Unconventional Browser Showdown: Opera vs. Safari

This is an unconventional review. It’s not designed to compare all possible features in detail — with pages of checkboxes. It’s not designed to estimate the relative security of these two browsers or even declare an overall winner. Instead, the review focuses on Opera vs. Safari for extended life on the Internet: tab management, transparency of security and privacy settings. In only that battle, Opera wins.

Given the above ground rules, some of you may still be tempted to point out that, say, Firefox or Chrome does something better than one of these two browsers or even both of them. That may be true. My stand is that I took an idiosyncratic liking to Opera and found that it had some things I really liked and needed as a writer. It’s a huge task to tackle even two browsers, so Firefox and Chrome will have to wait for another time.

Selecting a Browser

Web browsers have been around for since the early 1990s. As the Internet technologies develop, for example, HTML5 and new security protocols, feature upon feature gets rolled into each developer’s browser. That makes for an impressive list of features in 2011. Here they are for Opera and Safari.

Opera Features List

Safari Features List

By and large, you’ll find that, with minor differences, these two browsers offer the modern user almost everything essential, everything basic, and everything advanced. The differences are in the developer’s philosophy, and that leads to different feature sets. To understand and subscribe to each developer’s philosophy is to make an informed choice. So if you haven’t been mindful of some of the key differences, you may be using the wrong browser. Oh, the embarrassment.

When I started this project, I found that every thing I wanted to discuss wouldn’t fit into a single article. That resulted in two warm-up articles:

Browsers Have Changed. Have You? In this article, I looked at how the browser market has changed, the development philosophy, and the psychology of the market place. Understanding how browser design has changed over the years is important when it comes to selecting a primary browser.

The State of Browser Security. This article went into detail about why customers don’t have the necessary tools to select a browser based on its security and why the differences in intrinsic security amongst modern browsers is minimal. However, there are things users can do to give themselves an edge when it comes to knowing what’s going on inside their browser and being able to fend off attacks.

This trio of articles has a common thread: How do people select a browser? Do they pick the one their friends use? Do they really make hard-nosed, quantitative decisions? Is it a beauty contest? I’m biting my tongue here because we all know that the popularity of a browser has nothing to do with how good it is. Exhibit #1 for the prosecution: Internet Explorer 6.

Browser Philosophy

Apple’s philosophy since 1984 has been to build the best darn hardware on the planet. But when it comes to application software, Apple always leans towards ease of use. Apple’s Safari and Mail apps are excellent examples. No one would ever claim that the Apple Mail app is the most sophisticated, most capable e-mail app in its class. Some feel that way about Safari as a browser as well. Instead, Apple combines the awesome elegance of the hardware with simple, easy to use apps that, as is often necessary, hide the geeky details under the hood. This is the Apple user experience, and it’s targeted at users, from children up to retirees, who only spend a little bit of time each day browsing the web.

What that means is that there’s a market for browsers that cater to people who must have, for personal or business reasons, extra control and visibility over security and privacy. There’s also a market for those who spend eight or more hours a day, writers and researchers, living in a browser and must have that little bit of extra confidence, control and flexibility. That’s where alternative browsers, like Opera, come in.

I am one of those people. I live in a browser, and I wander all over the Web in search of news or research material. My tabs are a critical part of my workflow because they are a working collection of what I need at my fingertips each day. I call it Tab Management, and it’s critical to my work. When I ran across how Opera 11 manages tabs, I started to realize that the philosophy of Safari didn’t meet my needs. Also, sometimes, like a gum-shoe PI, Dixon Hill, I accidentally wander down an alley in search of a story (or click in the wrong place at an unfamiliar site) and wish I hadn’t gone there. So I appreciate a browser that communicates well with me rather than one that tries to avoid alarming me.

Finally, keep in mind that this is primarily an Opera review and speaks to the things that drew me away from Safari.  Okay, on to the specifics.

Tab Management

What are the signs of good tab management in a browser? One should be able to have a lot of tabs, easily accessible, and yet be able to identify and go to any tab of interest. As the number of tabs grows, and they get smaller, it’s easier to accidentally hit the “x” that close the tab. So a re-open the last tab feature is fundamental. Alternatively, one should be able to lock a tab so it can’t be accidentally closed. Tabs should be draggable and easily organized. And a tab, once created, should never disappear into an overflow region. With that, lets look at how Opera and Safari compare.

Opera, Safari tabs

 Table 1, Tab Management

I have been using Opera daily for about the last month, and I’ve found that, as a writer, the tab management of Opera meets my own needs better. For example, I can pin a tab so that it can’t be closed with an accidental click. I use that for several tabs I have for our TMO publishing engine.

Opera pinned tabs

Pinned Tabs (highlighted in red)

Also, I love the giant tab thumbnail bar. It’s very much like the vertical sidebar of tabs used by OmniWeb — which I used for a time for just that reason.

Opera tab thumbnails

Big thumbnails (but shown small to fit)

I hate the fact that Safari bleeds more than 8 tabs into a sidebar that changes the tab’s visual appearance and leaves them out of sight, maybe out of mind. Finally, tab stacking in Opera allows me to collect similar items but not take up a lot of room. That allows me to keep my other tabs a little wider. With one click, the tabs de-stack. All in all, Opera’s tabs push my writer’s buttons.

Opera Tab stacking

Multiple tabs under one tab and thumbnail view

Transparency of Security

Out of the box, so to speak, Opera makes it easier, in my view, to get the big picture on the security status of the browser.

With Safari, you must look way in the upper right corner of the window to see a small padlock — which indicates a secured connection. You have to know to click on the padlock to see the certificate authority. On the other hand, the Extended Validation (EV) certificate is in green text on the right side of the address bar and essentially duplicates the text in the address field. It’s not clear what the green text means unless you study Apple’s Safari features and know that it’s the EV being verified.

Regarding Mac OS X, Apple has used the phrase, “Security is built-in, not bolted on.” But in the case of Safari, I get the feeling that security indicators, (and even the reload button), get scattered around the Safari window as new features are added (or re-thought) over time.

Opera 11, on the other hand, collects all the relevant information together in a popup and drops a padlock in a more visible place, right in front of the URL. If you click on the padlock, which is large and in color (suggesting that it can change function), you’ll see a summary of your security status: a secure connection, a verified address (with EV) and a report on the security record of that site.

Opera security popup

One stop security view in Opera 

Opera tries to mke the address bar abit more informative with colors and indicators for the various security levels.

Opera Address bar Address bar makes security info plain to see

In addition, one of the available Opera extensions, “NotScripts” (like “NoScript” on Firefox) allows you to get some visibility into the scripts running on the site you visit and selectively block them. However, the configuration is a bit geeky, requiring the use of opera:config (see below) and some jargon. Apple would never make the user go through this, so here’s another prime example of the philosophy of the two developers. Apple keeps things simple and Opera provides that fine tuning for tinkerers.

Opera NotScripts

NotScripts: Apple would never do this

Another nice security feature, mentioned in the tab chart, is that you can open one tab that deletes all the information associated with it when closed. That’s really handy for a quick check on a bank account without disturbing any of the other tabs.

 Private tab

Here are the security extensions available for Opera.

  • AdSweep (Ad removal)
  • Block Yourself from Analytics (Block Google Analytics for your own sites.)
  • ExternalScripts (Blocks external scripts from same or different domain)
  • Facebook ad cleaner (Removes ads from Facebook pages)
  • Facebook ad blocker (Blocks ads on Facebook pages)
  • Hide Gmail ads (Removes ads from Gmail)
  • LastPass (password management)
  • NoAds (Ad blocking)
  • NotScripts (UI for Javascript blocking)
  • Redirect to HTTPS (automatically redirects to available HTTPS version of site)
  • YouTube ads free (Removes popup ads on YouTube videos)
  • Vkontakte ad cleaner (removes advertisements on Vkontakte.ru pages)
  • VK Paranoia (Blocks tracing of browser history)
  • WOT (Web of Trust)

And here are the extensions available for Safari:

  • Cuss-Off (blocks profanity)
  • Ghostery (helps identify websites that track you)
  • JavaScript Blacklist (customizable list of blocked domains)
  • Last Pass (online password manager)
  • Mitto Password Manager (password manager)
  • WOT (Web of Trust)

If you remove the ad blockers, password managers and the one in common (Web of Trust), the difference isn’t so impressive. On the other hand, and we’re back to browser philosophy: Opera users work harder to eliminate ads.

Here’s a second comparison chart that summarizes some of the relevant items I’ve run across so far.

Opera, Safari comp. Table 2, Additional Comparisons

Miscellaneous Items

While I’ve elected to compare these two browsers in just two major areas, there are many other feature sets that could have been compared: bookmark management, Javascript and HTML engines, standards compliance, printing, and a myriad of other small features, such as e-mailing the entire contents of a page — which Safari can do. That would have expanded the scope off the review so much, I’d still be here writing when James Tiberius Kirk joins Starfleet Academy. As I said, these are monster applications worthy of a book to review.

Even so, while I like Opera’s tab management and security philosophy, I found some rough edges.

  • Opera 11 doesn’t correctly print Web pages to PDF. (Reported.)
  • Opera 11 tries to do its own version of Click-to-Flash, and I had problems with it. (Reported.)
  • Opera 11 quits if the network connection has been disrupted for too long. Reported, and I’m still investigating.
  • Opera 11, when dragging a URL out of the address bar, to create a .webloc file, makes the file name the full URL and not the page title. That creates a headache when collecting various articles in a folder for research. It’s more philosophy than anything else.

On the other hand, I’ve noticed that Opera does a few things better than Safari.

  • I found Opera’s Speed Dial page cleaner and easier to use than Apple’s Top Sites.
  • Opera’s search field turns red if the term isn’t immediately found — a nicer visual cue that saves time.
  • Opera 11 has panels — somewhat like the popular sliding sheets of Twitter for iOS. That allows one to work on several related tasks, for example, the built in notes feature, rather than going in and out of context by changing tabs or even apps.
  • Opera has an amazing amount of fine tuning available by entering opera:config in the address bar. It’s a staggering list. Apple would never confront users with a list like this, but for those who delight in such detail, Opera has it.

I mentioned these rough edges and one-ups because, despite my focus here, with myriads of different features, no browser does everything perfectly. As a result, I find myself browsing and creating articles in Opera, but using Safari for printing, sharing and archiving articles.

It’s a Wrap

I learned much from this project. I learned that selecting a browser is often a beauty contest. Which browser seems faster? Which one looks most Mac-like? Which one is from a company that seems to have the most at stake? Which one demonstrates loyalty to Apple and confers a sense of community? Or pride by association? Which one offends us least?

On the other hand, some people develop a very rigorous set of criteria for what a browser must do and will reject or adopt a browser for specific reasons. In this case, I took a hard look at how a browser could help me as a writer in terms of tab management and security and decided to live in Opera 11 for the time being. That’s not an unheard of proposition. Jeff Gamet, our TMO managing editor, has gone through the same analysis, albeit several years ago, and uses OmniWeb to this day.

When I started this project, before the first of the three articles, I knew only a little about browser security, design philosophy, and even why I was using Safari. I just assumed, I surmise, that because it’s developed by Apple, it’s the best and most secure. Then, when I started looking in detail at security transparency, privacy control and what I wanted from a browser, I switched. Jeff Gamet has switched. A healthy percentage of you have switched to Firefox and Chrome, presumably for some very solid reasons.

I promised you an unconventional review, and that’s because I learned so much on this journey that I wanted to write about. Even so, the final chapter is yet to be written. For now, I hope you’ve found that the journey has been the reward.