Opera 10 Turbo Gives Slow Connections a Kick in the Pants

operaSoftware innovations are often over-hyped, so I approached the Opera Turbo Labs preview version of the Opera 10 browser with — how shall I say? — hopeful skepticism. As one who has suffered (not too strong a word) with a slow rural dial up Internet connection for the past 12 years, I’m eager to embrace any technology that promises to help speed things up.

Opera Turbo is described as a server-side optimization and compression technology that speeds up data transfer by reducing the amount of data that needs to be downloaded in order to view web pages by up to 80 percent, thereby providing significant improvement in browsing speeds over limited-bandwidth connections like mine, which gives me stone-age 26,400 bps throughput on good days at times of the day when not too many of my neighbors are online.

However, Opera Turbo also sounded a lot like so-called “Dial-up Accelerator” software, activation of which I’ve been paying $4.95 a month extra to my “only game in town” ISP over the past 18 months for. The Dial-Up Accelerator is actually a product of Slipstream Data Inc. — a Canadian software development subsidiary of BlackBerry smartphone maker Research In Motion. It helps somewhat, mainly by compressing, and therefore degrading the quality of web page images to varying degrees depending upon how much speed (ie: compression) you specify using a slider on the interface window. Although to get substantial improvement you really have to nuke the image resolution. It’s been helpful enough that I’ve kept paying the premium, but certainly no panacea.

This Thing Smokes!

However, Opera Turbo turns out to be a totally different story. This thing smokes! Well, relatively speaking. Broadband it isn’t, but it’s a whole lot faster than what I’m accustomed to. There’s a cost of course in terms of image quality. A lot of the time that’s a tolerable trade-off, and if you turn the images off entirely, page load times begin to approach the speed I get on my local library’s Wi-Fi hotspot (with images on in the latter case) fed by a DSL line.

Downside: Image Quality Reduction

This screenshot illustrates the degree of quality reduction with Opera Turbo enabled and reading out a 6.8 times speed improvement. It’s actually something of a worst-case example and some images don’t look all that bad for casual viewing.

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As for the browser itself, it looks and behaves pretty much like the non-turbo Opera 10 alpha preview I’ve been checking out for the past few weeks, which is to say very well. Opera is in most respects my favorite browser already, and for me this turbo booster is icing on the proverbial cake.

The only interface difference is a small icon in the lower left corner that toggles the Turbo compression on or off and indicates status and the degree of compression achieved on a particular page load.

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Still Needs Some Refinement

This is alpha level software in a time limited test phase, and Opera’s Turbo technology still needs some refinement. For example, I couldn’t get it to load the radar image on Environment Canada’s site, although other images on the site loaded fine. Dynamic Web technologies such as Ajax (XmlHttpRequests) and Flash are supported, but some plugin content will load only after clicking on the empty element. Note also that for undiminished security, even with Turbo enabled, encrypted traffic does not go through Opera’s compression servers, so when you’re on a SSL site, bypass kicks in and you communicate with the SSL site directly.

Works With Any Type of Connection

However, where Turbo works, it kicks butt, and I’m already addicted. Opera says it will work with any type of connection, but obviously you’ll get the most out of it when you’re stuck with limited bandwidth, not just poky dial-up connections, but also in circumstances like when too many people are on the Wi-Fi in the cafe or you’re surfing the Web through your mobile phone when commuting on the train.

Opera says Turbo will be part of future desktop versions of their Opera browser, and I can’t wait for a fully debugged final version to be released.

In the meantime, you can watch it in action or just download the preview on the Opera Labs site and try it out for yourself.

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