Hands On with Opera 10 Alpha  

Posted by Mohammad Talha in , ,

Today Opera Software made available a preview of its next major browser version, Opera 10. The pre-release alpha version showcases a new rendering engine, Presto 2.2, which the company states will improve browsing performance over the previous version by 30 percent. The company also claims that the reengineered browser and rendering engine will lead in standards support, saying that it manages 100 out of 100 on the Web Standards Project's Acid3 browser test. The previous best among major browsers was Google's Chrome, scoring 79 out of 100. In my testing, I confirmed the rare 100 score, as you can see from the accompanying slideshow.

The very lightweight installer is a mere 6MB download. Firefox is just a bit bigger, at 7.2MB. Internet Explorer 7 dwarfs both, at 14MB. Installation itself is straightforward and quick. When you launch the browser, it loads in less than 2 seconds. On the same machine, Firefox 3 and Google Chrome take slightly over 2 seconds. But startup speed for all of the browsers is good on a reasonably up-to-date machine.

For speed, Opera 10 won't set any records, but it's fast—and it's still an alpha. Chrome's performance on the Sunspider JavaScript benchmark, however, vastly exceeded what the new Opera engine managed. The test runs a balanced variety of JavaScript operations—such as string manipulation, graphics operations, and decompressions—multiple times. Opera took 8,088ms (a lower score is better), far faster than Internet Explorer 7's 256,116, and slightly lower than Firefox 3's 6,535, but still substantially trailing Chrome's 2,763 on the same Vista machine.

Of course, according to Microsoft, JavaScript performance accounts for just a small fraction—under 4 percent—of actual Web-page loading time. And anecdotally, a PCMag.com page that took 4 seconds to load in Chrome took only 2 in Opera 10. But in a test called Lots of Text, which evaluates a different aspect of performance, Opera took only 92ms compared with IE's 128ms. Chrome blew both of them away, clocking a mere 12ms Firefox posted a respectable 64ms. I should note, though, that the developers may not have optimized Opera's memory usage yet in this alpha build. I loaded the same ten popular media-rich sites into Opera 10 and Firefox, and Opera required 156MB of RAM, and FireFox only 111.

In real Web site testing, the Opera 10 alpha works well with Facebook, though it didn't seem any faster than Firefox, despite the Opera team's claims. And Yahoo mail (in its newest form) still presents an error page stating that the browser isn't supported. Opera had no trouble with Citibank's site, but the Fidelity Investments financial site claimed that the browser didn't support 128-bit encryption, and it wouldn't display in my account.

The new version keeps all of the former's helpful and unique browsing helpers, such as tab previews, mouse gestures, and its trademark speed-dial page. With speed-dial, whenever you create a new tab, it opens and shows nine favorite sites of your choice, any of which you can visit with a single click. Of course, you still get a predictive address bar, much like what you'll find in Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer 8. And Opera still boasts one of the best implementations of tabs in any browser. The "new tab" button is the clearest of that in any browser, and you can drag tabs out to a new window or to the trash can. This version adds spellchecking and a streamlined feature for updating the browser.

Developers, too, get new capabilities, including support for CSS3 Web Fonts and transparency using RGBA and HSLA. There's also an improved Dragonfly Web-site debugger that's capable of editing the DOM and inspecting HTTP headers. (full Story)

As the year winds to a close, we're producing a series of articles that looks at graphics performance in the hottest Fall titles. We've already covered Far Cry 2World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, and Call of Duty: World at War. Now, it's time for the zombie apocalypse with Left 4 Dead. Valve's four-player online cooperative shooter is based on their Source engine, a constantly evolving piece of technology that has added many features in the years since its debut in Half-Life 2. Still, it doesn't make use of DirectX 10.

Valve's commitment to making sure their games run well on a wide variety of PCs (not to mention the Xbox 360) means that Left 4 Dead (L4D) doesn't necessarily push modern high-end PC hardware all that hard. If you get up close to the zombies, you'll see they have fairly low polygon counts by today's standards, and the environments are fairly simple. All this is in service of keeping the game running well, with fancy lighting and shadows, even when there are dozens of zombies swarming at you and your comrades.

Our tests are run on the best sub-$200 and sub-$300 cards from ATI and Nvidia. That's the Radeon HD 4850 and GeForce 9800 GTX in the lower cost bracket, and the Radeon HD 4870 1GB and GeForce GTX 260 with 216 cores in the upper price bracket. Let's find out which cards are your best zombie-slaying friends. (full Story)

Netbooks vs Smartphones: How to Decide  

Posted by Mohammad Talha in , , ,

Netbooks are tempting devices, but if you already have a smartphone, do you really need one?

Netbooks have hit a sweet spot for both consumer and business users. Their low price, full QWERTY keyboards that approach (if not quite match) standard laptop arrangements, and built-in applications mean that many people can leave a heavier notebook behind.

This wasn't the case with the original UMPCs that hit the market a few years ago, many of which carried price tags well north of $1,000 and offered bizarre QWERTY keyboard arrangements that defied any attempt at normal typing.

Smartphones, on the other hand, have offered much of the same promise of netbooks for years now, including tasks such as mobile document editing, e-mail, and Web browsing. But in many ways, smartphones haven't fully reached their potential either—and many users will never get past the tiny screens and keyboards.

Speaking of which, as a smartphone enthusiast, I know I'm supposed to get behind all manner of geeky add-on device, especially those that turn your handset into a miniature laptop (e.g. the Celio Redfly or the failedPalm Foleo) and therefore alleviate the need for netbooks. In theory. But the truth is, those add-ons often don't work the way you'd expect in a wide variety of situations.

Here's what you should consider when deciding whether you should go for a netbook, or simply stick with your smartphone:

Boot-up time: The average smartphone boots up in about 15 seconds, whereas netbooks typically take significantly longer. But that's not the whole story: at any given moment, your smartphone is already on and ready to roll, since it lasts for days at a time in standby mode. The average netbook battery, however, lasts just 3 hours, and not much longer even if you put the system to sleep. For being ready to go at all times, nothing beats a smartphone.

Keyboard/screen comfort: The winner is pretty clear here: netbooks are considerably more comfortable to use than smartphones. The biggest appeal for netbooks is their small size and weight—often a perfect compromise between a PDA and a standard-size laptop. Some are still too cramped for marathon typing sessions, however. No matter how powerful a netbook is, if it's not comfortable to type on, or leaves you squinting, you'll leave it home.

Document editing: Many of today's smartphones can already view Microsoft Office documents. Some of models (Windows Mobile and Palm OS devices, as well as the latest BlackBerry OS 4.5 revision) can edit them right out of the box. Others require third-party software for this purpose. Either way, it's only good in a pinch. If you're doing any more than casual writing or limited spreadsheet work on the go, you'll want a netbook or real notebook—period.

E-mail: A smartphone with a QWERTY keyboard is sufficient for sending and receiving e-mail, unless you plan on regularly typing out long missives on the road.

Instant messaging: A couple of quick chats are probably fine on a smartphone. Anything longer and you'll wish you had a netbook or laptop keyboard. (full Story)

Build an XP SP3 Recovery Disc  

Posted by Mohammad Talha in , , ,

Odds are your computer came with a recovery disc, a CD with all the programs and drivers that were installed on your PC's hard drive when it was new. And odds are you have absolutely no idea where that disc is.

The good news is that it probably doesn't matter. First of all, the recovery media most PC manufacturers provide is designed for a singular purpose: to restore your computer to the state it was in when you bought it. This process typically involves wiping your hard drive (say bye-bye to your spreadsheets and vacation photos) and then reinstalling Windows and the handful of programs originally included with your system. Unless you're simply preparing the whole kit and caboodle to sell on eBay, this is probably not something you will ever need.

Second, the hardware drivers on your recovery CD are almost certainly out of date, either made obsolete by newer and better versions available online, or simply irrelevant to new hardware you've subsequently installed.

Instead of fretting about the old recovery CD you lost (or perhaps never got), why not take a few minutes and make one of your own?

Ideally, a recovery disc should act as a safety net should anything disagreeable happen to your PC's hard drive or its data. (Think crash, virus, spyware attack, driver corruption, and so on.) A good recovery disc allows you to reinstall Windows to fix a minor problem or rebuild your PC from scratch to recover from a major one.

Here's the problem: Once you upgrade your XP installation to Service Pack 3, Windows won't ever allow you to install an older version (including earlier editions of XP) without either wiping the hard drive clean or installing to a different drive. Even if you do install "fresh," you'll still have to then endure a separate SP3 upgrade. The solution is to create a new hybrid installation disc from whatever installer CD you have and a special version of SP3, using a process known as slipstreaming(etymology: fluid mechanics, or the "Hope and Fear" episode of Star Trek: Voyager.)

Step 1: Take Stock

To prepare a recovery CD, you'll need only three things: a Windows XP install CD (any edition), a valid Windows product key, and about 1.5 gigabytes of free space on your hard drive. Of course, as with many recipes, procuring the ingredients is often the hardest part.

The install CD can be any version, including Service Pack 2, Service Pack 1, or the original release from 2001. If you already have a disc labeled "Windows XP with Service Pack 3" (as opposed to merely an SP3 updatedisc), then you don't need this procedure. Go ahead and read another story.

The CD can be difficult to come by if you bought your PC with Windows preinstalled, mostly because so many manufacturers omit Microsoft's installer CD these days in favor of some sort of customized "express install" recovery disc. (This is done for a variety of reasons, including to simplify customer support and also, in the penny-pinching tradition, to reduce Microsoft licensing fees.) Some PC manufacturers are service-conscious enough to send a true XP CD to any customer who asks for one, but if you're not so lucky, you can get a genuine disc on eBay for as little as $10. (full Story)

Microsoft to Sell Full Range of Web Software  

Posted by Mohammad Talha in ,

NEW YORK - Microsoft Corp will soon launch a full range of online versions of its software products, including the Office suite, and expects the weak economy to accelerate growth of the nascent Web-based software market, a senior executive said on Monday.

Stephen Elop, president of Microsoft's business division, is leading the company's entry into the "software as a service" market, which offers programs that are hosted online instead of downloaded to computer hard drives.

By using the Web to host software like Microsoft Office, as well as Exchange e-mail and SharePoint collaborative software, Microsoft customers do not need to spend as much money on equipment and maintenance of computer servers.

"What we think is in five years, 50 percent of the use of Exchange and Sharepoint could be serviced from the cloud," Elop told Reuters in an interview.

"Between now and then, a year or two or whatever, if it's going to be tough economic times, that means we expect quite a lot of movement in that direction, a lot of people taking advantage of that," he added. "I think the economy will help it."

Microsoft's foray into online software services comes amid competition from Google Inc, whose Google Apps provide free Web services including calendar, collaboration, email and messaging software.

Redmond, Washington-based Microsoft has said it plans to upgrade its Office business software to include online versions of the popular Word and Excel programs. Elop said the company would soon announce a wide range of services, including free versions supported by advertising.

"We expect fully that the full range of Office utilities, from the most advanced to simpler lightweight versions, will be available with a range of options: ad-funded, subscriptions-based, traditional licensing fees, and so forth. So you should expect to see that full array," he said.

Elop declined to specify when the services would be launched, but said "in 2009 you're going to see a lot of advance in this area."

Microsoft will likely make a profit from the new initiative within a year after the launch, he said.

He also said that even the basic, free versions will trump Google Apps in capabilities, and that Microsoft will ensure that users can move Office documents in and out of the Web browser environment without any garbling to the text. (full Story)

Firefox 3.1 Beta 2 Available for Download  

Posted by Mohammad Talha in , ,

A second beta of the upstart Firefox 3.1 browser from the Mozilla Foundation was made available to testers late Monday.

Highlights include a new private browsing mode that removes traces of web sessions users want to keep private, a vastly faster JavaScript engine called TraceMonkey, and more support for emerging web standards.

According to a Mozilla Developer Center blog post, Beta 2 is already available for Windows, Macintosh, and Linux in more than 50 languages.

Code-named Shiretoko, Firefox 3.1 beta 1 debuted in mid-October, sporting improvements in its Gecko Web-page layout rendering engine and adding support for some CSS 2.1 and CSS 3 features.

It also added tab-switching previews, similar to those in the Opera web browser, but these were removed in this latest beta by popular demand. Another tab improvement is the ability to drag a tab from one browser window into another.

The address bar, known as the Smart Location Bar or the Awesome Bar, has also been made even more, well, awesome. Version 3.1's bar lets you restrict your address entries using typed characters, for example, to limit results to just bookmarked pages.

The new Private Browsing feature works with a simple menu choice, and any history and cookies created during the session won't be saved. It's a much preferable method than deleting cookies and history manually, which would make unavailable pages you want accessible later. The Private Browsing feature, however, does not keep a user private from the sites he or she visits. Even if users neglect to turn on the Private Browsing Mode, they can still remove history from the past few hours of browsing, or remove all traces of a Web site.

Aside from the new JavaScript engine's improved speed, Firefox 3.1's underlying Gecko 1.9.1 page layout engine has been sped up with "speculative parsing for faster content rendering." It also gives Web developers the ability to use "web worker threads" to perform background JavaScript operations so that pages won't be slowed by time-consuming calculations.

Update: After running the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark test, we can confirm that the new rendering engine is significantly faster than Firefox 3's. The test does multiple runs of a variety of JavaScript operations, measuring the time it takes to run--meaning a lower number is better. In the results, Firefox 3.1 Beta 2 was nearly three times as fast as the released version 3, taking 2689ms compared with the earlier version's 6535ms. By a small margin it actually beats the previous speed champ, Google's Chrome browser, which took 2763ms. Chrome, however, still handily takes the lead in the "Lots of Text" speed test, which simply loads a Web page containing nearly a hundred thousand characters, taking only 12ms compared with Firefox 3.1's 84ms.

Beta 2 also supports more forward-looking Web standards, such as the w3c's Geolocation JavaScript API. This lets a web page query the browser's location and can be used to plot maps, give directions, attach location information to pictures, and more. The brower also now supports the HTML 5

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