NEW YORK -- Opera bills itself as "the fastest browser on earth!" - and indeed it is fast. But to laud it only for its speed would miss the point.
Much more impressive are Opera's other features for surfing the World Wide Web.
Consider the menu item for quickly deleting cookie files that Web sites leave behind to track you. Or the item for rejecting pop-up windows, such as those pitching wireless cameras from X10.
Version 6.0 of Opera introduces Hotclick, which lets you double-click on any word to get information from Lycos' dictionary, encyclopedia or language translator.
There are new keyboard combinations that can replace mouse commands and new options for searching and sorting bookmarks.
Icons next to bookmark items now change colors after visiting a site, telling you which sites you haven't gone to recently.
Enough about the new features. Opera 6.0 might as well be version 1.0 as far as most Internet users are concerned. The browsers, from the Norwegian company Opera Software ASA, are a distant third in usage to Netscape's Communicator and Microsoft's Internet Explorer.
Though I find Opera an impressive browser, I'm not ready to completely ditch the others. Opera still has a few compatibility problems, probably because Web designers aren't yet testing their sites on it.
Opera's latest edition does include features from earlier versions, like zoom, which lets you enlarge or reduce the size of Web pages. Netscape and Microsoft browsers let you change text size. Zoom changes the graphics as well.
Opera remembers what Web pages you have open when you exit the program. It offers to open them again when you return, complete with your old settings. If the site changed since you left, Opera updates your page.
All major browsers have a set of keyboard shortcuts, such as Ctrl-C to copy or Ctrl-N for a new window.
Opera has more.
The "1" and "2" keys move you between windows, while "z" and "x" function as the "back" and "forward" buttons. Hit "p" to see how the page might look printed out. Hit "g" to switch between graphics and text-only modes.
With Opera, you can easily access search engines of your choice. Where the Web address normally goes, just type in "g harry potter" to find sites on the wizard using the Google search engine. Or type "z harry potter" to search on Amazon.com. You can add your own search sites and specify your own keywords or letters.
Microsoft's browser has a similar feature, but you need a special "Web Accessories" utility. Opera's comes built-in.
The most notable features, though, are for privacy and graphics.
A menu item called "File - Delete private data" lets you, with one or two mouse clicks, delete cookies that track you, "history" files that list where you've been and "cache" files, or copies of sites you've recently visited.
Those functions are difficult to find with other browsers. In some cases, you need to locate and delete the correct files on your disk drive - and risk messing up your computer.
Another menu item, called "File - Quick preferences," lets you easily block pop-ups, or have them open behind Web pages as "pop-unders" instead. You can also turn off certain animation and video - the type typically used in advertisements.
The function doesn't seem to work, though, with the ads supplied by Opera.
Which brings up the issue of cost. While Microsoft and Netscape give away their browsers, Opera sells them for $39.
A free version is available, but you'll have to endure ads and lose about a quarter-inch of vertical space.
Opera's browser also comes packaged with e-mail and instant messaging (using your existing ICQ account), as well as a slideshow similar to Microsoft's PowerPoint (you'll need to know some HTML programming).
The standard download is only 3.2 megabytes, or 10.7 MB with Java. Netscape and Microsoft's browser packages typically run 20 to 25 MB.
Opera does have its faults.
Third-party plug-ins designed to enhance Web browsing are typically designed only for Netscape and Microsoft browsers. Though Opera can use Netscape plug-ins, I had to look deep in Opera's help Web site to figure that out.
Also, some Web sites don't work well with Opera.
Though Opera says it follows standards set by the World Wide Web Consortium, Web sites themselves don't always comply, and they generally test their sites only with Microsoft and Netscape browsers.
While there are sites that work with Opera but not Netscape, many don't work with Opera at all. Microsoft's MSN sites, for instance, were temporarily blocked from Opera browsers some weeks back; its Hotmail feature still generates a compatibility warning.
Opera gets complicated in trying to be so flexible. There are so many choices that it takes time to figure them out. Perhaps over time I'll get more comfortable.
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