The Opera Web browser has been first at a lot of things, but market share has not been one of them. Its Oslo, Norway, developers have had...

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WASHINGTON — The Opera Web browser has been first at a lot of things, but market share has not been one of them. Its Oslo, Norway, developers have had a great track record introducing such innovations as tabbed browsing, but many of these ideas have eventually shown up in other programs that wound up drawing more users.


The fact that Opera isn’t a fully free download — either you pay $39 or you must browse with some banner ads on display at the top of its window — is one reason.


Another is the complexity of this application, which has strained to accommodate every imaginable feature and command.


Opera’s new 8.0 release doesn’t change the first problem, but it does take a stab at addressing the second one. It doesn’t finish that job; that shortfall, the lack of a few useful features and a couple of bugs still hold it back.


The best news about Opera 8 is that its interface designers learned to say “no.”


Opera 8 (versions are available at www.opera.com for Windows 95 or newer, Mac OS X 10.2, Linux, FreeBSD and Solaris) presents a considerably simpler facade, scrubbed of much of the old version’s encrustation of toolbar icons and menu items.


Because more of its default settings make sense — Opera now blocks pop-up ads automatically — there’s also less need to visit the complicated parts lurking behind the cleaner front end.


Like earlier releases, Opera is small and fast, a sports car next to the overloaded minivan that is Internet Explorer. Its Windows installer is just 3.59 megabytes, it launches in a second or two and it takes up less memory than any other browser I’ve tried.


Like such IE competitors as Firefox, Mozilla, Netscape and Safari, Opera provides tabbed browsing, in which you open multiple Web pages in a single window, switching from one to another by clicking on a lineup of tab icons. But it adds a few wrinkles to this feature, not all of which function well.


Opera lets you drag pages’ tabs back and forth to change their order, instead of showing them only in the order they were opened.


A trash-can icon offers access to recently closed pages and blocked pop-ups; closing a tab by mistake doesn’t send you scurrying to the history list to find the page you just lost.


Opera also forces every link to open inside the same window, which isn’t such a hot idea. If Opera encounters a page formatted to open as a separate window (a common occurrence), it will honor that request but awkwardly imprison this new floating page inside its own window.



Pruning shears, please

Opera’s interface also needs some further pruning. The “tile” and “cascade” commands, which crudely shrink or overlap open pages to display all at once, add nothing to the standard tabbed view.


And the “User mode” display option, which can present a page as it might have looked on a computer 20 years ago, is cute but not worth a toolbar icon.


Opera’s security has been one of its bigger advantages, keeping it safe from browser hijacking attempts. Opera 8 adds a defense against “phishing” scams similar to Firefox’s: If a site uses encryption to secure transactions conducted there — as all real financial sites do, unlike the phony ones set up by phishers — Opera will add a gold highlight to the address bar.


Opera will also display the name of the site as listed on its security certificate, if available.


Other conveniences aren’t new but still worth noting. Opera’s “Wand” password-storage system allows the entry of saved logins with just a tap of the Control and Enter keys.


“Mouse gestures” let you execute some commands by holding down a mouse button and moving the mouse.


The page-zoom feature magnifies both text and graphics by as much as 1,000 percent.


“Saved sessions” restart Opera with the same lineup of open pages as before — but this option isn’t enabled by default.



Behind the times

In many other respects, however, Opera lags behind the times. Its “Find” command is far less useful than Firefox’s equivalent, it can’t remember most items typed into Web forms, and it doesn’t offer to import other browsers’ bookmarks and settings when you first run it.


Opera also sometimes has problems displaying sites that appear and function properly in Firefox and Safari — for example, the ESPN.com home page and a listing of price plans at Nextel’s site.


It also can’t show Portable Document Format (PDF) files inline unless you copy a support file from the Adobe Reader directory to Opera’s own, a thoroughly lame workaround.


Despite Opera’s compact size, it also includes an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news reader, an e-mail component, a Usenet newsgroup reader and an Internet Relay Chat client. Most of these other parts are unremarkable (the RSS reader) or irrelevant to most (the newsgroup and IRC functions).


Opera’s mail software, however, includes a clever system of automatic filters and user-created tags and labels. For example, Opera groups a mailing list’s messages in its own folder for you.


But this thoughtful organization is undone by such glitches as the mail component’s fumbling interaction with some IMAP (Internet mail access protocol) accounts, its puzzling lack of standard keyboard shortcuts and the absence of any way to shift address books from rival programs.



Nothing comes easy

Should you like Opera enough to make it your default browser, Opera can make that harder than necessary. This browser happily took over the job of opening Web links on two Windows XP systems but twice failed to move itself into the spot on the Start Menu reserved for the default browser.


That’s a sign of sloppy programming. So is Opera failing to appear as a Web and e-mail program in the Set Program Access and Defaults control panel.


If Opera were the only alternative to Internet Explorer in Windows, it would be an easy recommendation over IE. But the free, open-source Firefox (www.mozilla.org) offers most of Opera’s browsing luxuries, plus a few that Opera leaves out.


Firefox also doesn’t require choosing between paying $39 or accepting the presence of either a large graphical banner ad or text-only ads served up by Google to match the sites you view.


So while Opera is more competitive than before, it beats its rivals in only a couple of cases. One is if you’ve got an older machine that runs other browsers too slowly. Another is if your eyesight is impaired enough to benefit from Opera’s magnification feature.


Otherwise, stick to Firefox; given that program’s rapid pace of development, you just might wind up getting some of Opera’s better features before long anyway.