graphics. (It’s turned off by default, and is tricky to enable–Opera says that it may actually slow things down in some cases.)
  • Opera says that version 12 is faster than previous editions. And it’s turning off Opera Unite, a web-server-inside-the-browser which the company once over-optimistically said was going to change the web forever.

The browser also retains some unique features–most notably its Opera Turbo mode, which compresses web pages on the server side so they load more quickly over sluggish Internet connections.

Really, the only argument against giving Opera 12 a test drive is that not every company bothers to ensure that its wares are Opera-friendly, which leads to some web sites and services behaving strangely in it. (For instance, HipChat, a workgroup chat service we use here at TIME, mysteriously removes the spacing after all commas.)

That said, using the new version is reminding me of all the things I like about Opera. I’m going to keep on using it as my main browser, at least for a while–most often, I use Safari on Macs and Chrome on PCs–and will let you know if I have further thoughts.

MORE ON BROWSERS: I recently explained why the “news” that Chrome is now the web’s biggest browser isn’t actually true.