Opera released a version 9.0 public beta last week with a handful of nice new features such as widgets and site-specific preferences. Here are our first impressions.

You can't help but notice the widget support right away. These are little mini-programs that are designed to do a variety of tasks. When you fire up the beta, a little white button called "Opera Widgets" tucks up along the top border of your screen. The display gets a dark overlay when you click the button, and you can add widgets.

We grabbed some of the little applets for displaying the weather and a little Pandora interface. You can "pin" them so they show up in your normal display. Otherwise you can hit a hotkey (F6) to switch to the widget display.

Widgets have been around for quite a while now. One drawback to using them in this way is that when you close Opera, your widgets go away. If you like having the little guys, you might be better off getting a standalone program such as Yahoo's.

Like widgets, site-specific preferences was a still-to-come feature when we looked at the previous Opera 9.0 preview. It's a great customisation option that can make for safer browsing to boot.

Right-click any given page and choose "Edit site preferences", and you'll see a range of options for handling pop-ups, cookies and scripting. Any changes you make apply only to that site.

This is a nice route to safer browsing. You can set your global preferences to a high level of security by turning off cookies, javascript, java and so on, and then enable them on a site-by-site basis.

The new "Block content" feature is useful and easy to use. You can click displayed images in a page and block them based on source web address.

A little aside here: if you're a Firefox user, these site-preferences and content blocking features probably sound familiar to the popular NoScript and AdBlock add-ons. And they are, although Opera's site-specific preferences feature lets you change a whole lot more than just javascript preferences. This continues the ding-dong battle between Firefox and Opera, where advances in one seem to drive additional development in the other. We're not privy to Opera's development team, so we really can't say whether it was inspired by Firefox plugins. But we do know many available Firefox add-ons describe themselves as reproducing Opera-like behaviour.

It's a scenario where everybody wins - and where the bar for IE (Internet Explorer) 7.0, whenever it's finally released, is bumping up higher and higher.

Back to Opera 9.0: other features include built-in Bittorrent support, improved pop-up blocking and thumbnail pop-ups when you move the cursor over a tab. We suppose the thumbnails could be useful if you've got a mess of tabs open, but we prefer getting a preview page of open tabs. IE 7.0 will have that built-in and there are a number of Firefox plugins for it.