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Farewell past, happy dreams of days gone by”

by Alan German

The title (with apologies to Giuseppe Verdi) more or less says it all. After many years happily using Firefox on both the Linux and Windows platforms, I may have said goodbye to my web browser of choice. The latest update to Firefox (Firefox Quantum, Version 57.0) has killed my three favourite add-ons and, consequently, the browser no longer functions in the manner that I desire, nor indeed as I require.

I don’t want much from a web browser. I want to be able to set the homepage, and I also want to be able to specify that my homepage opens in any new browser tab. The latter requirement is because I use a local HTML page, with links to all the web sites that I regularly visit, as a custom menu to the Internet, and I set this as my home page. After that, I want to be able to toggle JavaScript on and off, and I want to see a progress bar that readily identifies the course of file downloads.

Of course, almost all browsers will allow specifying a specific address for the homepage, where the address can be the URL of a web site, or the location of a local file. Similarly, some browsers will allow the address to be specified for any new tab that is opened but, more often this has to be achieved with a browser plug-in. Many browsers allow JavaScript to be disabled completely, but toggling this scripting system usually requires a plug-in to be installed. The difficulty is finding a single browser that will provide all of these features.

Before the update to Quantum, I was using three add-ons for the Firefox browser. New Tab Homepage let me set my menu page to be opened in each new tab. Downloads Window displayed a pop-up window, with an indication of any file being downloaded, and an associated progress bar. And, JSOff provided a button with which to toggle JavaScript on and off. Quantum effectively broke all of these plug-ins and rendered the new version of Firefox useless for my purposes. This may change at some point in the future as developers produce modified code but, at present, a bug report submitted on the API changes required for New Tab Homepage is flagged as “wontfix”, which doesn’t look very promising.

My immediate workaround to the above-note issues was to roll back Firefox to Version 56.0 since all of the “legacy” plug-ins are functional in the prior release of the browser. However, this really wasn’t a viable solution for the long term, as Firefox was continually nagging me to upgrade, and not upgrading might well result in my having an insecure browser. So, the only real course of action was to find a new browser.

Opera displaying opera

My search led me to Opera - the browser, not the musical genre (although the rather appropriate title of this article is taken from Verdi’s La Traviata). Opera, lets me open a specific page on startup, and I can readily set my local menu file as the browser’s homepage. By default, Opera has a very nice pop-up window that indicates file downloads, and their progress, so no plug-in is necessary for this task.

However, setting the target for a new tab, and toggling JavaScript, both require using plug-ins. Opera has a good range of plug-ins available, and I quickly found modules that fulfilled my requirements. First, I installed Custom Tab New Page. Opening a new tab in the browser displayed a window requesting the URL that I wanted to be opened when a new tab is created. I entered the location for my menu file and this was then used in all subsequent new tabs. Next, I installed JavaScript Toggle On and Off. This resulted in a “JS” button being displayed on the toolbar. Clicking on this button toggles JavaScript off and adds a red “X” to the JS icon to give a visual indication of JavaScript’s disabled status. Perfect!

Opera has some very nice additional features. The sidebar down the left edge of the program’s window can be easily customized (Settings – Sidebar – Manage Sidebar). I unchecked a bunch of boxes for icons on the sidebar that I would never use (e.g. Facebook, WhatsApp) and checked some other options (e.g. Extensions, Downloads and Settings) to give ready access to these features while I explored the use of the browser.

Other features that I haven’t really explored yet include a built-in ad-blocker; an unlimited, free VPN option; and a brand-new battery-saver that promises to extend laptop battery life by up to 50%.

Another item that some people might find useful is the “Speed Dial” button. By default, new tabs open in Opera’s Speed Dial, and the sidebar also contains a button to call up this page. As the name suggests, the function is akin to the speed dialing function on a telephone where, typically, pressing a specific digit causes a particular telephone number to be dialed. In Opera’s case, the “digits” are thumbnail images of individual web pages that can be set to the user’s preference. One click on a thumbnail launches the associated web site.

The one thing I have found that doesn’t work is the advanced setting for web sites that is labelled “Open PDF files in the default PDF viewer application.” The downloads window shows “Download complete”, but no file is loaded into PDF-Xchange Viewer, which is my PDF reader of choice. Fortunately, double-clicking on the name of the PDF file in the downloads window does cause the file to be displayed in the viewer. And, it appears that the file is loaded from temporary storage so there is no need to delete it from the main downloads directory once it has been viewed.

There is also a (perhaps) minor annoyance with the current version of Opera. Most browsers have an option to display a “File, Edit, View” toolbar. This is not the case for the current version of Opera. Somebody seems to have decided that such a toolbar isn’t necessary and, rather than making the toolbar optional, just junked the feature entirely. So, how does one print a web page (File – Print or Print Preview), or search for a text string on the current page (Edit – Find)? One way to access the print function is to use Opera’s menu (from the icon at the top-left of the page) and navigate to Menu – Page – Print. This brings up a print preview page with the ability to set print options and activate a Print button. Similarly, finding a text string can be achieved through Menu – Find.

It’s also possible to access some of these features through keyboard shortcuts, e.g. Ctrl-P = Print, Ctrl-F = Find. However, this may not be such a welcome solution for users of touch-enabled devices. And, it may also not be too useful for those of us who don’t remember a list of shortcuts, especially since the help file notes that: “…more than half of Opera's shortcuts are unique to the browser.” The good news is that at least one plug-in addresses the printing issue. A “Print” plug-in places a printer icon on the browser’s task bar and, clicking on this icon, transfers control to the print-preview page.

For now, at least, Opera – and a few plug-ins - are providing all the functionality that I require of a web browser. However, it appears that I will need to learn a few new techniques to perform frequently-used tasks (i.e. printing and searching). The good news is that Opera is multi-platform so I can use the same browser - and, hopefully, the same tricks! - in both Linux and Windows. Time will tell if Opera remains my browser of choice.



Bottom Line:

Opera (Freeware)
Opera Software AS
http://www.opera.com

Originally published: September 2018


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