Opera's battery-saving browser update is a must for low-end PCs or tablets

It lets you work across multiple tabs far more effectively than Microsoft Edge does.

opera battery saving icon
Credit: Mark Hachman

The new free Opera browser offers a bonus: Its battery-saving technology simply makes browsing feel faster, especially on older hardware. For aging rigs that could use a speed boost, this is the browser to download. 

Really, Opera is marketing this latest feature in the wrong way. Opera 39—which will enter the “stable” channel for general release on Wednesday—will save you up to 50 percent more battery life by reducing the amount of CPU horsepower the browser consumes. That also means you can more effectively browse the web, using more tabs, on an old or underpowered PC.

Opera’s latest improvement isn’t immediately apparent. On the preview build I tried, the battery-saving technology doesn’t appear until you browse with your power cord detached. Then, a battery icon will appear inside your search bar, with a toggle to turn the feature on and off. Fortunately, it remains (and the battery saver remains active) when you plug in again. 

Why this matters: Those of you with up-to-date hardware may shrug off Opera’s battery-saving features as irrelevant. But my own parents, bless them, have hung on to an old Dell that must be a decade old, simply because it still does what they need it to do: browse the Web, run a spreadsheet or two, and not much else. More than 50 percent of existing PCs use either Windows XP or Windows 7, according to Net Applications. The ancient Internet Explorer 11.0 is still the most popular browser in the world. Opera may finally offer something these older machines can’t get with Explorer. 

How the new Opera makes a difference

I recently spent some time with the Chuwi HiBook, a hybrid Windows 10-Android tablet that intrigued me with its dual-boot capabilities. Its Intel Atom (Cherry Trail) chip disappointed me when it came time to do anything productive, however.

In my review, I noted that the tablet had enough horsepower to play an HD video in YouTube using Microsoft’s Edge browser, but it stuttered and ground to a halt with multiple tabs open—especially when browsing popular media sites like (ahem) PCWorld.com. Opera’s latest browser takes a mighty swing at solving that problem.

Using Windows 10’s default browser, Microsoft Edge, I opened five popular media sites in separate tabs, waited 30 seconds, and then measured the CPU and memory load. That might seem like forever when browsing the web, but with ads enabled Edge shambled like a beached elephant seal, quickly pegging the CPU at 100 percent utilization and leaving it there for several minutes. Fifteen minutes later or so, and 70 percent of the CPU was still being consumed.

Google Chrome also struggled, pegging the CPU at 100 percent until the 30-second mark exactly, when it dropped to 91 percent. To be fair, enabling ad blocking via AdBlock cut Chrome’s CPU consumption to a low of about 9 percent, though it seemed like the average CPU usage was generally higher than Opera’s overall.

edge 5 tabs Mark Hachman

Here’s Edge’s CPU usage, measured on a system running an Atom x5 Z8300 chip, after 30 seconds of idle time.

I also blocked ads in Opera that I didn’t in Edge, if only because Opera can block them natively, while Edge cannot. (I ran a stock version of Windows 10; Edge ad-blocking extensions can be enabled only via Insider builds at the moment.) 

The comparison isn’t to point out the deficiencies in Edge, but to highlight how a tuned, optimized browser can dramatically improve your browsing experience. 

opera 5 tabs Mark Hachman

The same five tabs on Opera, under the same conditions—though ads were blocked here, and not in Edge.

I then tried the the developer edition of Opera, however, and wow! The difference was night and day. After enabling ad blocking (previous versions of Opera enabled ad blocking by default, and this feature may be turned on in the stable release of Opera 39 as well) CPU utilization dropped to an astounding 7 percent after 30 seconds, after hovering at about 22 percent or so for most of the duration.

Opera seemed to fight continually to keep the CPU usage low. I would add a tab, and CPU usage would spike, then drop. At about 16 tabs, CPU consumption settled in at about 50 to 60 percent, and twenty tabs—my historical testing threshold, though I use about 40 tabs normally—was acceptable as well. Chrome didn’t quite offer the CPU savings of Opera, though the fluctuations in CPU usage over time meant that this was more of an observation than actual fact.

opera 16 tabs Mark Hachman

Opera’s new battery-saving mode using 16 tabs (not all of them shown).

To preserve power in the new low-power mode, Opera says that parts of the browser’s code have been simplified, and its animated themes optimized. Additional improvements include reducing activity in background tabs, adapting page-redrawing frequency, and tuning video-playback parameters, according to the company. It seems like the browser is essentially “tombstoning” tabs that are not in use, putting them in suspended animation until you revisit them.

Opera’s new browser does have its limitations. As I opened a new tab, CPU usage spiked, and the browser’s ability to open a new tab was clearly constrained by the microprocessor’s limited power. Don’t expect it to improve your overall performance in Windows or other apps, either. But importing bookmarks from Firefox or Chrome is a snap, and Opera’s interface is similar enough to that of Internet Explorer or other browsers to make it easy to switch.

On a PC, however, more and more of our time is spent online, in a browser—that’s the whole reason Google invented Chromebooks. Combining Opera’s ad blocking and CPU management capabilities makes Web browsing feel less constrained than before, and that’s reason enough to give it a whirl.

This story, "Opera's battery-saving browser update is a must for low-end PCs or tablets" was originally published by PCWorld.