Hardened web browser users rarely switch ships, but a look at the Opera browser's free Unite file sharing system was revealing, and it might tempt some users away from their accustomed choice, particularly if they want to share their personal media.
The Opera browser has many features, which amongst other things will let you host a web page straight from your computer, but for us Opera Unite was the revelation with its ability to give the user a quick and easy way to share media including photos, music, and other documents. Now out of beta, it worked well for us and never crashed, which is always a good thing.
Unite is a relatively simple idea on paper, but one that has apparently eluded other browser development firms. What it does is create a personal file sharing system on your desktop computer, meaning that you no longer have to load media into third party sites, which often involves surrendering your personal privacy and can lead to loss of control over your content.
Rather than do that, Opera Unite users can choose to share a private URL to their content with their friends - a URL that can be used to enable access to an application, a collection of files or an individual file. As well as being a sharing system, Unite can also be used to access your own computer and files remotely, providing that your source computer is up and running.
As either a home or remote user, you see a very similar page and options such as download, which as you can imagine are fairly self explanatory. File access is easily controlled and you can apply passwords to particular files and users as you wish. Passwords are typically four characters long and a mix of upper and lower case numbers and letters, which some might consider a bit insecure.
Access is cross platform and we tried it on IE, Firefox and a Windows-mobile Nokia. Test subjects enlisted to help try out the remote sharing described it as "amazing", and "pretty bloody sweet".
Compared to a private FTP server Unite was slow, however, presumably because it uses the HTTP protocol. On average music was shared at a rate of about 40 to 45kbps, which was a bit disappointing. Opera quotes seconds for file transfers, but we found that it was actually closer to minutes. The FTP admittedly involved a lot more setting up than Opera did, for sharing, but disappointingly only boosted download speeds to roughly 60kbps. This may have been the fault of the network upload speeds available on the end-machine though.
Other systems might work better, be quicker, or be more appropriate for power users, but as a simple, easy to use and understand file sharing system Unite is great. However, Opera will have its work cut out for it as it tries to tempt less adventurous users away from the long established, and for now, ubiqitous Internet Explorer and Firefox.