Browser Wars, amirite? At some point in my Internet career (both as a civilian and as someone fighting from the trenches in web application development) I have used or at least tried most of them. For the longest time I, like many, relied on Chrome, as it became the required choice of many online outlets. When Microsoft Edge arrived, I switched in the wake of rumors of Google’s lackadasical stewardship. As a developer, I’ve always also had to keep Firefox around Just Because, and the only Safari I have access to is on my iPad, so it might as well be out there, alone, in a cabin in the woods for all the concern I have for it.

Last week I came across an article talking about Opera GX, which is a “gaming browser” built on the stalwart Opera browser framework. I had no idea what that kind of label meant to the Opera marketing department, but I knew what I thought it meant. So I downloaded it, installed it, and am currently using it as my daily browser as a means of assessing it’s claims. What makes Opera GX a “gaming browser” aside from overly aggressive use of blacks and neon reds and a lot of “by gamers, for gamers”-level marketing tripe? Let’s take a look.

Layout

Opera GX, “Dark” layout

There’s not a heck of a lot of opportunity to make a web browser stand out when it comes to it’s design. Ideally the “chrome” should be minimal so as to maximize browsing space, and it should never impinge upon the client-side calculation standards for CSS and Javascript if it does decide to go off the rails design-wise.

GX offers a svelte header with the traversal buttons, address bar, and operational controls that we expect from modern browsers. On the far right side, there’s a button for taking a screenshot of the current page (fancy), a button for hotswapping the privacy controls (which we’ll talk about later), Access to “My Flow” which is a kind of cross-platform bookmarking utility, and the local Hearticon for saving the current page as a local bookmark. Then there’s a tray for Extensions, and the icon for browser quick settings. You can opt to display your bookmarks bar beneath this, but I have it turned off in the screenshot above.

That left-hand sidebar, though? Those are what supposedly make Opera GX a “gaming browser”.

Usability

Golden Layout demo page.

The bare minimum job of a browser is to serve up a web page. How well it does this is one of the key factors in how well it’s received. Opera GX falls on the “works well” side of the incompatibility divide so far in my use. In truth, these days it’s hard to find a site that won’t work in a modern day browser, and we won’t usually know that there’s a problem until we arrive at a site and are turned away. I do know, however, that my old friend the Golden Layout Javascript library is pretty picky when it comes to browser choice, and Opera GX seems to work just fine.

Opera GX, Google Chome, Microsoft Edge, and resource useage.

When I fired up Opera GX, Microsoft Edge, and Google Chrome and put them all on to the Opera GX website, you can see that GX is a memory hog compared to Edge and Chrome. Chromium operates like a little container of apps, so that means that the browser itself, the Javascript engine, any extensions installed, and probably other processes run as individual entries in the Task Manager nested beneath the main application icon. My Chrome and Edge have similar setups and in this case are pretty neck-and-neck (though Chrome seems to be a wee bit more of a hog than Edge). GX, however, has 30 micro-apps running and is taking up a whole 1GB of ram. What the hell, Opera?

This is where the “gaming” part comes in, because aside from being a web browser that works about as well as Chrome or Edge, it also wants to be a dashboard for several other services, some gaming related, some non-gaming related, and some that have been stereotyped as being “gamer critical” but that we might be able to do without.

Features You’re Told You Need

Branding a product as “for gamers” is an age-old approach that usually relies on presentations of dark colors, sharp lines, and the idea that using it will enhance performance in “dominating your enemies”. This marketing wearily carries on in the browser’s “GX Control Panel”, represented by the “meter” icon on the far left of the browser.

When browsers used to do one thing only — fetch and render web pages — they had a pretty small footprint. Now that we’ve got browsers that use GPU acceleration and aspire to be application platforms, they have surreptitiously started grabbing as many system resources as they feel entitled to. Opera GX believes that this is a sin (while also committing the sin) but at leas tries to put control into the hands of the user by offering you a say in how much of each resource your browser consumes.

Some of the controls, their reporting, and Task Manager’s version of the story.

You can set limits on upload and download speeds (not shown), CPU, and GPU use. As much as I want to say that CPU and GPU use reporting is over all processes under GX’s control, I don’t know that it is; Task Manager is reporting one value, while GX’s report seems to be below that for RAM, and above that for CPU, with CPU being a closer match to Task Manager’s values than RAM reporting is.

When I cranked the browser’s RAM limit to do a paltry 1GB, the GX meter claimed that everything was OK until I started opening other websites. Then, all hell started breaking loose. YouTube sputtered when trying to load, and my in-progress post here went blank. Re-upping the RAM limit allowed both YouTube and WordPress to return to normal. So while the reporting might be a tad bit massaged, it seems to work, though not gracefully if you try and run down to the barest of metal.

The browser itself can be customized because gamers love customizing things to hell and back in between “pwning n00bs”, I suppose. You can change the overall color of the browser accents, the wallpaper, and animations. GX even plays sounds when you do stuff in the browser, which I had to turn off because the default sound for clicking around the chrome sounded a lot like thunderstorms in the distance, and made me question my sanity.

The fact that you can turn these (and pretty much all) features on or off as you desire them is actually a big plus in GX’s column. I don’t know that I will personally use them as aggressively as Opera wants me to by featuring them so prominently, but YMMV.

Features You Might Want

Let’s talk about some of the things you might want. These are the things that contribute to GX’s massive use of system resources, I suspect.

Twitch

I’m not a big Twitch watcher, but if you are then GX might tickle your fancy. You get a number badge on the Twitch icon on the left toolbar to show how many of your followed accounts are live, and when you click the icon you get an expanded panel showing you who’s online and who isn’t, as well as some of your own account stats. Clicking a channel icon will, naturally, load that channel into your browser. Again, if you’re heavily into Twitch-specific culture, this might be GX’s killer feature for you.

Discord

This is not something I had expected: Discord integration into the browser. In truth, Discord is a web app and even with the desktop app, it’s just a web app on steroids. Shoehorning it into a browser seems like bridging a puddle, but if you’re a heavy Discord user then this could save some cycles. I always have Discord up and running, usually alongside a browser or two for email and whatnot, and having this version of Discord available actually saves me some RAM and CPU over running the desktop app as well as a browser app. Know, however, that this is the web version of Discord; it doesn’t have some features, most notably the game detection feature, and probably some other things that require the desktop shell and integration to work. It does have PTT, which is something that normally requires the desktop app, so it’s a balancing act of needs.

News

RSS feed-readers, rejoice! GX has a feed reader built in. You can select from a series of a few hundred canned offerings, but you can add your own RSS sources as well. Sadly, you can’t organize them in folders, but you can look at them as one, big, scrolling stream or as targeted streams by source. I don’t think this is particularly gaming-centric, though I know more than a few gamers who are still angry at Google for killing Reader, so this might be of a high level of interest.

Ad-Blockers

Savior of the masses, curse of the ad-based economy, GX has a built in ad- and tracker-cookie-blocker. The ad-blocker seems to operate as advertised, although finding a site with a whole lot of ads when you need to test it is actually harder than you might imagine.

VPN

A VPN is one of those really nice-to-have options for any day of the week. The idea is that for all intents and purposes, you look like you’re browsing from somewhere you’re not physically at. Many sites use your IP address to geolocate you in a rough area for tracking and ad serving purposes, and the mere idea that your travels through a public landscape are somehow being observed by the services you use makes people angry. Combined with the ad and cookie privacy settings, I suppose this configuration will help some folks sleep easier, although it cannot be used to pretend you’re in some other country’s back yard for the purpose of accessing their region-locked content, unless that region-lock is very, very broad.

GX Corner

I have to say that this is a pretty nice QoL addition, although completely unnecessary. Maybe more than anything, I suspect that this is the feature that the marketeers at Opera HQ would point to when asked what makes GX a “gaming browser”. To be frank, I find it actually kind of useful. It’s got a “release calendar” there which spans all major platforms. It aggregates a list of “free games” that can be had from various sources so you never have to miss claiming a game you don’t need and will probably never play. Then there’s a whole lot of possibly interesting info: trailers, what’s on sale where, and general gaming news. You can turn each of these rows on or off using the settings, and for you non-North-Western Hemisphere folks who might be in regions where release schedules and availability are different, you can set that so you see data that’s relevant to your locale.

Other Stuff

Beyond this there’s sidebar icons for quick bookmarks (things you pin to a custom page because you access them a lot), downloads, all bookmarks, browsing history, extension management, and settings. Having some of these on hand when you want them — and not buried in some ancillary menu or only getting to choose between “always on” or “always off” — is a comforting consideration.

Features You Can Probably Do Without

Facebook Messenger, Instagram, and Others

This list might be completely subjective, but I don’t personally need or know any gamer who relies on Facebook Messenger as their primary means of communication with other gamers. Yes, we are a diasporic tribe who inhabit many, many online outlets and sometimes Facebook is one of those. We also have friends and relatives who are not gamers, and who do use Messenger, so once again, having it on hand might be useful for some. There’s also access to other services like WhatsApp, Telegram, and VK, which I hear are big in other parts of the world.

Instagram has it’s own entry here, and the song remains the same: if you are a big Insta user, you can have one-click sidebar flyout access to your feed, and then tuck it back in again once you’re done.

Cryptocurrency Wallet

For some reason, the browser includes a crypto wallet feature which I have not turned on. Cryptocurrency is apparently something that Opera HQ believes gamers use frequently enough that it’s important to have on hand while angrily posting on Reddit, or in the event that you have to pay some ransomware because of your air-quote surfing habits air-quote.

My Flow

Unfortunate name, possibly useful, if you’re willing to give your mobile and tablet devices over to the Opera Touch browser. Personally, I’m always finding links on my mobile that I want to keep, or read later on the PC. I usually choose the “Share” option from the browser and email a link to myself like a Neolithic heathen so having this feature seems useful to me. With one click you can send the page to your personal Opera repository where it becomes available through the sidebar just like entries in the History or Bookmarks do. This works both ways, as Opera Touch can surface a list of recent tabs you’ve had open on your PC. I know other browsers claim to have this feature, but I’ve found it to be hit or miss; it actually works and works well here with GX and Opera Touch.

Conclusion

As a standard browser, Opera GX is about as good as any other modern browser. Rather than categorize by name, we have to categorize by support, now lumping Chrome and Edge together under the Chromium banner, Firefox, Safari, and Opera (sorry, other browsers). With that in mind, Opera will perform about as well for your needs as, say, Firefox. Developers seem to code for either Chromium or Webkit (Safari) first, and if it works with other browsers, great. If not, then they suggest you throw personal preference out the window and use a browser that they or their feature set supports. GX will not always work in a world designed for Chromium and Webkit, but it will work well enough 85-90% of the time.

When I heard “gaming browser” I initially thought that there might be some kind of esoteric supercharger beneath the hood of Opera GX that would give me faster downloads or…something. The age of gaming through the browser came and went with the rise and fall of Flash, so I suppose now that I think of it, I wasn’t completely sure what gaming-centric features GX could offer.

GX’s claim to fame seems to rely almost completely on the marketing stereotype of who gamers are and what gamers want. According to the vibe I get from the feature set, gamers are young and obsessed with social media, so GX has Instagram and various world-spanning messengers baked in. Gamers are also apparently obsessed with performance, so even in an age where gaming PC’s can rock 32GB of ram and octocore processors, giving control of the browser’s resource use seems like a no-brainer bullet-point marketing feature to include. GX occasional heads off into the wilderness, though, by offering features that are more techie-specific than gaming-specific, like VPN and tracking-blocking, inter-platform bookmarking, and RSS feeds. These are welcome, certainly, but I don’t know that I’d use them to support the idea that GX is a “gaming browser” except to acknowledge that often times gamers are techie-centric as well and will almost never look free features in the mouth except as an opening to demand more free features, but that’s a topic for another post.

The most useful gaming features, then, are the Twitch and Discord integration. Both services have dedicated desktop apps which are really just wrappers of their web versions, so not having to run a desktop app alongside a resource-hungry web browser suite might actually contribute more towards conserving system resources than the rate limiters do. Although looking at GX’s resource use in the Task Manager might cause an immediate panic, understanding that the browser is doing what Chrome and Edge do (complete with extension support) as well as what Twitch and Discord do, but for apparently less than all three can do combined, is a nice realization. While the GX Corner game-info aggregator seems to be a blatant misdirection to establish the browser’s claim-to-fame, I think that it’s actually a really great addition that deserves a pat on the back. Opera could have just scummed news from popular sites and called this tab A Day, but adding the release calendar, aggregating a list of free games being offered around the web, and also posting items on sale, all of it by platform, makes the GX corner actually useful marketing.

I have to admit that I am pleased with Opera GX overall. I can disable features I don’t want, customize a whole lot of others, and find that some of the “gamer centric” features are actually useful. That it suffers from discrimination in today’s Chromium/Webkit dominated world is not something I can work around completely, but it’s something I can accept. Seeing as how infrequently I’ve had to return to a Chromium browser since I started using GX, I can say that it’s a solid addition to my desktop and can serve as my primary browser for the vast majority of my daily requirements…including in support of my gaming hobby.

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