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.
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 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…
With a few builds under its belt now, it’s clear that the development builds of Google Chrome 5 are resuming that browser’s course of performance improvement at a rate, on our index, of about half a point per month. Our recent round of Windows 7-based browser tests show higher numbers across the board for another reason: Patch Tuesday has slowed down IE7 in Vista, our index browser, while giving a slight boost to IE8 in Win7.
So the fact that the latest stable build of Google Chrome 4 surged from under 20 to well over 21 on our index, is only partly due to a speed improvement. What’s important with regard to these index figures is relative performance, and the bar graph will help you better visualize how well one browser compares with another.
The Opera 10.2 alpha track is no longer on our graph, because it’s no longer on Opera Software’s roadmap. That’s probably a good thing, because 10.2 was the slowest browser in the line-up after IE8. The gulf between the current stable Opera 10.1 and the new 10.5 beta is unprecedented: a 370% performance improvement, mostly reflecting massively improved computational performance, and somewhat improved rendering performance.
In our tests, the 10.5 pre-alpha suffered from unexplained poor performance in rendering conventional HTML tables — those tools that old Web pages used to divide and conquer pages, prior to the advent of CSS. That problem completely not only disappeared in the 10.5 beta, it blows away every other browser in the field in this department. On Win7, 10.5 scores a 9.19 — 919% the performance of IE7 in Vista — followed closely behind by an 8.80 score from the latest stable Safari 4, and 8.10 from Opera 10.1 (the opera brand has typically performed well on this test).
And Opera’s graphics rendering importance is unbelievable: Chrome 4 had us already whistling on the Canvas geography map rendering test, with a 31.75 score. Opera 10.5 Beta 1 scores a 63.50 on that same test.
Where Chrome 5 still holds an edge, including at times over its stable predecessor, is in ordinary page rendering. Chrome 5 scores an 11.49 in the Nontroppo CSS rendering battery, while Chrome 4 surpasses that with 12.05; Opera 10.5 Beta 1 scores 7.44 there. In the standard page load test from Nontroppo, Chrome 5 posts a staggering 16.27. Opera 10.5 is in second place on that scale, but still way behind at 9.99. That Chrome 5 score was so staggering, we tested several times to confirm it.
If Chrome 5 were to improve its handling of plotting graphics to the Canvas element of modern HTML, before Opera 10.5 improves its handling of everyday rendering, Opera could be in trouble. It’s a tenuous situation at present for Opera, but let’s face facts: It’s the nicest tenuous situation that anyone at Opera Software last year could have asked for.
If you’re one of those long-time Betanews commenters who has spent the last two years saying, look out guys, Opera is on a comeback…you have to be smiling now.