Finally an updated Opera browser that’s ready for prime time with it’s light and efficient footprint, faster performance and improved privacy functions.
Opera has a long history of creating innovation in Web browsers. In fact, several things we take for granted in our Web experience originated in the Norwegian-built browser, including a tabbed interface, popup blockers, and integrated search. After loading up on and subsequently stripping itself of unique features, Opera has returned to innovating and differentiating itself, with built-in ad-blocking, pop-out video, a battery saver, a turbo compression scheme, and now even a free built-in virtual private network (or VPN) that’s as fast as many premium services. The company behind Opera recently agreed to be acquired by a Chinese consortium that we hope continues the company’s tradition of innovation, strong privacy features, and independence continues.
Opera installation is as snappy as that of the other current browsers: You download a very small stub installer, which then installs and downloads the full browser in no time flat. Installation options let you choose from an impressive 50-plus languages. On first run, a dialog asks if you want Opera to be your default Web browser. But the browser defaults to sending usage and crash data to Opera’s servers, which I’d prefer to be opt-in. Opera runs on Windows XP through Windows 10, Mac OS X 10.7 Lion or later, and five popular Linux distributions. It’s the last major browser to still support XP with security updates. It’s a 32-bit application—no 64-bit version yet—and a fresh installation took up 136MB on my hard drive, compared with 406MB for Google Chrome and 92MB for Mozilla Firefox.
Opera is pleasing to the eye, with square tabs that have slightly rounded corners, sort of a middle ground between Internet Explorer and Microsoft Edge‘s perfectly square tabs and Firefox’s very round ones. The background tabs recede, making it very clear which you’re viewing. The browser’s tab-preview feature is accessible from a down-pointing chevron at the right of the title bar. Click on this, and you’ll see a drop-down listing all your tabs, and hovering the cursor over any of them displays a preview of the site in the middle of the browser window. I still prefer the old Opera tab previews that showed up as thumbnails when you hovered the mouse cursor over the actual tabs at the top of the program window, as Edge’s work.
One real differentiator of the Opera interface now is its Speed Dial home page of site tiles. Another is the menu button that lives up in the top-left edge of the browser instead of being a standard 3-line hamburger menu on the right, like those in current versions of all other major browsers. Also, in Opera the browser doesn’t close when you close the last tab. Firefox offers an option for this, but like the rest, when you close that last tab, the Firefox browser is shut down by default.
Two interface features missing in Opera, but present in Firefox and Edge, are a reading mode and a social sharing button. For today’s webpages cluttered with ads and other jumbles of content like auto-play videos and pop-over on-page ads, I consider a reading mode essential. The same can be said for easy sharing to social networks—one of the primary activities on today’s Web.
Opera handles bookmarks differently from the competition, too. Although the Speed Dial is sort of a bookmark feature, the actual bookmark feature shows a grid of thumbnails for all your bookmarked sites. You can go to town creating as many folders and subfolders as you like, and of course the browser imports bookmarks from the other major browsers.
Video Pop Out. Opera’s newish video pop-out tool lets you play video in a separate desktop window—perfect for watching PCMag’s daily Random Access video show. while continuing to work on your PC. When a video is playing on a page, you’ll see a little double-boxed arrow; tap this, and the video will detach and play in a resizable window on the desktop. The on-page video still plays, in case you want to see it on the page. Unfortunately, pop-out didn’t work for live streaming Facebook video.
Speed Dial. Perhaps the most distinctive part of the Opera interface, Speed Dial is at least as convenient and customizable as the home screen of a smartphone: You can add tiles, combine them in groups, and drag them where you want them. One thing you can’t do, unfortunately, is change the page’s search box provider, Google—heck, even Chrome lets you Bing-ify the browser’s new tab page!
Not only can Speed Dial tiles serve as big, touch-friendly links to sites, but you can also install Speed Dial Apps from Opera’s Extensions gallery. Things like weather, email, and news—the very things that make sense for the Windows Start menu’s Live Tiles—are available for this browser’s home page. One thing I wish were possible with Speed Dial is something most other browsers these days have—automatically generated tiles for your most visited sites. A newer Speed Dial capability is a news feed of current stories, like Edge offers. You can check off topics of interest for some customization.
Opera extensions don’t require a browser restart, which I like. Furthermore, unlike Google Chrome, Opera lets you sort its extension gallery by popularity and includes a Privacy & Security category. The number of extensions you can choose from is limited compared with Chrome and Firefox’s extensive catalogs, but the big ones most people would want—LastPass, Ghostery, AdBlock, and the like—are there, along with Opera’s own VPN offering, SurfEasy, which Opera claims will be a free, included part of the browser in future releases.
Like Firefox and Chrome, Opera lets you dress up the browser’s interface with Themes, but these are a far cry from the Opera themes of yesteryear. The current iterations only affect the background for your Speed Dial new-tab page. Previous versions of Opera Themes let you tweak everything, including interface objects like buttons and text. Even Firefox and Chrome let you change the visuals behind the program borders.
Mouse Gestures. One unique capability Opera retains from its heyday is the mouse gesture. With these, you can maneuver around and among webpages with combinations of left and right clicks and swipes, saving you from having to move the pointer all the way up to an arrow. For example, you can open a new tab simply by holding the right mouse button down and swiping down. You can also go back and forward in navigation by dragging left and right. The gestures work very quickly and can easily speed up your browsing if they become habits.
Built-In Ad Blocking
It’s not on by default—you have to go in and turn it on in Settings—but Opera claims its built-in ad blocker not only de-clutters webpages, but speeds up browsing and reduces third-party tracking of your online perambulations. As with most of these tools, you can set exception sites for which you don’t want ads blocked (I hope PCMag.com will be one of yours), and load a custom block list. When I tried the blocker, though, I still saw plenty of display ads: It turns out that Opera automatically unblocks several major sources of ads and doesn’t allow you to block them. Nevertheless, clicking on the ad blocker’s shield icon in the address bar indicated that 74 ads had been blocked. Unlike the popular AdBlock extension, Opera doesn’t let you select ads you want blocked on a page.
As far as faster page loading, I didn’t really notice it, though I was on a fast PC and connection. The same shield icon used by the built-in ad blocker includes a speed testing option. When I used this on PCMag.com, on my first test I only saw a 3 percent improvement, from 4.21 seconds to 4.08 seconds, but later saw as much as 41 percent speedup, and on CNN I saw a 51 percent improvement, though the results on multiple tests were very inconsistent.
If you browse the Web at a public Wi-Fi network, attackers can steal your data or direct you to bogus websites, and advertisers and government agencies can track you. These are just a couple of the security concerns that a VPN can protect you from, but a VPN can also spoof your location, unlocking geographically blocked content like that from Netflix or MLB.TV. The latest version of Opera has VPN capability built right in—the only browser that can make that claim.
Unlike every other VPN we’ve reviewed at PCMag, the Opera VPN requires no setup at all. It’s already in your browser, you just have to enable it in Settings. Once it’s enabled, your VPN status appears just to the left of the address bar. It’s super simple, but we would like it if Opera prompted you to enable the VPN after you install the browser.
While free VPN services are available, most cost between $5 and $10 a month. Opera’s VPN, however, is entirely free, forever. It’s a fantastic deal. You can install Opera on as many devices as you like and take advantage of VPN on each. Most VPN services limit you to five simultaneous connections. Opera also offers a free, standalone VPN app for iPhone and Android, so your mobile devices can receive the same benefit.
The interface is simple. You just click the VPN button, and a window appears where you can select from any of the service’s five server locations: Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore, and the United States. The default option simply chooses the fastest, best performing server, which is probably the closest to you. We’re glad to see China included in the list, but five locations is well below what we see in Editors’ Choice winner Private Internet Access, which offers thousands of servers across hundreds of locations around the world. NordVPN, another Editor’s’ Choice winner, has specialized servers for high-speed video streaming, access to the Tor anonymization network, and even P2P file sharing.
When you switch OperaVPN on, only your browser data is sent through the VPN’s encrypted tunnel. Any data being sent from your computer by other apps is sent over the Internet normally. This does mean that some of your data is potentially exposed, but it protects the most important information. It also means that other applications, like video games or streaming video services outside your browser, won’t be slowed down. Many VPN services, such as KeepSolid VPN Unlimited, provide browser plugins that work like Opera’s VPN.
Speaking of slowing down, using a VPN usually means your Internet experience is degraded. We first looked at a scenario where you would connect to a very distant VPN server. We used Ookla’s Speedtest.net benchmark to simulate traffic between Fairbanks, Alaska and the Opera VPN server in Shanghai. (Ookla is owned by PCMag’s publisher Ziff Davis.)
In our Ookla tests, we found that the Opera VPN increased latency by 288.9 percent, which is average for VPNs in this test. It decreased download speeds by only 8.6 percent, making it one of the best performing VPNs we’ve yet tested (although PureVPN actually made download speeds 166.6 percent faster). Finally, it only decreased upload speeds by just 6.8 percent, which is the best score we have yet seen in this test.
If you use the default option, you’re likely to be connected to a closer, faster server. To test this, we use the Speedof.me benchmark test.
Our Speedof.me testing showed that the Opera VPN service increased latency by 243 percent, which is disappointingly high. Other VPN services tested in the 13-20 percent range. Opera VPN redeemed itself in the download test, where it reduced download speeds by only 1.2 percent—the best score we’ve yet seen in this test. It also has minimal impact on upload speeds, which it slowed by only 1.2 percent.
We should note that we saw some unusual behavior when using the Opera VPN that make it hard to compare with the other services. For one thing, we usually test VPN services using Internet Explorer. For another, the Opera representatives told us that the company’s VPN deactivates certain plugins like Flash and WebRTC—which is a good thing. Under the hood, the VPN uses AES-256 encryption and the open-source OpenVPN to ensure your data is secure.
The integrated Opera VPN may not be the most capable or feature-rich VPN service. For that, you’ll want to look at Editors’ Choice winners NordVPN, Private Internet Access, and KeepSolid VPN Unlimited. But Opera’s VPN is an excellent, easy to use, and free service. It’s a welcome addition to Opera, and we hope other browsers will follow the company’s example of securing their users’ data.
Another unique Opera tool, for those who don’t have fast broadband Internet connections, is Turbo Mode. It takes advantage of the same caching and page compression service used by Opera’s popular mobile browser, Opera Mini. I used Opera’s Developer Tools’ Network tab to see how much website content was trimmed by Turbo. Without Turbo, PCMag.com loaded 2MB of data, but with Turbo turned on, that was trimmed to 1.6MB. Note that Turbo doesn’t help with encrypted sites like banking sites, which is probably for the best.
Like Firefox and Chrome, Opera can sync your browsing, including bookmarks, settings, history, open tabs, and passwords. One syncing option is missing, though: extensions. To enable syncing, you can tap the circular user icon at top right, and then you create and sign into an Opera account. From the same user button, you can manually initiate a sync. The syncing is available on all of Opera’s mobile browser apps, including Opera Mini. Look for more syncing in the future of this browser, though: Opera’s webpage on syncing says, “More sync functionality is coming to mobile soon. Stay tuned!”
Since Opera is really now just Chrome underneath, it will play well with pretty much any site that Google’s browser can handle. Unfortunately, some sites still report that it’s not compatible. For example, two bank sites I navigated to reported that my browser might not display the site correctly. Of course that’s utter nonsense. One thing Opera does lack, however, is Chrome’s (and Edge’s) built-in support for Flash content. I know that the world is supposed to be moving away from Flash, but tell that to all the sites that still use it.
For the same reason, Opera does nearly as well as Chrome on Niels Leenheer’s HTML5Test website (see Performance table, below). This tests for Google’s own set of emerging standards and W3C HTML5 recommended ones. The test should be taken with a grain of salt, in that it doesn’t actually test whether the functions are correctly implemented, just that the browser acknowledges the function calls.
I tested on a Surface Pro 4 with a Core i5-6300U CPU and 8GB RAM, clearing all browser’s caches, quitting all other apps, and removing all extensions. I kept the tablet PC plugged in and ran each test five times, threw out the highest and lowest results, and averaged the rest.
Unity WebGL Benchmark. WebGL allows game-level graphics inside a webpage, so I check performance of this with the Unity WebGL Benchmark. Unity WebGL is a great-looking benchmark that runs through visually demanding Mandelbrot sets, cryptography, and gaming physics scenarios, both 2D and 3D. One test is adorably named, “Instantating[sic] and destroying a lot of Teddy bears.” Edge and Firefox have a big lead over Chrome and Opera on this one—not surprising because the benchmark uses asm.js, which has better support in Firefox and Edge.
Memory Use. I tested browsers’ RAM footprint by loading 10 media-rich websites into all the browsers at the same time and add up their processes’ Memory entries in Task Manager. I had to make sure the sites actually loaded, because some browsers like to save you resources by not loading background tabs, Chrome and Opera in particular showed a lot of empty tabs when I first clicked on them. Opera again puts up a respectable second place on this one. Firefox wins, nearly halving Chrome’s memory usage, while Edge trails by a surprising margin in this test.
Battery Drain. In light of all the controversy over Chrome being a drain on laptop batteries, I ran PCMag’s battery rundown test. In this I charged the battery full, unplugged and played a song on SoundCloud in an endless loop, having connected the audio output to a plugged-in PC recording the sound in Audacity. The browsers were loaded with the same 10 media-heavy websites. I also kept the screen brightness at maximum, which helps account for the short time results I saw. The laptop I was using was an Acer Aspire E1-470P, whose battery was no great shakes to start with.
Opera, too, has made noise about its thrifty battery usage. For the comparison chart, I tested it at default settings, but also ran a test using its Battery Saver mode. In this mode, Opera lasted 2 hours and 7 minutes, compared with Firefox’s 1 hour and 55 minutes. Chrome lasted just 1 hour and 18 minutes, giving credence to the criticisms of it as a battery hog. Without battery saving mode enabled, Opera lasted 1 hour and 36 minutes, and Edge lasted 1 hour and 32 minutes. For reference, with no browser running, the laptop’s battery lasted 2 hours and 49 minutes. My methodology admittedly isn’t quite perfect, since I don’t simulate user interactions, but most of the sites loaded use auto-refresh to load new content, so that can be thought of as simulating active navigation.
Privacy and Security
Since Opera shares Chrome’s underlying code, it also shares basic security characteristics, such as sandboxing to prevent website code from entering other parts of your system. Its ad-blocking is a privacy booster, though, and the company has acquired the SurfEasy VPN software and service.
The browser does have a private mode, in which history, cache, and cookies aren’t saved upon exit, but this falls short of Firefox’s tracking protection in private mode. Like other browsers, Opera also includes fraud and malware protections intended to block malicious sites.
Is Opera for You?
Opera, the individualist’s browser, remains a fine choice. Compatibility isn’t an issue, since it uses Chrome’s underlying page-rendering code, which is compatible with just about everything. If you need to conserve every last kilobyte of data throughput, Opera’s Turbo mode is your friend, as is its battery saver mode. Many will also appreciate its built-in ad blocker, video popup feature, Speed Dial start tab, and particularly its privacy- and security-enhancing VPN feature.
Block ads to make pages load faster
If you block ads, webpages will load faster and look cleaner. By blocking ads, you also block the source of many tracking cookies.
To block ads:
- From the main menu, select Settings.
- Click Privacy & security on the sidebar.
- Under Block ads, tick the Block ads and surf the web up to three times faster checkbox.
Click the Manage Exceptions button to set site-specific preferences. By default, a few sites are not blocked.
When ad blocking is enabled, you will see a badge in the combined search and address bar. Click on the badge for more information, including the number of blocked ads, a speed test, and a site-specific switch for unblocking ads.
Stay secure with private browsing
Private browsing ensures that your internet history and activity are removed as soon as you close all private windows.
To browse privately, select New private window from the main menu. When you close all private windows, Opera will clear the following associated data:
- Browsing history
- Items in cache
After being closed, a private tab or window cannot be recovered from the Recently closed list in the tab menu.
While private windows do not leave any record of the websites you visit, if you deliberately save data, for example if you save an item to your Speed Dial, save a password or download a file, it will still be visible after the window is closed.
Clear private data
By default, Opera stores certain browsing data to help speed up connections, load common page elements, and generally interact better with the sites you visit. You may wish to remove traces of your browsing habits by clearing your private data.
To clear private data:
- From the main menu, select .
- Select the time period from which you’d like to remove history items using the Obliterate the following items from drop-down menu.
- Tick the checkboxes next to the specific browsing data you’d like to remove.
- Click Clear browsing data.
Clearing browsing history will delete any stored location information about the pages you have viewed and the times you accessed them.
Clearing download history will empty Opera’s record of the files you’ve downloaded through the browser. This will not delete the file from your local machine, only the record of when and where you downloaded it.
Deleting cookies and other site data will remove any tracked site data. Read more about managing cookies.
Emptying your browser’s cache will delete any temporarily stored data from websites. The cache is used to temporarily store page elements, such as images or search queries, so if you wish to access the site again, you can reduce loading times. Emptying this cache will clear up space on your local disk.
Clearing data from hosted apps will delete any data stored by extensions you have installed in the browser. For example, if you installed a weather extension to Speed Dial and set your location in its settings, clearing this data will reset the extension to its default and you will have to tell the extension your location again.
Managing how Opera stores private data may be useful, as an alternative to clearing all private data. Read more about setting web preferences.
Use badges to determine page security and more
Opera warns you about suspicious pages by checking the page you request against a database of known “phishing” and “malware” websites. To protect yourself when entering sensitive information, always look for the lock in the security badge.
Badges indicate details about the page you are viewing. When a badge appears in your combined search and address bar, click it to see more information, including security certificates and more.
|Accelerated (Turbo) connection|
|Ads are blocked|
|Fraud or malware warning|
|VPN is on|
When the connection is secure, a lock is displayed in the security badge, implying that no one else can read the information that passes between you and the site. Opera uses certificates to verify the identity of the site owners. A lock means there is good encryption between you and the recipient, and the recipient’s identity has been verified.
If a website is found on the blacklist, you will be presented with a warning page, and you can decide whether to visit the website, or to go to back safely to the previous page. Fraud and malware protection does not cause any delay in the opening of pages.
Unblock and allow insecure content
If you are browsing on an encrypted connection (
https://), Opera checks to ensure that all parts of the site are encrypted. If Opera detects that any live elements of the page, for example scripts, plugins, or frames, are being served by an open connection (
http://), it will block the insecure content. This means parts of the page may not display properly.
Opera advises against allowing insecure content to load into an encrypted connection. The best way to protect your sensitive information is to interact only with secure content. When Opera detects insecure content and blocks it, a warning will appear in the right side of the combined address and search bar.
If you do not care about the security of your connection with the site, you can click the warning to show an Unblock button. This button will allow the blocked content to be loaded onto the page, and the security badge will change to show an open padlock, reminding you that you’ve allowed insecure content to display on an encrypted connection.
Manage security certificates
Security certificates are used to verify that a website is secure to use. Most of the time certificates are fully valid. If you see a green padlock security badge in your combined search and address bar, you can proceed safely with your browsing.
If you’d like more information about a site’s security certificate, click the security badge and select Details. Opera will summarize the certificate’s issuer, the type of certificate and whether the issuer is publicly-known and valid.
Publicly-known issuers and their certificates are validated against a number of security and identity checks. Opera will warn you if some part of a publicly-known issuer’s certificate is questionable. You may choose to proceed but Opera cannot guarantee your security.
To manage security certificates and how Opera handles them:
- From the main menu, select Settings.
- Click Privacy & security on the sidebar.
- Under HTTPS/SSL, click the Manage Certificates button.
A note about local certificate issuers
Some connections can be certified by certificates from local issuers, either from apps on your machine or other non-public sources (such as a local intranet). These issuers can be used to verify secured connections in the browser. Most of these connections are valid. For example, debugging applications, third-party security scanning, and parental filters may rely on locally-issued certificates.
Connections certified by certificates from local issuers aren’t screened by the same security standards as publicly-known issuers and certificates. Such screening is too strict and may not allow connections to work as intended. Malware or viruses may use these certificates to view encrypted information or inject ads.
If you want, you can configure Opera to warn you about public sites that use certificates from local issuers. If you continue to browse on these connections, be aware that some security measures, such as certificate pinning and Certificate Transparency, will be disabled for all such connections during your browsing session.
Tell sites not to track your activity
Most sites track your behavior while you visit them. If you do not like this idea, Opera can send an additional header with every request: “DNT: 1”. This is a flag to websites that the user does not want to be tracked. Some countries have DNT legislation that will legally protect your request and most well-behaved websites will respect this additional header.
You can set Opera to tell sites you prefer to opt-out of online behavioral tracking. To set this:
- From the main menu, select Settings.
- Click Privacy & security on the sidebar.
- Under Privacy, tick the Send a ‘Do Not Track’ request with your browsing traffic checkbox.
Normally, your browser connects directly to websites, allowing websites to identify your IP address and its approximate location. With VPN, you connect to websites via a VPN server. As a result, your apparent location changes to the location of the server.
To enable VPN:
- From the main menu, select Settings.
- Click Privacy & security on the sidebar.
- Under VPN, tick the Enable VPN checkbox.
When you enable VPN, it starts automatically, and the blue VPN badge appears in the combined search and address bar. Click on the badge, and you will see an on/off switch, information about the amount of data transferred, the virtual location, and the the virtual IP address.
From the point-of-view of websites, your browser is now located in the country given by the virtual location. To change your virtual location, select a country from the list. If you do not choose a country, you are automatically assigned an “optimal location”. To turn off VPN, flip the switch.
Because the connection from your browser to the VPN server is encrypted, even if the local network is not, VPN enhances your privacy on the local network. You can hide your browsing activities from other users of that network.
To enhance your privacy with regard to websites, making it more difficult for them to track you, you need a combination of features. The issue is cookies. Even if you disguise your location, websites can still identify you if they have set a cookie. Notice however that by blocking ads, you block the source of many tracking cookies, and at the end of a private browsing session, when you close the browser, all cookies from that session are deleted.
VPN is a free service, and the amount of data you are allowed to transfer is unlimited.