Remember when Chrome was exciting? It wasn’t too long ago when Google’s web browser was seen as a godsend, a minimalist and speedy alternative to the stagnant husk of Internet Explorer.
Now, Chrome is at a point of dominance. And though it’s not as messy as IE was at its peak, the magic has worn off. It’s generally not the most power-efficient thing, either. But people still download it, because that’s the thing you do when you get a computer. It’s set the standard for other browsers, too.
In this light, Opera’s Neon browser makes sense. The Norway-based software company released the so-called “concept browser” this past January, with the aim of envisioning a potential next step for where web browsers may go.
I’ve been using Opera Neon for the past several weeks, and while it’s certainly rough around the edges, that next step is nothing if not intriguing. Here’s what it’s like:
The most immediately striking thing about Opera Neon is just how different it looks. For starters, when you open up a new tab or window, the background of the start page is the same as your desktop wallpaper.
On that start page, you're given a variety of links to different sites, all of which are presented in big, round bubbles.
Notably, those bubbles are key to how Neon treats tabs. Instead of the traditional top-mounted bar you see in Chrome, Safari, or Edge, Neon keeps all your tabs in a tidy row to the right of whatever web page you have open.
You can pop those tabs straight onto the start page, creating shortcuts as you'd like. This is nothing you haven't seen before, functionally speaking, but it looks pretty slick.
Beyond that, Neon can add sites you frequently visit to the start page on its own. It'll then push whatever sites you use the most toward the top of the page, and shift lesser-known quick links toward the bottom.
I found this to mostly work as advertised; it's not a killer feature, but it's one of those little niceties that usually make things a little bit faster.
Opera's Jan Standel, who was a product manager on the browser, says the company sees Neon as a pet project to test out ideas that may go too far for standard Opera users.
Still, to be clear, this won't work for 'power' users -- there are no extensions, no 'pinning' tabs, and no discernible way to sync your data across devices. Having too many tabs open at once makes it a bit of a mess to navigate, and only being able to X out of a tab through the side bar takes some time to get used to. Chrome is still more robust.
Neon also lacks the built-in ad-blocker and VPN from Opera proper, if you're into that.
The whole thing is still built over Chromium, though, so the familiar keyboard shortcuts and extra settings you find on Chrome still work here.
That's actually pretty important: Since there's no tab bar at the top, you normally have to hit a '+' icon at the top left of the page just to open a new tab. Being able to use Command/Control + T instead saves a good deal of annoyance in practice.
The few tricks Neon does try, though, are elegant. For instance, you can create a split-screen view within the browser by simply dragging a tab to the top of the window. This is similar to what Windows 10 supports on a native level.
You can only have two tabs open at a time in this mode, however. And while a slider between the two tabs lets you adjust each one's size, there's no guarantee that every site will scale well to the changes.
There's a cropping tool baked into the browser, too, which you can use by clicking an icon to the left of the page. This is handier on Windows than macOS (which has a cropping shortcut built into the OS), but it's fast all the same.
To be fair, though, Microsoft's Edge web browser has a similar tool on Windows 10. It even lets you annotate your saved crops; Neon only lets you view them.
You can also see whatever crops and photos you've saved through a 'gallery' tab just underneath that.
Beneath that is a 'downloads' tab, which holds exactly what you'd expect.
Like Safari and Opera proper, there's also a built-in picture-in-picture mode. If one of your sites is playing a video, you can go to another side menu, then pull out and resize that video over the top of your page.
Not every site supports the picture-in-picture mode, but big names like YouTube work smoothly.
In terms of performance, Neon isn't a blazer, but it's fine. You may get some stutter with, let's say, a couple dozen tabs open, but you can do what most people use the internet to do without it feeling overly sluggish.
Some reviewers have noted issues with Neon crashing, so your mileage may vary, but I haven't experienced that on any of the four devices on which I've tested it. Again, Neon exists as an experiment more than a true Opera successor, so it's hard to be too harsh.
Between the bubble tabs, the big icons, the giant URL bar, and even the focus on photos and videos in the side bars, the overarching vision behind Opera Neon is to make the web browser friendlier to touch. The browser is like a platform unto itself, and each open tab is like an app.
It makes sense: At this point, touchscreens are more or less standard on high-end PCs (Mac aside), and 2-in-1s like Microsoft's Surface Pro are ostensibly meant to be both laptops and tablets. Google Chrome and Microsoft Edge aren't unusable with your fingers, but their smaller icons make it clear they aren't totally made with that in mind.
That's totally understandable, of course. People still buy PCs to use a keyboard and mouse, and keep the touch stuff to their smartphones and tablets. What Neon asks is, if we're going to have PC hardware converge more with smartphone hardware, why not have the central piece of its software follow suit? Nobody has to answer that question right this second, but that it proposes some hint of a solution is refreshing.
Neon's concept of a touch-based web browser isn't perfect, though. You can't scroll through the list of open tabs on the side with your fingers, for instance, nor can you drag an app into split-screen view, or adjust the window sizes once they're in that mode.
That, combined with the fact that we're still far from a point where PC and mobile interfaces totally converge, means I wouldn't recommend Neon as anyone's main browser today. That's not really the point anyway. But it's very easy to get bored with your web browser; if you're hungry for something different, Neon lives up to that promise.
As for where Neon goes from here, Standel says the goal is to gradually implement bits of Neon to 'inform the future' of Opera proper. That project has already started, Standel says, with Opera's 'Reborn' project, which is implementing a Neon-like side panel specifically for some messaging apps, but don't expect it to become exactly like Neon anytime soon.
How exactly all of this will apply to Opera's mobile browsers -- Neon is desktop-only -- is still unclear, but Standel says the company is working on an overhaul on that side as well.
Neon itself isn't getting any software updates for the time being, but Standel says the company is considering keeping it around as an open way to try out more concepts that may not work with Opera itself.
Neon itself received more than 500,000 downloads in its first week, but Standel declined to specify a current total.
Opera Neon is available for both Mac and Windows machines. You can download it here.