Safari hang-ups – try Opera

By Grant Jacobs 07/10/2013 3


(A suggestion and an informal review of the Opera WebKit* browser thus far. A trip away from science for one night!)

If you are finding Safari sucking up all the RAM in your computer, locking the machine up or crashing like nobody’s business you might like to try Opera’s new WebKit-based browser.

The short take

For Safari users: If you are finding Safari sucking up all the RAM in your computer, locking the machine up or crashing like a pain in some proverbial place you might like to try Opera’s new WebKit-based browser. The gain will be robustness at the expense of some user-interface weaknesses. It feels like a browser that is still a work in progress. With that in mind users should also check if Chrome might make a better grumpy Safari replacement for them.

For long-time Opera users: This is still Opera-lite, without the features that made Opera distinct from other web browsers.

opera-window
WebKit-based (Blink-based) Opera, version 16.

Crashy Safari (at least older versions of Safari on older versions of OS X)

Before the review proper, a little backstory on how I got to be checking out the Opera WebKit browser again. If you’re just after the review, scroll on down to the next section.

Anecdotal, I know, but on my OS X 10.6.8-based machine Safari (v5.1.10) is a nuisance. It needs to be baby-sat like a needy brat.

Even a quite modest number of tabs open will eventually gobble up all the available RAM and then lock up everything. It doesn’t take long either.

There’s worse. When on low RAM Safari will sometimes decide to bale out, tossing out all the web page content.** There’s a nasty surprise hidden in this: if you quit at this point Safari won’t be able to restore the tabs via the History menu option of reloading the tabs open in the previous session. So you want to first manually run through your tabs reloading them to bring them back to a ‘sane’ state.

All the babysitting wastes time. You get to repeatedly shut the thing down and bring it back up.

There are all sorts of solutions suggested on-line to fix this. You can hunt them down for yourself, but the sheer diversity of them is troubling. Some suggest looking for rouge plug-ins. Others cleaning out caches or deleting settings files. Clear out the browser history. And on it goes.

Mavericks, Apple’s newest release of OS X, is just around the corner – likely out later this month. Slated in it are improvements to memory usage, including that of Safari and I’ve little doubt these will be helpful. For some of us this will be a while coming yet. (Many prefer not to use x.0 (point-zero) releases of major software updates, waiting on reports for a point-release that seems stable without major issues that would affect them.)

Here’s alternative that I’ve been using exploring the past few days: use the Opera new WebKit-based browser.

Ignoring Safari’s memory problems (in older versions of Safari and OS X – more on this in a bit), it’s an opportunity to review how Opera’s WebKit browser is getting along.

Getting Opera

Opera-list-icon

As I’ve noted on this blog previously, Opera has moved to using a variant of Apple’s WebKit – the same core that displays the web pages in Safari and Chrome. You can download the browser from the Opera browser website. One tip: rolling over the list icon (shown to right) on the home page revels a list of pages you can visit.

Now for the good, the bad, …

The good

The main one I want to highlight for this review is that the Opera browser seems (so far, touch wood) very stable and handles well under low RAM with many tabs open. It does eventually slow down, but it hasn’t shown Safari’s nasty hangs. (It doesn’t throw web pages out when under stress either, but that’s because this an Opera feature.)

When you close tabs, memory seems to be released. This might seem an odd thing to praise, as you’d think it’s what any browser would do but in Safari, closing tabs appears to have no effect on memory usage. A little reading suggests this true of the older versions of Safari (e.g. 5.1.x) and OS X (e.g. 10.6.x) – hence my reference to OS X 10.6.8 earlier. The impression is that Safari is holding onto contents so it can snap back to them if you decide to revisit them. All good and well except that memory usage seems to add up far too fast.

Zotero works fine with Opera. That there is Zotero support for the Opera WebKit browser isn’t advertised on the Zotero web pages (yet), but there’s an extension for it and it works just fine.

Unlike Safari there is no second textbox for searching on the location bar, instead there is a single longer location textbox where web searching works straight in the location textbox.

The so-so

The top of windows look elegant but needs more thought regards usability.

Opera has elected to have the tab close button (‘x’) and the tab icon (favicon) as the same location depending on context. Click over a favicon on a tab that currently does not have focus and it’ll gain focus and it’s contents will be presented. The favicon will now show as the dismiss/close tab button. Click again and it’ll close the tab. I find the dual roles uncomfortable and find myself intentionally aiming to the right of the favicon to avoid it when I’m just trying to bring the tab to focus. It does have the advantage that there is a little more room on the tab for the title of the tab.

Speaking of which, the title of the current tab isn’t shown on the head of the window. This does save space, but I’d rather know what the tab is – easier to find things when you’ve got several windows open. (I’m pretty sure that this also against the web standards.)

If you click anywhere on the right-most part of the top of the window—the ‘new tab’ region—it’ll open a new tab. The catch here is that it means that’s one more region you want to avoid if you are trying to bring a window to the front. As noted under Some dislikes, below, the top of the window isn’t as easy to select as I’d like.

Stash holds onto locations for future reading, but the traditional Bookmarks approach is gone.

The missing

Reader. Safari has a built-in reader feature – it detects if a page (or series of pages) contains long text and offers to present it as plain long-format text. Of course the solution is to look to an extension. I haven’t tried these yet, but I imagine that one of those on offer works fine.

Tab groups (tab stacking) are gone. Having said that, while a good concept this was never implemented in a way that I was entirely happy with. In particularly the relationship between moving a tab and adding it to (form) a group was never clear.

Page preview on rolling over a tab is gone (although on the plus side this may mean a little leaner use of RAM).

Apparently these and other features are intended to make a come-back at some stage. If some come at the cost of RAM usage, I’ll hope there’s an option to disable it.

Along with the missing window / current tab title is a lack of a status bar. I find this useful to check where a link is aiming to take me before clicking on it, for example. Most browsers allow users to disable this should they not want it; that seems a better approach. (But, then again, your milage may vary as they say.)

Opera has a wiki page of progress on features. There are lists of what seems to ‘missing’ (in the author’s opinions; take careful note of the version you’re using, though, as features are being added).

The ugly

I don’t like that zooming the text in one tab affects all the other tabs in the window. It forces users to be constantly adjusting the scale back to previous settings.

Opera-tabs

Moving the windows is harder than it could be. There is no clear distinction between the top portion of the window, that you can drag the window with, until you move your mouse over the tab to bring up the tab borders (then move up to position the pointer to move the window).

Opera-tabs-2

One compromise is to either drag the window using a position above the currently front-most tab which has the tab borders displayed, which provides a target you can aim at, or to drag the border of the location bar. The latter can be hidden behind other windows, however. Personally, I’d like Opera introduce option to offer a sightly different colour to the top portion of the window (as opposed to the tabs).

There is a similar, but less important, issue in double-clicking the top of the window—which should have the same effect as clicking on the minimise (‘-’) button but seems to only work in the left-most portion of the window holding the ‘traffic lights’.

A wider dislike is the lack of options. The pre-WebKit Opera was highly configurable. I can sort-of forgive this in an on-going effort but it’d be nice to make the browser more configurable. Some of the things I’ve pointed to could be resolved through configuration options so that users might adjust the presentation to better suit their use.

Verdict?

Useful as a replacement for a tantrum-throwing Safari for those Safari users who’ve had enough of it. (I’ll leave aside whether Chrome is a better alternative.) Like Safari it’s lean, with few unusual features or options to tinker with.

Opera fans will want the extra features that distinguished Opera back. A tall order, perhaps, but that’s fans for you.

I would like to see some serious thought put into making the top of the window more practicable, ideally with user-settable options to govern this (and omissions such as the title bar and status bar).

Overall it feels like it’s still a work in progress and I wonder if it’s enough progress six months down the track. Pragmatic users who value robustness more that particular features may find it useful; they might want to compare this to Chrome, however.

Footnotes

Reviewed using Opera 16 using no plug-ins in either Safari or Opera other than the Zotero plug-in, which is essential to me.

My informal test had 70 tabs open; this isn’t that startling, especially if you bear in mind that the browser has ~3Gb of RAM to play within.

* Opera really use Blink, a WebKit fork. I’m calling it WebKit to make the common origin clearer for those that don’t want to dive into the history.

** This has always seemed a strange ‘solution’ to me, tantamount to admitting serious internal issues in Safari.


Other posts on Code for life:

Web browser news: Opera to drop Presto and move to WebKit

Something sassy (the days of big bold hardware)

Sinclair ZX envy

Consumer brain-computer interface

Safari v Opera (the pre-WebKit version of Opera)


3 Responses to “Safari hang-ups – try Opera”

  • Thanks for the link to my article on Opera 15! While the features I noted were actually removed from Opera 12 (so there’s not really any opinion there), I must admit to being a bit bitter about all my favourite features being removed. Hopefully Opera’s new “rapid versioning” will address some of these annoyances quickly so I’ll actually resume using the current version again!

  • OS X 10.9 (aka ‘Mavericks’) is now available, free of charge as a download from Apple’s website. Amongst the features are some that should address (however much of) Safari’s memory issues. I won’t be an early adopter – I think. I very rarely take the .0 releases of major updates, waiting on reports from others first. (You should determine this for yourself, but general word from those who’ve looked a pre-release versions seems good.)

  • John Siracusa has a page on Safari in his OS X 10.9 review on ArsTechnica, which should give readers some idea of what has been done:

    http://arstechnica.com/apple/2013/10/os-x-10-9/4/

    (There is also some talk of memory compression being put to use in Safari, too; this might be explained somewhere else in his review. It may be that Safari leans on a system feature so it’s not specifically a Safari thing.)

    If you’re wanting a review of OS X 10.9, it’s John ‘usual’ long effort – all 24 pages of it.