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Reviewing and comparing my experiences with Safari 5.1 and Opera 11.5.

For all the good things Safari 5.1 has added, I’ve moved back to using Opera.

Perverse? Perhaps.

Let me explain. When Safari hangs, it really hangs. More on this later.

In the meantime it’s a bake-off.

Tools ready?

Extra-large double chocolate muffin? Check.

Large hot chocolate drink? Check.

Hmm. That’s two lots of chocolate.

Whatever.

No formal review, this: I’m going to offer isolated points that I find distinguish the browsers.This is long – nip through the headers to get the quicker take. That’s why I’ve structured it like that. You can dip into the bits you want to read more and skip over the details of those that interest you less.

Maybe one of these is that feature you were hanging out for, or that feature that annoys the heck out of you.

First, the ‘necessary’ opening points

There’s never a ‘best’ browser, really. Just one that best suits the user’s needs and offers whatever it is that appeals to them.

Bear that in mind – I’m not you. YMMV. (Your mileage may vary.)

A hint in advance. If Opera can’t do something you think could be configurable, there’s a good chance it can and you just need to dig into the Preferences. If Safari can’t seem do something you think could be configurable, chances are it can’t, at least not without hacking the plist file. Safari is (intentionally) Preference-lite, it being aimed at the consumer end of things.

While both might be minor players in the desktop browser market, with Safari claiming a ~8% share and Opera ~2% in July 2011, they are both excellent web browsers. Both are available for both Windows and Mac OS X. I’m using Mac OS X 10.6.8.

I’m talking about user features here, not the rendering engines (what draw the pages). There are a lot differences and I’m not trying to cover them all.

(A little more detail. Apple’s WebKit rendering engine that powers Safari is also used in Google’s Chrome web browser among others. Opera has it’s own rendering engine. Opera have mobile and lite versions, for portable devices, that count for most of it users. It’s the desktop version that we’re looking at here.)

Opera has a long history of bringing new features to the market and some of the new additions to Safari are inspired (to my impression) by Opera. It’d make make you wonder why I’m going to Opera, at least temporarily. The additions to Safari have reminded me of Opera and with the Safari hangs being as annoying as they are I’ve given Opera another whirl over the past week or so. Here’s a breakdown.

Head-to-head

(Features found in both browsers, compared.)

Stability: Opera for the win, thus far. Sort-of.

This is subjective, as I haven’t done formal tests, but it’s the big one for me so let’s get it over with. If I stuff Opera with tabs the performance degrades, perhaps sooner than Safari might even, but  it degrades gracefully. When I delete a few tabs, performance picks up again.

If I do the same for Safari, all’s well then at some point it flips a switch and behaves truly awfully. No mere (non-swear) words can do it justice. The thing becomes a pig stuck in a mud wallow and brings everything else down with it. These hangs can take a very long time to resolve. Closing a few tabs doesn’t help. I can live with odd hang from an over-stressed app, but not the down time trying to extract myself from it and recover.

Having said this, Opera has just spontaneous abandoned ship on me a couple of times. Y’know, the sort of thing where you are left staring a your screen thinking, ’I swore I had a browser open.’ So perhaps it’s a matter of different poisons in the end. Wallowing or jumping.

(But see ‘Restarting a session’, below.)

Memory usage: Again, Opera for the win, thus far.

Again subjective without formal testing. My guess is that this and above are linked. When Safari hangs it seems to thrash the memory. Opera seems to be better behaved. In particular, when tabs are closed, system RAM seems to more readily be freed up.

Restarting a session: Opera, hands down.

To restart in Safari, re-open it, then bring the windows back up via the History menu. Opera will simply restart back into the state it was in. (Safari on Mac OS X 10.7, aka Lion, should do the same.)

Thing is, Opera doesn’t tie itself up in knots to the extent Safari does when trying to reload all the tabs. It’s a lot faster to come back.

You can configure Opera to start with a homepage or past saved session or other options in the Preferences if that’s your preference. (Mac OS X 10.7 (Lion) users are reporting that you have no option but to restart by it re-opening all that tabs.)

Scrolling the tabs: Either, or. Opera is more configurable, so I call the win to Opera.

When you’ve got lots of tabs open, it can be easier to scroll through them using the keyboard. Both have workable solutions, but you can configure how Opera is to work it’s way through the tabs. A tiny advantage with the Opera choice of keystrokes (alt-tab and shift-alt-tab) is such that you can do them using your left hand alone, leaving your right free for the trackpad or mouse. (Safari uses shift-command + left- or right-arrow.)

Saving files: Both lose.

This is a pet gripe of mine. When will the  browser vendors get it?

(Mini-rant.) It makes no sense whatsoever to hide the content that is being saved with an un-moveable Save As panel. Users want to be able to see the document in order that they can name it… This might seem trivial, but try naming documents based on contents that are hard to memorise, like the citation of a scientific paper. I use Firefox to get around this.

Coping with lots and lots of tabs. Now this is really interesting.

Firefox and Opera have both innovated on this recently. The Safari team have yet to join in on this one.

Firstly, without ‘stacking’ tabs:

Opera has ever-reducing tab widths, which is a mixed blessing. In truly skinny tabs, the title reduces to an ellipsis. Tab stacking comes to the rescue, though (see below). Tab preview also helps (covered in Opera-only section).

Safari stops at a fairly modest number of tabs and offers  a menu at the right-hand side to access the spill-over. In computer science jargon this is like overflow tables for hash tables. You have direct (random) access to the items shown on the window, but have to scroll through the excess.

Opera tab stacks: very nice.

A new feature in Opera is that you can stack tabs. Drag one tab on top of another and it’ll create a stack denoted by a larger tab and an arrow pointing to the right. Hover the mouse over the tab and it’ll show you the contents of all the tabs in the stack as smaller images (do the same for single tabs and you’ll see a tab preview too). Click on the right-pointing arrow and it’ll expand the stack in to a block of tabs. Click the now left-pointing around and it’ll reduce the block back to a stack.

It’s great for grouping tabs sharing a theme. There doesn’t appear to be a Preference to have a tab stack auto-instantiated when you new tabs opened from a page so you can create stack based on a starting page easily. Yet.

Moving tabs to another window: win/lose.

Safari is simpler. In Opera, you can only move the tabs to between or to the left of other tabs – you can’t just drop them on the tab bar. The reason is that Opera users can shift-drag a tab to the tab bar to create a link to the tab. The multiple use of tab bar means tab dragging is a little fussier. It’s not a big deal once you’ve got the idea, but I imagine It’ll stump a few newcomers from Safari-land. It confused me for a bit.

Privacy: I prefer the Opera approach.

It’s not a feature I use much. If I do I only want that for a while, when doing some banking operation for example, then return to usual use. In Opera you can open a Private Tab, do what you have to, then close it. In Safari you enter and exit private mode for all of the browser. Safari can take a considerable amount of time to restore when returning from private browsing if you have many tabs open. The Opera approach better fits typical usage to my mind.

Copying links: Safari knows how to do it

From Safari you can drag a link to copy it. In particular I use this feature to insert links–that is the active link with text pointing to a source–into the WordPress editor. You can’t do this in Opera (at least not in the standard installation).

Each to their own, Opera

(Opera-only features, or whinges mostly limited to Opera.)

Opera, selection of words: urrrgh.

Try this: double click in the middle of a word, then extend it using shift-command-right-arrow. On double clicking the word, the whole word is highlighted, as you’d expect (to indicate the word is selected) – but on extending the selection, only the portion to the right of where you clicked within the word is extended… Now that’s just not right.

Compounding this is that you can’t, as far as I can tell, select multiple words on a page (as opposed to within a text box) using the keyboard. Usually in Mac apps you can select a word, then use shift-command-right-arrow (or left, up, down) to extend the selection. Doesn’t seem to work on web page contents.

Opera, zooming: very flexible, but ’jaggy’.

Opera zooms continuously, giving you finer control over what zoom setting you want, but also making zooming a ’jaggy’ affair as elements lay themselves out in new positions while you zoom. I suspect there is no easy way of getting one without the other in this case.

Opera, zooming and the WP editor, not to mention the scroll bar: It’s possible that this is a bug with the editor, but either way – ugh.

What’s with text flying out of sight and a scroll bar that only goes half-way down the text box?

Time to try MarsEdit again, perhaps? (My previous trial of MarEdit some time ago proved so buggy, I tossed it.)

Opera, restoring (accidentally) closed tabs: a snap.

To my mind, a deceptively trivial feature well done. At the very right of the tab bar is a little icon resembling a greyed-out tab with cross (close tab) symbol on it. Click on it. You’ll open a list of tabs you recently closed. Chose one and it’ll be brought back to life, in the position in the tabs it was in, too.

A limitation is that this only restores tabs on the current window, but you wouldn’t expect anything else.

Safari offers to restore the last closed window, but trying to recover an accidentally closed  tab this way doesn’t always do what you’d hope it to do in my experience.

Opera: tab previews – nice.

Roll your mouse over a tab, wait a moment and a preview image of the tab will show. It’s a nice quick way of reminding you of the content of another tab without leaving your current tab.

Opera: spelling check is confused by smart apostrophes.

Opera thinks isn’t is not correctly spelt, but isn’t is. Look very closely: the second one has a straight apostrophe. Minor perhaps, but annoying. (I must update to a British dictionary, too; it thinks ‘spelt’ is misspelt. And ‘misspelt’ is misspelt too. Erm, you get it.)

Each to their own, Safari

(Safari-only features or whinges. I’d add more but this is already a really long post…)

A few more can be found under Web browsers: power tips for Safari users.

Safari, Reader: nice.

I’d like to be able to widen it sometimes to make  the most of the wider window and/or screen.

Safari, Reading List.

This is a new feature with version 5.1. It’s a shortcut in the sense that it let’s you quickly save tabs/pages for later reading while you’re browsing. You could do something similar using bookmarks, as I do, but it has a convenience factor.

Safari, New tab opening scheme: nice – copying Opera.

It’s nice to see this make it’s way to Safari. Basically if you command-click on a link to open a new tab, it opens adjacent to current one, rather than as the right-most tab. A nice side-effect of this, is that new tabs don’t ‘disappear’ into the spill-over tab list. (When there are more tabs that a window can hold in Safari, they fall under a menu you have to open and scroll down to access them.)

An advantage with the Opera implementation is that tab opening is configurable.

The other browsers

I’ve lost touch with Internet Explorer. I still haven’t found time to re-install my virtualisation software to enable me to run Windows concurrently with Max OS X (a nice feature in OS X, in my opinion). One day. Virtually (no pun intended…) the only thing I did with it was play the odd game – something I no longer have time for – or test web pages.

As for Firefox, for whatever reasons I rarely use it save for downloading research papers (see my comments about saving files).


Other computing articles in Code for life:

Web browsers (part 1)

Web browsers (part not-quite 2)

Web browsers: power tips for Safari users

Mac OS X dreams (see what I wished for in October 2010)

Google personalised searches and the ‘echo chamber’ effect?

LyX for free word-processing (version 2.0 is out; I still haven’t reviewed it.)

Book sales, frumpy readers, and mental rotation of book titles