Review: Safari 4 first look: something borrowed

Apple modernizes its browser with the best features of rivals. (February 24th, 2009)

MacNN Rating:


Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: Free

The Good

  • Much improved tabs, including Top Sites.
  • Very fast for JavaScript.
  • Quick as-you-type search in nav bars, bookmarks.
  • Cover Flow useful for visual history browsing.
  • Very broad standards support.
  • Substantial developer tools.

The Bad

  • Borrows heavily from Chrome, Firefox and Opera.
  • Tab control isn't as broad as in Firefox.
  • Cover Flow at times just a gimmick.
  • Still just in beta.

Apple's release of a public beta for Safari 4 is the company's first truly major attempt to compete in the web browser space since, arguably, Safari 2. But while it incorporates several new features that are absolutely crucial to its acceptance as a mainstream app, a number of its most important features are actually drawn from some of its closest competitors, especially Google's Chrome. We examine why this is a good thing, as well as some of the more original features, in a first look at what might be Apple's most important release yet.

Tabs and Top Sites: the effects of competition on Apple

Safari was one of the first ground-up web browsers to have a practical, shipping implementation of tabbed web browsing. Over time, though, it's gradually become stale as Mozilla's Firefox and, eventually, Google Chrome started adding features that in some cases clearly appeared first, even if Apple eventually caught up in most areas.

In version 4, Safari closes the gap but primarily does so through a close implementation of Chrome's top-mounted tabs. While slightly disconcerting to Mac users or even Windows users that haven't yet tried Chrome, the implementation is tangibly more effective than what's currently used in Safari 3 and Firefox. It makes more room for tabs, reduces the amount of space occupied by the navigation bar, and adds a button to create new tabs without visiting a menu or memorizing the Command-T shortcut.

Tabs on top of Safari

It's clear from the change that Apple now considers tabbed browsing a first-class feature, and it's all the better for it; the browser experience is now more consistent for every user. Tabs also vary in width based on the number of active pages and have specific "handles" to prevent users from unintentionally dragging tabs across the screen. But while these are all welcome, certain conveniences aren't there: while it's possible to tear tabs away and make them separate windows, users can't middle-click to close a tab or drag them into the Bookmarks Bar.

One feature that Safari lords over Firefox is its Top Sites view, though this itself borrows heavily from other sources; anyone will recognize it if they've used Opera's Speed Dial feature or, again, Google Chrome. Opening a new tab by default shows a view of at least nine frequently visited pages and is particularly valuable to anyone who regularly visits the same pages day after day.

Top Sites view

As such, it's not especially creative, but it does have minor advantages over Chrome and Opera: users can do a live search of results with page previews shown in Cover Flow, and users have basic control over how many sites are visible (up to 24), pin favorites to the Top Sites page, and delete ones that aren't likely to be used often. Unlike Speed Dial, it's not possible to add new sites yourself, and the search doesn't include recent bookmarks or tabs in a separate column like Chrome.

live search: the navigation bars and bookmarks

Many Firefox users can quickly point to the as-you-type suggestions for the address and search bars as their favorite feature: the address bar in particular has been nicknamed the "awesome bar" even by Mozilla itself for its ability to accomplish most local searches without needing to dig through bookmarks. Both of these have migrated to Safari 4, and they're both handy as well as better executed.

Typing text or a web address in the main address bar will turn up any results that might exist in sites you've visited. Unlike Firefox, though, the results are clearly separated by kind: bookmarks and history always remain separate. The search bar is closer in spirit to what Mozilla offers and shows you likely search terms culled from the web as well as your own recent searches, though it also adds an ability to find results on the currently active website without having to open a separate search box. Google's all-in-one address bar would be welcome here, but Apple's interpretation does keep the current address visible during a search.

And in a long overdue addition, that same search also extends into the bookmarks panel. Searches are no longer dependent solely on the contents of the website address itself and will show results from both bookmarks and history that contain a word in the title or description, making it possible to find favorite pages among different bookmarks from the same website or an exact article. Like Top Sites, these too are shown in Cover Flow and -- if a preview exists -- can be searched visually.

As-you-type search in the address bar

Search results in bookmarks

Faster JavaScript, HTML 5 and web standards

It's less immediately evident, but virtually as (if not more) important than the conspicuous interface changes are the engines underneath. JavaScript gets by far the biggest update and gets a new foundation codenamed Nitro (and known as SquirrelFish in development) that improves sites which make heavy use of the scripting language.

While it doesn't sound exciting on the surface, the feature is definitely the greatest single contributor to the major perceived increases in speed that are noticeable in a few hours of testing. Anyone who has used a Web 2.0 website that depends heavily on interaction will see the change immediately. Digg, Google Docs, SmugMug and other sites that rely heavily on editing and dynamic content get a particularly visible kick from Nitro. Apple is proud enough of it to tout about a 4X boost over Firefox 3.1 and even says it's faster than Chrome, which was built from the ground up to run JavaScript (and which Google uses frequently on its sites).

This is particularly important for web apps, and it only gets deeper with the browser's standards support. Safari is one of the first browsers to support HTML 5 and can now handle certain audiovisual content and even offline caching of significant web code without requiring a browser. Few if any real sites support these yet, but they're critical to a coming generation of web apps.

In the present day, though, Safari also supports a handful of new rendering features that let it pass particularly stringent standards tests and add a few immediately usable technologies themselves. Better support for standards makes it the first officially released browser to pass the Acid3 test; CSS developers also have access to CSS Canvas to place web elements elements anywhere on screen, and CSS Effects to add (primarily Apple-made) visual effects like image masks and reflections. Those with poor eyesight and other physical conditions also get built-in Accessible Rich Internet Applications support to experience more complex sites.

And though it's not touted in any great way by Apple, Safari now has a new speculative loading engine that tries to predict and load the content for pages before you visit them, which has the potential to speed up the perceived browsing experience by readying sites before they've been clicked.

developer tools

Most websites aren't heavily optimized (if at all) for Safari, and this is in part due to the lack of significant tools to monitor its performance. It's now possible to debug and track the performance of different site elements, such as CSS or JavaScript, and even to attempt minor edits to check how they would behave in the real world. Like a very basic WYSIWYG editor, basic changes can be tested on the fly before making a more permanent change in code.

These features aren't especially useful to end users, but they give Safari 4 a stronger footing against Firefox and may ultimately lead to a web where an optimization for Internet Explorer or Firefox is less likely to hurt Safari users as a whole, whether they use a Mac, a Windows PC or even a handheld like an iPhone or iPod touch. Websites may simply work better by giving developers immediate feedback rather than a publish-once attitude that renders it more difficult to diagnose troubles once a site is live.

wrapping up: better to be a good copy than a poor original

As is likely self-evident by now, the chief criticism that can be leveled against Safari is its tendency to chase rather than lead. Apple says it's "leading the way with innovation," but its actual breakthrough is simply in uniting the better features from a number of different browser into a single package. The number of similarities to Chrome in particular would have one believe that Apple sees its real threat less in more obvious competitors like Microsoft and Mozilla and more in especially forward-thinking companies like Google that may not have large market share now but may gain traction in the future.

If anything, Apple's most original feature is Cover Flow, which was actually ported over from iTunes and Mac OS X Leopard. It introduces a much more visual browsing metaphor which, if at times a novelty, at least lets users identify sites by the content seen rather than obscure addresses and memorizing specific content. Searching is generally faster, but that's more a virtue of good execution over creativity.

Still, Safari 4 is an important step for Apple, and one that may give it a valuable edge in a much more heated browser market than existed when Safari first appeared in 2003. It packages together features that haven't always existed together in a fast, standards-driven browser. Importantly, it also does this in a way which is more likely to be visible: in spite of Google's reach as a search engine pioneer, Apple is simply more likely to get attention by preloading Macs (likely in time for Mac OS X Snow Leopard later this year) and wielding its existing footprint through iTunes and QuickTime to advertise Safari's existence.

As such, it's not hard to look forward to the final release of Safari 4. Few if any observers would expect it to take the lead, but it may be one of the last nails in the coffin of a simple, proprietary web that began with Internet Explorer and Netscape and whose ghost still lingers today.

by Jon Fingas


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