Like Google Chrome, but Without the Google Chrome?

I don’t think it is much of an exaggeration to describe the Google ecosystem as polarizing, you either subscribe to it or find it creepy.

Google Chrome, undoubtedly part of the Google ecosystem, saw me leaving for Safari about a year ago. I used to like the app for various reasons but eventually the Google branding1 stand too much in my way and so I left.

At that time of me switching my preferred browser, the most prominent candidate to switch to was obvious: Safari2. And thankfully, Safari is arguably becoming better and better with every release3.

But this is not the time to praise the merits of Safari, this is the time to talk about another browser that has undergone major changes during the year 2013 and that, at least in my opinion, came out of this process better than ever: Opera.

Yes, that Opera. Opera is now, in contrast to previous versions, based on the Chromium project and thus shares a fair amount of code with Google Chrome.

Thankfully, the Google braaaaanding is entirely absent. So is a bundled Flash-player. Not that I miss it much, but at least this is another noticeable difference to Chrome.

The visual appearance of Opera reminds of the Chrome design, but there are lots of details that make the difference recognizable. The most prominent example may be the shape of browser tabs that is way less curvy than the tabs in Chrome.

Stuff that I like, and was still missing since the time I left Chrome, are the favicons and the pinned tabs4. Also, the toolbar icons are colored and easier distinguishable from each other than Safari’s gray soup.

Opera has also taken over the extension model from Chrome and this may be an explanation for the wealth of extensions available for the Browser that can hardly be explained by market share.

For me, browser extensions for certain services are indispensable. A browser that does not come with an extension to support 1Password, Instapaper, or Evernote in probably not worth a consideration. From that perspective, there is hardly anything to complain about Opera.

What is worth complaining about is the management of search engines. There is a limited amount of first-class citizen search engines5. These are called the “default” search engines and, bizarrely, only one of them can actually be made the default search engine.

Any other engine in the list can be used by prefixing the search query with a letter that corresponds to a given search engine. In other words, typing “y opera” passes the search query “opera” to Yahoo rather than Google.

To make a long story short, my beloved Duck Duck Go is not a first-class citizen. It is possible to add it to the list of search engines but you always have to use a prefix for passing queries to DuckDuckGo. This is sad.

What is even sadder is the total absence of a bookmarking mechanism that is worth mentioning. I’m not relying too much on bookmarks managed by a browser but the lack of a bookmark bar in the browser window means no bookmarklets and that is indeed a big deal.

Maybe this is because Opera just came out on the other side of a major architectural change that bookmarking has been considered a low priority issue that will be fixed later when all the more pressing stuff is already resolved.

All in all, Opera might be an interesting alternative were it not that the browser at some point requires the discrete GPU on my machine. Of course, this has something to do with opening a tab that contains an image that triggers the discrete GPU to kick in and burn my battery faster than I’d be willing to accept.

gfxCardStatus reports one “Opera Helper” as the culprit and the process won’t go away until the entire app is closed. I have never witacnessed anything similar while using Safari.

I may come back to check Opera from time to time but for now there is no open window for it to become the primary browser on my machine.

  1. Chrome will not let go an opportunity to ask the user to sign into a Google account. This can quickly become a nuisance if you don’t have one and don’t have any intention to sign up for it.

  2. No, don’t even think of Firefox.

  3. Arguably, there are still some aspects, mostly related to the visual design, that regularly make me cringe.

  4. Speaking of tabs, thankfully no one at Opera believes that tabs should take all the horizontal screen estate they can get.

  5. Google comes as the default search engine.