Review: Opera Neon

This is gonna sound crazy, but I promise it's not. Okay, maybe it is a little. Just a little crazy. But I'm a browser nerd.

HOLY cow! Put that back in your head! I didn't think it was actually possible to roll your eyes that hard! Seriously, calm down! Web browsers, as our window to the internet, interest me, okay? Sheesh. It helps that I've dabbled in web design, and also that there is a secret hipster hiding in me somewhere who insists that Chrome is evil simply because everyone uses it.

(Spoiler alert: Chrome isn't evil)

The future could very well be bubbles

That hipster dude is the guy who likes Opera web browsers. For those of you who don't keep up on the history of web browsers (there's a chart on Wikipedia that's really quite fascinating), Opera is pretty much the only one of the "old guard" that's still around. Back before Mozilla was making the Mozilla browser (let alone Firefox), back when Netscape Navigator was on the rise and Internet Explorer was barely a twinkle in Microsoft's eye, Opera was built by a Norwegian telecom company, Telenor. It was a research project that was later spun off into a separate company before being publicly released in 1996.

And while it's not as big as Firefox or Chrome, it's also not being coded by a middle-aged guy in a garage. It's a well maintained and perfectly functional browser, and these days it's got a free built-in VPN, which is nice. So I usually have Opera installed on my computers. It's a useful secondary browser, and it keeps that weird hipster personality quiet. But Opera has just released a new concept browser called Opera Neon, and it's claiming to be "the future of web browsing."

Oh, sure, let's raise a glass of bubbly to salute the future! Wait, that is the browser...?
Brave words. I've heard them before, from dozens of browsers across dozens of pages, and now, they are all... well, mostly defunded and unsupported. But maybe Opera Neon is unlike any browser I've encountered before? I installed it to find out.

My first impression was that there is a lot of visual sparkle. Their little redesigned quick-launcher landing page has bubbles for each page that animate when you hover over them. It comes stock with a very abstract wallpaper, but can pull your desktop wallpaper in if you want. The design is clean and minimalist, in order to put page content at the center of attention. They've moved their animated bubble "tabs" to the side, since most of the modern web is vertically oriented, and there isn't really anything to distract at the top and bottom of the window.

The minimalism is reminiscent of a more bubbly Safari
The minimalism is reminiscent of a more bubbly Safari, while moving the tabs reminds me of the tab drawer in, of all places, OmniWeb. Visually it's very nice, but there's nothing terribly innovative going on there aside from the animations. Though apparently they developed a custom physics engine to animate those tabs, so... innovation, I guess?

There are also a number of features that have been added to Opera Neon that we haven't seen in Opera before. One of them is the media drawer... thing. Basically it allows you to pull active media like videos or music out of a page and set them off to the side so you can see them while browsing another tab. You can move them outside of the main window and resize them as appropriate, though you do need to leave their actual tab open while they play. It's a useful feature, and I happen to know that because it's very similar to the picture-in-picture feature in Safari.

Also drawing inspiration from Safari, "tabs" in Opera Neon will display an icon to let you know when they're making noise, and you can mute them by clicking on that icon. These are all great features, and I don't blame Opera for borrowing them at all. Another thing Opera Neon adds is their gallery and snap feature. Basically it allows you to take screenshots of whatever is on a page, and then it stores it in a gallery along with the URL where you took it for future reference.

A lot of note apps like Evernote include some sort of web clipper like that, but this is the first time I've seen it integrated into a browser. Frankly, I like it quite a lot. I know that some people like to have their little web reference inline with their notes, and that's what Evernote gives you. But I much prefer to have my references beside my notes. Organizationally that works much better for me. So I always end up with two notes, one for content I'm working on and the other for reference material. Opera Neon may allow me to move one of those into the browser, where it will probably turn out to be much more usable.

All taken together, Opera Neon is a little bit like having a web-based OS running inside of your OS, with its own window management features and everything
They've also introduced a split screen mode, similar to how apps run side-by-side in macOS's full screen view. This allows you to dock two tabs next to each other inside of the same window. While you probably won't notice much of a difference on a big monitor where using two browser windows side by side was never an issue, it can be helpful on small laptop screens. All taken together, Opera Neon is a little bit like having a web-based OS running inside of your OS, with its own window management features and everything. Could we someday see Operabooks sitting alongside Chromebooks? Opera Neon makes a compelling case in favor of that future.

Opera Neon is built on the Blink rendering engine, which has been powering Opera, Chrome, and other Chromium based browsers since 2013. But instead of being based on the code from either Chrome or previous iterations of Opera, Neon is supposedly a brand new beast. They say that means those animations and effects won't slow down the experience. I obviously didn't notice any slowing on my quad-core i7 powered iMac with 32 gigs of RAM, and it ran smoothly on my 5-year-old MacBook Pro as well. Throw it on some properly outdated hardware with a Core 2 Duo, though... Well, let me put it this way. There aren't too many browsers that can make a GPU fan spin all the way up before you've even tried to open a webpage. Opera Neon can.

Opera Neon is, above anything else, an experiment. They've produced a functional browser, available for the public to mess around with, that departs from the norms we've come to accept in several key visual and functional ways. They think this is the future of web browsing. I think it looks nice and runs well on newer machines. While it may not be replacing Safari for me yet, it might dethrone Firefox on some of my Windows machines provided it proves reliable in the long term.

So yeah, we could be looking at the future here. The future could very well be bubbles.