A First Look at Safari 4

By Craig Buckler
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Safari logoIn the early days of the web new browsers appeared every few months. History is repeating itself and the browser market has never been so active or exciting. The latest offering is Apple’s Safari 4, which is available as a beta download for Mac and Windows. I tried the Windows version and the first impressions are very promising.

Installation and Launch

The basic Safari download is a little over 25MB; certainly far larger than Firefox or Opera. However, installation is quick and easy and the browser starts almost instantly. If anything, it feels a little faster than Chrome.

Safari 3 looked very much like a Mac application and I suspect it confused some Windows users. Apple have addressed the problem and Safari 4 looks like a standard XP/Vista browser. Tabs now appear in the title bar in a similar way to Google Chrome:

Safari tabs

The tabs work well, although it is a little too easy to drag the whole window rather than an individual tab. I also miss the middle mouse clicking to close tabs, but that is a minor issue.

Microsoft font smoothing is used by default, although you can specify Mac-like rendering. I found them a little blurry, but I’m sure some will prefer them.

New Features

Apple have announced 150 new features in Safari. Many help the browser catch up with the competition, but it is great to see some new innovations.

Perhaps the most attractive feature is CoverFlow; an iTunes-like 3D carousel that shows recently viewed web pages. Those that have changed since your last visit are highlighted with a blue star. Although Mac users get CoverFlow as standard, it may be disabled in Windows if you have a low-end graphics card. Hopefully, Apple will fix that for the final release.

The browser also features an integrated RSS reader. It is a little basic and not as good as the one provided in Opera, but it is superior to IE and Firefox. The ‘Article Length’ slider alters the amount of text shown for news items.

Safari RSS

Web Standards Support and Innovation

Safari and the WebKit project continue to implement the latest standards and browser-specific features that may eventually be adopted by the development community. The browser now supports:

  • HTML 5, including media and offline storage
  • HTML canvas and SVG 1.1
  • CSS animations, effects and web fonts
  • ACID 2 and 3 compliance
  • ICC Color Profile Support
  • Plug-ins and developer extensions
  • JavaScript/ECMA version 3

Apple claim their Nitro JavaScript engine is up to 6 times faster than IE8 and 4 times faster than Firefox 3.1 beta. My own test using Webkit SunSpider showed it to be twice as fast as Firefox 3.0.6. That is fast, but not as much as I hoped.

Safari Debug menu

Developer Tools

Safari’s developer tools have always been good and have improved in version 4. Anyone familiar with Firefox’s Web Developer Toolbar and Firebug extensions will feel at home.

The Web Inspector shows a DOM tree, XPath, applied styles, element metrics, and other useful information. It is not quite as clear as Firebug, but is an essential tool for all web developers:

Web Inspector

The Inspector also provides a JavaScript debugger, profiler, offline database viewer and an extremely attractive Resource viewer:

Safari profiler

Will You Use Safari?

It is inevitable that Mac users will switch to Safari 4. I also suspect many more Windows users will be tempted to try the browser. It is impossible to predict adoption rates, but Safari certainly deserves to match the growth of Google Chrome.

Web developers will certainly need to install Safari. It provides some great tools and it is only a matter of time before the browser has a thriving extensions community.

Firefox is still my preferred browser, but Safari is catching up fast and comes a close second. What do you think of Safari 4? Will it become your default browser?

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  • José Maria Barros

    Great article.

    As for me, i still prefer Firefox, because i have many extensions installed.
    But i will keep updated and who knows, maybe i will change.

  • Safari and Chrome can leave as quickly as they came. I will stick to the two that barely work enough as it is already Firefox and IE. Browser wars 2.0? I’m already over it.

    Why do people get excited over clients saying “it doesn’t work in my browser”, we may all use everything but IE, the client will always use IE – get over it.

    Number one and only thing I HATE about this industry is browsers and browser fan boys.

    Why won’t apple leave us alone? why…. why…

  • Gareth

    I’ve been saying it for years now, nothing is better – or even close to for that matter – Opera.

  • Stu Smith

    I installed Safari 4, went fine, and it opened with the CoverFlow jobby. Very pretty.
    I then closed Safari to do other things. When I re-opened it, CoverFlow was gone, and my home-page was apple.com.

    — They showed me a nice new feature, then snatched it away and hid it in the depths of the Options dialog!

    (Incidentally, the size-changing and OK-less options dialog still shows this to be a Mac app).

  • WebKarnage

    The first comment makes me laugh a bit, but there you go, I’m an Apple user…

    Safari 4 is awesome for me. All the tools I want built in. Gives me the lowest system overhead of the browsers for the fastest result, that’s also the most efficient with screen space. Yes lots of users will still use IE, but on my Mac I’m not likely to am I? The PCs I have are there just to check IE and for one or 2 hardware specific bits of software, so they may have Safari 4 on them later. This is the best browser for my needs I’ve seen on any platform to date.

    I haven’t bothered with Chrome I have to admit, as I have more interesting things to be doing.

  • Tarh

    With the economy as it is and Steve Jobs leaving, hopefully they’ll leave us alone for good very soon.

  • plastiQ

    @NetNerd85 : Browser fanboys? That’s a new one.
    Apple is trying to better their FREE browser for your consumption,
    but you want the company to leave you alone. What about big ol’ dumbo Microsoft.
    That spends all the money in the world but turns out crappy bloated software.

    MS is the devil and IE is a hell spawn browser. Relax and try Apple for a day

  • prafuitu

    I find its interface to be a cheap copy of Chrome’s, with a little bit flavour of Internet Explorer. See the hidden menu which appears when pressing the ALT key? That was added on IE long time ago.
    I’m guessing I don’t have to mention why I belive it’s a copy of Chrome, do I?

    The first time I started Safari 4 I sincerely belived that it’s a joke. I thought Apple was showing everything that Safari won’t be. I guess I was wrong!…

    Other things that I think need some work are the scrolling and zooming. I think I got Safari to crash almost everytime I tried to zoom some page and even a couple of times when scrolling. I wouldn’t call this improvement.
    I don’t care if it’s fast on some test page. I want it to be fast while I’m browsing, clicking links, interacting with it.

    “Apple innovates and everyone else is copying Apple”, sounds familiar?
    I think it’s about time Apple admits there are other players that can compete with them! …and might even be better!

  • r w

    fastest browser ive used, but not amazingly faster. tabs on top isnt a bad idea but cant say if its good either, but the way they implemented them is clumsy. hopefully you can turn that off if you want and also restore the blue loading bar behind the url. why they would ditch that for the tiny, non informational spinning graphic i dont understand. coverflow thing is pretty nice. its kinda is like a visually based RSS reader.

    overall safari remains the most elegant to use browser out there and now its the fastest and most advanced for the reasons listed. havent had it crash once. explorer remains the worst, firefox is quickly catching up but is still clunky to me. i dont feel like listing all the little UI things that annoy me in using firefox since a lot of that is personal preference.

    never used chrome, but its laughable and amazingly superficial if you think safari copied chrome just because they put tabs on top, like thats the only part of the interface. besides all browsers copy from each other, just like all operating systems do, just like all car companies do, just like all competition in any business does. its how things work.

  • israelisassi

    I’m not a Safari person but will have to take a look at it when clients start calling for support or just general questions about it. Of course, the situation is the same for FireFox.

  • Oh what? One of the best things I liked about Safari on my Windows machine was that it looked like it was an Apple application (read: it looks good) and did had Windows functionality to boot (read: it wasn’t awful to use like an Apple)! Now they go and change the appearance?

    I’ll download it for testing purposes and will take it for a short drive no doubt, but I think my loyalty will still be with the old version…

  • Dude

    I wish they made it natively for Linux too, so Linux users could test it. Natively.

  • Agora

    Gee NetNerd85 maybe better to ask why wont Microsoft leave us alone and stop inflicting IE6 pain on us all. Least Safari and Google will do things to improve standards and be innovative.

    I’ve used Safari4 on a Mac and Windows machine. It’s working better on a Mac (naturally) but on both it has yet to crash. Not sure why people are having a problem, still if you use Windoze you have to expect crashes, at least that’s my experience.

  • Not sure why people are negative about Safari 4, I think it’s an excellent browser. I’m a PC and Firefox has been my browser of choice for many years but if my few niggles are addressed in the final release I think I’ll be making the switch to Safari.

    At the moment all that’s really holding me back is the lack of options on the right-click menu (send page link, view background image etc.) and the fact there’s no way to customise the search engines listed in the quick search bar.

    As a side note I see the recent flood of browsers as a very positive thing. I think we’d all agree that IE6 is one of the biggest problems in web development at the moment, and that came about because 8 years ago there was no real competition in the browser space; Microsoft knew that they could develop IE6 to their whim and would hold the market anyway. Now the picture is very different so browsers have to compete for better standards support and faster JavaScript performance in order to stand out from the crowd – how is that a bad thing for us developers?

  • Mogga

    Why on earth Apple even bother writing a Windows version is totally beyond me. The OS X version looks beautiful …. the Windows version looks like most Windows applications (ie. Fisher-Price). The Apple version is a joy to use and extremely fast. Apple should just cut the cra& and only produce iTunes for Windows…..nothing else. An increasing number of people are now using Macs (especially web development) ….. Apple should not be wasting valuable development time on Windows apps.

  • I totally agree, Eddie J. Whilst testing all the browsers can be a pain, we don’t want to return the dark days of having a single browser. A thriving browser market leads innovation.

    Both Safari and Chrome are based on webkit, which is a great standards-based HTML engine. Having Safari on Windows also helps reassure you that a site works on a Mac. Two years ago you needed to buy a Mac just to do the testing!

    With the exception of a few beta quirks, Safari 4 is an excellent browser. Whether you use it or not really doesn’t matter: having the choice is a good thing.

  • Andrew

    Safari and Chrome can leave as quickly as they came.

    Safari has been publicly available since Jan 2003, just a few months after the first public releases of what eventually became Firefox. Neither are exactly newcomers.

  • My default browsers are Opera for mail & RSS & web browsing and Firefox for web browsing & developing. I’ve got Safari to test in and even debug in it sometimes, but I don’t think it’s going to replace the other two.

    Safari 4’s got some cool new features and I’d like to know just what difference the user-agent switcher makes to different sites and how other people are using it.

  • VodkaFish

    I tried the latest 4 version for PC and it memory bloated fast.

    I wish the would move the tab close to the right like every other browser. “Instinct” leads to a few accidental tab closures (same as ver 3).

    I am happy it looks like a Windows app. If I want use my Mac, I will. On my PC, I want PC.

    The memory issue makes this clearly betaware (although FF is bloated, but I do have a few add-ons). I look forward to testing a more final product.

  • Oscar

    I use Safari since it was announced to Windows (actually my default browser is Netscape 9, elder brother of the great Firefox, because you know, they invented JavaScript but it’s as they say ‘oldie but goodie’). I’m developer, so for testing reasons I need to proof all my works over Mozilla bros, Safari, Opera, Chrome and sadly IE. Since first time I used it, I really like how Safari render text (IE will emulate it later), it’s fast, clean and has that distinctive Apple design. Last times I’m developing more intranets than public places, every time I can I do the things easiest to me I recommend all users open sessions using just Firefox saving compatibility development times, unfortunately I still can’t say ‘hey people run it just on Firefox or Safari’ because I’m sure there are people who will say ‘Safari what?’. If you’re not one of them I -just like Craig- recommnend Safari.