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Jun 14, 2009

Review: Safari 4

Very Good:

Safari won't change the browser game the way the iPhone has changed mobile phones. This year's Apple Worldwide Developer Conference billed it as "the fastest and most innovative browser." While it is both fast (with the Nitro JavaScript engine) and innovative (thanks to some UI enhancements), I don't buy the superlatives. Google Chrome is still the speed leader on my tests, and Safari 4 lacks innovations, like the WebSlices and Accelerators in Internet Explorer and the extreme customizability of Firefox. Nevertheless, Safari (on both Mac and Windows) is definitely a fine performer in terms of speed and usability.

Setup and the New Look

I had no problem installing Safari 4 on my Vista system, and the browser was up and running in short order. At 27MB, the download is bulkier than that of the smallest browser, Chrome, which is a mere half megabyte. Then again, Safari offers more features. Mac users should note that the installer requires OS 10.5.6—10.5.5 won't do. When you first run Safari 4, you'll see a new animated splash screen featuring the Apple logo, complete with inspirational music.

For the final release, Safari backtracked on one of the beta's distinguishing interface features, the Chrome-like "Tabs on Top," which placed page tabs above the address bar. Another change from the beta is the return of the page-load progress bar: It's in a different form now, in the right-hand side of the address bar.
Buzz up!on Yahoo!

The released version of Safari 4 does retain the most eye-catching trait of the Safari 4 beta, Top Sites, which shows your most-accessed Web pages in a glorious 3D view. In this and elsewhere, Safari 4 brings the added elegance and clever interface ideas we've come to expect from Apple. One example is the incorporation of Cover Flow in the browser's history list. Sure, it's mostly eye candy, but it's at the same time stylish and useful.

When you open a tab, you see the new Top Sites page, a curved, 3D grid of images of your most frequently visited Web sites. An Edit button lets you remove any of these thumbnails, and you can drag any mini-page to a spot of your choice and "pin" it to that spot. If a site in your Top Sites group has new content, a blue dog-ear with a star shows up in the page's top right corner. In some ways, I prefer Opera's approach, which adds only sites you specify to the speed-dial thumbnails. Still, I can see Chrome and Safari's rationale, that people are more likely to use the feature if it's automatically populated.

Unlike the bare-bones Chrome, Safari includes a handy sidebar, which you can show by clicking the book icon at the top left of the window. The sidebar has a variety of functions: You can choose from among History, Bookmarks, Bonjour networking, and a basic RSS reader. Any of these sidebar choices takes advantage of the scrolling Cover Flow view in the top half of the main center panel, while the bottom half offers a simple list of the links. You can scroll back and forth through the Cover Flow images via mouse wheel, or you can use a slider beneath the images.

Safari's bookmark management is adequate, but I was unable to import more than one IE bookmark at a time. Chrome has the same problem, whereas Firefox let me import a whole folder at once. Safari also lacks Firefox's ability to show recently bookmarked items and its tagging capability.

Also new for Version 4 is a native Windows look for the browser, in Classic, XP, and Vista flavors. This means that window borders (nonexistent in previous versions of Safari for Windows) now look like those of other apps. The Mac version, of course, maintains the border-free look. Windows users also now receive the standard Windows fonts they're used to seeing, instead of Apple's more minimalist standard fonts. And in the Windows version, you get the same two toolbar icons you get in Chrome, for page and general settings—possibly showing the browsers' similar WebKit roots.

You can customize the buttons you want on your toolbar, such as New Tab and Home, but Safari still comes nowhere near Firefox in customizability. The Mozilla browser not only avails itself of thousands of extensions that alter both appearance and function, but even offers "Fashion My Firefox" and Personas to help users with the sea of available customizations.

Safari does an excellent job of implementing tabs, though I'm a bit disappointed that its designers abandoned the beta's bold, Chrome-like design concept of moving the tabs to the very top of the application's window. Media critics lambasted the feature, so Apple retreated, and now Safari looks pretty much like any tabbed browser. The plus sign for adding a new tab is way off to the right now, and is easily missed—I prefer Opera's clearer tab addition system. I also am disappointed that Safari's tabs don't show site icons for a nice visual clue, as they do in all the other major browsers, even Chrome.

Some of the problems with Safari beta's late, lamented (by me, at least) Tabs on Top, however, have gone away too. You won't minimize (in Mac OS) by double-clicking a tab now, and the lined handle needed to move the tab around is gone. You can move the tabs back and forth on the bar, and even out onto the desktop to create a new window. A neat little thumbnail of the page represents the page, and this zooms up to full size when you release it. I could also drag a tab from one browser window into another. Hover the mouse over any tab and the "X" for closing it appears. This is better than in IE, which shows the X only for the active window—sometimes you want to kill a background tab.

Smart Address Field and Smart Search Field

Unlike Chrome, which thinks you should use the same text entry box for both Web addresses and searches—something I'm still not really comfortable with—Safari 4 keeps addresses and search entries separate. Both have been enhanced in this version, too. The address bar, officially called the Smart Address Field, adds functionality that has become de rigueur in today's browser: predictions of what page you want from the moment you start typing. This showed up first in Firefox 3 (where insiders dubbed it the "awesome bar"), and subsequent releases of Internet Explorer, Opera, and Chrome have all followed suit. It's a good addition, but Apple's really just playing catch-up, here.

Still, Safari's version of the predictive address bar is clever; it seems to offer fewer, more targeted suggestions, and its Top Pick suggestion is highlighted. What this means is that you don't have to hit the Down Arrow to navigate to the Top Pick—hitting Enter gets you there. This may seem trivial, but anything that saves you from hunting and pecking a keystroke streamlines browsing considerably over time. The predictions come not only from page titles and URLs in your history, as they do in Firefox, but also from the complete text of Web pages. So even if you remember only a topic discussed on a page, rather than the site name, you'll see it suggested.

The Smart Search Field does one of those "why didn't anyone think of this before?" things: It combines Web search and on-page search. The option for the latter appears at the bottom of the suggestion drop-down box. When you do search for text on the page, all but your found terms will be dimmed. I do wish Web search in the bar would offer more choices than just Google or Yahoo—Bing and Ask.com fans are out of luck.

Performance and Compatibility

Though Safari was considerably faster at JavaScript rendering than IE 8, Chrome is still the leader—but just barely. I tested using the SunSpider JavaScript Benchmark on my 2-GHz Athlon dual-core test system with 2MB of RAM, running Vista Safari 4, which returned a score of 1,707 milliseconds—a remarkable improvement over the beta's 3,757 ms (lower numbers indicate quicker rendering times). This trounces Internet Explorer 8's awful 10,108 ms and puts Safari within spitting distance of Google Chrome's 1,656 ms. Firefox 3 holds the middle ground, taking 6,371 ms, though the soon-to-be-released version 3.5 aims to change this, with its new TraceMonkey JavaScript engine. Once distinguished for speed, Opera is now middling, at 7,884 ms.

In the real world, browsing demanding pages with Version 4 usually felt snappy. In general, I felt that Safari was about tied with Chrome, though that browser loaded the demanding Stickam.com noticeably faster. In start-up time, Safari was comparable with the current generation of browsers, taking less than 2 seconds on my test system.

Firefox is still the leader in one respect, however: memory use. When I opened the same set of ten tabs filled with media-intensive sites in each browser, Safari 4 took up 434MB of RAM, whereas Firefox 3 used up only 121MB of RAM. Chrome used 213MB, and Opera 259MB, while Internet Explorer trailed all, at 484MB. Safari is close to the bottom, here. And, unlike tabs in Chrome and Internet Explorer 8, Safari's aren't run in separate processes, a technique that can limit the severity of site crashes.

In compatibility, I didn't run across any sites displaying "Browser not supported" pages, nor did I find instances of misrendered pages. In one "official" measure of standards compliance, Safari 4 joins only Opera 10 beta in passing the Acid3 browser compatibility test. Though it's not a definitive measure of correct site rendering, Acid3 gives an indication of support for features that Web developers hope to use in the future. In this vein, Safari 4 supports HTML 5 features such as the video and audio tags, as well as has the ability to run Web applications off-line. It also can render CSS3 effects, like gradients and reflections.

Version 4 doesn't add new security and privacy features, but updates to Version 3 already added pretty much everything you'd expect in that area: private browsing, antiphishing and anti-malware tools, and support for Extended Validation (EV) Certificates. The private browsing feature, unlike that in Internet Explorer, Firefox 3.5, and Chrome, doesn't have any icon indicating you're in the mode, and on my tests it did indeed keep private browsing session URLs out of history and Smart Address bar's autosuggestions.

Safari 4 adds some welcome innovations, while catching up with the competition in some features. Its fast page rendering and stylish 3D interface features, like Cover Flow, will appeal to many. It's a bit of a memory hog, however, and fans of Firefox's extensions won't be tempted to switch, as Safari doesn't offer anywhere near that browser's level of customization. While most Mac users are likely to avail themselves of the new browser's advances, Windows users who like alternatives to Internet Explorer will probably get more out of Firefox or Chrome.

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