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Mossberg: Vivaldi is a new desktop browser for power users

So many features, so much clutter.

Vivaldi

A decade ago, the release of a new desktop web browser, or even a significant new version, was a big a deal. Consumers and reviewers eagerly waited for more speed and for cool new features like tabbed browsing or address-bar searching.

But those days are gone. The last major new cross-platform desktop browser to debut was Google’s Chrome in 2008, which now leads the market. Web browsing itself has moved mostly to mobile devices, where the typical user employs the platform’s built-in browser: Mobile Chrome on many Android phones and mobile Safari on iPhones and iPads. (Yes, Windows fans, I know Microsoft introduced the new Edge browser last year, but it’s not cross-platform.)

Not only that, but fewer and fewer people fire up their desktop browsers today to use their bookmarks, or to go have a look at a website’s homepage and decide what to read or view. They either use apps on their mobile devices or enter sites "sideways" via a link to a specific page they got from social media. And that Web page, article or video often opens right inside Twitter or Facebook on a mobile device. They may never spend much time with the browser’s carefully crafted user experience.

Vivaldi

Nevertheless, there’s a new desktop browser launching today. It’s called Vivaldi, and it’s explicitly for power users — people who like to customize their browsers to the greatest extent, who value the longest list of features. It’s from Vivaldi Technologies, a company headed by the ex-CEO of Opera, Jon von Tetzchner, which appeals to a similar audience.

I’ve been testing Vivaldi, which runs on Windows, Mac and Linux, and I was impressed by the variety of ways it allows users to tweak their browsing experience. Some of these, like a note-taking panel and a quick way to group similar open tabs, struck me as potentially quite useful.

But I found that, if you use too many of these features, the overall screen gets cluttered, leaving less room for the actual content of the Web page. By contrast, competitors like Chrome and Apple’s Safari have actually pared back their visible user interfaces in recent years to devote maximum room to Web content.

Vivaldi, an employee-owned company based in Oslo, isn’t shy about the philosophy behind its product: "While other browsers strip down their offerings, Vivaldi adds features and powerful personalization options to help the Web’s most demanding users increase their productivity and efficiency."

The new browser is based on Google’s open source version of Chrome, called Chromium, and doesn’t claim to be any faster than Chrome, just very different. Like Chrome, it can gain power from extensions. But its aim is to offer so many features you won’t need extensions.

Vivaldi says it’s working on a mobile version of the new browser and other projects designed to appeal to power users. It makes money by pre-populating bookmarks for sites for which it is an affiliate. For instance, both eBay and Bookings.com get prominent visibility.

I, personally, wouldn’t use Vivaldi as my primary browser. Not only is it more cluttered than I prefer, but in some of my tests it showed that it’s a version 1.0 by displaying performance problems on the 2015 MacBook Pro I used for testing. In one case, a "Saturday Night Live" video on a Hollywood Reporter page stuttered in Vivaldi but played fine in Safari. In another, it kept losing the cursor in a Messenger conversation on the main Facebook site. So I switched to Chrome and the problems disappeared.

But I do realize that not everyone shares my taste in browsers and there are lots of folks who’d like to tweak away to their hearts’ content. They can download Vivaldi for free at vivaldi.com.

The list of features in Vivaldi is way too long to discuss here, even if they all merited discussion. And not all are entirely new. But here are some of the top features, and my experience with them.

Welcome page: Right from the start, you’re customizing things. You get a welcome page that walks you through three appearance settings. One gives you six options for colors and shading of the tab bar and toolbar. Another lets you move the tab bar to either top, bottom, left or right sides. The third lets you choose colors and shading for the start page you get, showing dynamic thumbnails of favorite sites whenever you open a new tab or window.

Walt Mossberg

Stacking tabs: Vivaldi lets you create "stacks of tabs" by dragging two or more open tabs (not bookmarks) onto each other. The resulting tab has tiny lines at the top representing each open page and when you hover over one of the lines, thumbnails appear showing all the pages in the stack. There’s also a feature that will automatically stack "similar" tabs — mainly those from the same site. I found this feature kind of handy, and might use it when I notice I have had too many individual tabs open. There’s also a feature which can "hibernate" tabs that aren’t actively being used, to save resources. They return to life when you click on them. This is a valuable feature.

Tab stack tiling: If you have a big enough screen, or a smaller screen and fewer tabs in the stack, you can tile them — display them in small windows within Vivaldi that come in various shapes and sizes you can choose from a menu. Even on my 13-inch Retina display, I found this feature pretty useless.

Walt Mossberg

Side panel notes: Other browsers have tried side panels for various purposes. Vivaldi has several. You can view your bookmarks there, or see your downloads. But one cool use of the side panel is that you can create and store notes there. These can consist of copied sections of sites or your own typed thoughts, plus screenshot thumbnails and links, both of which quickly open the pages they represent, right from the note. I liked this feature a lot.

Side panel Web pages: Vivaldi also can display in its side panel narrow, mobile versions of websites, alongside whatever site you are viewing in the main window. This makes sense for tracking things like Twitter while doing other work. But, in my tests, multiple pages rendered incorrectly in the narrow panel, which I found annoying.

Super geeky controls: A pop-up menu at the bottom of the Vivaldi screen offers a bunch of options which range from the simply geeky to the absolutely frivolous. For instance, the menu, called "Page Actions," allows you to — for some reason — view every image on a page at an angle. Or change all the fonts to monotype. Or replace the colors with Instagram-like filters, turning them sepia or monochrome. There’s even an option to obscure the page so it really isn’t readable. Some of these choices may make sense for some people in some scenarios. But, overall, it seems like a menu full of things to show what the developers could do.

These are just some highlights. There are many more tweaks and customizations available. For instance, there’s a deep and robust keyboard command settings panel. You can use mouse gestures to control features. The Preferences menus are long and varied.

Overall, Vivaldi claims there are "more than one million different ways to make Vivaldi your perfect browser."

I personally believe that, for most people, that’s not the goal. But if it sounds good to you and you’re willing to put up with some birthing bugs, by all means give Vivaldi a spin. In a world with so little major new browser development, the very existence of Vivaldi shows there’s at least a little life left in the market.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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