In the crowded browser market, where Firefox now reigns supreme followed by Internet Explorer, Safari and Google Chrome, Opera has quietly been building its own fan base. There's a lot to like. The interface is clean and clear, it's fast, and it's intuitive. If they could offer the same range of add-ons I would consider switching from Firefox, which has a tendency to crash on me.
Not only has Opera been widely praised for its mobile browser, their latest version is also the only browser to get 100 per cent on the Acid3 Test, meaning that it can handle any type of web content - e.g. Java, Flash, XHTML, CSS, etc. - without any hiccoughs. The other browsers are really good, but every browser but Opera has a few blind spots when it comes to rendering web content.
Although that isn't enough to make me switch, Opera recently upped the stakes even more with a project called Opera Unite - basically a suite of applications that Opera runs through your web browser, many of which are new or could replace other programs you use. Essentially, Opera Unite picks up where Web 2.0 and cloud computing end.
With Opera Unite you can share files directly from your computer with other computers without using a third-party program like Dropbox (www.getdropbox.com) or Microsoft FolderShare. You can share between computers at work and home, between friends and colleagues, or with the general public if you choose.
There is a Photo Sharing application, which is really a subset of their File Sharing software that lets you share photos with friends without the need to upload them to a site like Picasa or Flickr first. While it's still a good idea to back up your photos, this feature ensures that your photos will live on no matter what happens to your computer.
The Media Player is especially compelling, as it allows you to access your home music library through your web browser from anywhere in the world. Of course you can do the same thing with an iPod or any other portable music player but it's another great option.
The Fridge application is basically an Opera equivalent of Stickies, letting you make notes to yourself on a fridge page, or add stickies to other computers in your network. You can send your fridge URL to friends so they can share it, using it as a bulletin board of sorts. Not exactly earth shattering, but a neat way to remind your spouse about a dentist appointment, or to let your colleagues know about a meeting without sending out e-mails or setting up a shared calendar application.
The Lounge is a chat service that allows you to set up a chat room and invite friends and colleagues. It's no better or worse than other services out there, but your friends don't need to use the Opera web browser to participate and you can keep your chats private.
One of the most unique elements of Unite is the Web Server function that allows you to run a website off your computer with no third-party servers required - just point Unite to a folder on your desktop and you'll be live on the web. It turns on and off with your computer, but is fully accessible from anywhere - perfect for creating Intranets, hosting your own custom blog-site, advertising your business, etc. or creating an online resume. It doesn't generate the website for you, but there is no shortage of website development software out there that can help you in that regard.
To get Unite, all you need to do is download the browser from www.opera.com. When you open your browser you'll notice a little box in the top left corner that opens up a sidebar where you can access your bookmarks, favourites, downloads, history and widgets. Look for the symbol of three tear-drop shapes chasing each other around to access the Unite panel.
You'll have to activate each feature separately, but it's simple to do and there are instructions how to set up and use each feature. It took about 10 minutes to do.
Other than Unite, Opera is a sturdy, nice-looking browser. The selection of Widgets is phenomenal and in some cases unique, but I'd like to see a few more functional widgets - specifically the Wesabe.com uploader I rely on Firefox to provide.
Opera deserves higher market share on the strengths of their browser alone, but Unite sweetens the deal considerably. Opera also has a few unique features I haven't seen anywhere else, like a feature that lets you preview your tabs, a "speed dialer" that appears when you open a new tab that previews a list of your favourite/most visited sites, a refresh button that lets you open any tabs you might have closed recently, and a unique way of downloading files and websites that lets you know what the hold up is if it's taking a long time. There are a few issues of security that Unite opens up, but I trust the company. At this point I have to say I'm one widget away from making the switch...