Safari 4 Beta Brings a New Web Flow
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When looking at the current version of the Apple Safari Web browser, the description that comes to mind is "stripped down." The current Safari lacks many of the interface features found in competing browsers and seems to focus on simplicity and speed.
But based on tests of the recently released beta of Safari 4, stripped down won't be the main description of the next Apple browser.
With the beta of Safari 4, Apple has clearly focused on upgrading the interface of the Web browser, playing catch-up with other browsers in some areas and adding some unique and welcome capabilities of its own.
Probably the biggest new feature in the Safari 4 beta is the introduction of what I call the iTunes interface, namely the classic Apple carousel view for scanning through album covers in the music program.
In Safari 4, this carousel interface is used to good effect to improve the ability to browse through history and bookmarks within the browser. With this feature, called Cover Flow, I could scan through sites in history or bookmarks and see a live preview of the page. I found this to be especially nice for bookmark management, giving Safari 4 one of the better bookmark management systems I've seen.
Also new in the interface is a feature called Top Sites. This is similar to the Speed Dial feature introduced in the Opera browser, in which live thumbnails of popular sites are displayed when launching a new window or tab.
And the Safari 4 beta has done a very good job of implementing this capability, which compares very well with Opera's Speed Dial and outclasses a similar feature in Google Chrome. When launching a new page or tab or by clicking the Top Sites icon in the tool bar, I could view thumbnails of sites I visit frequently.
Safari 4 also makes it easy to customize this feature. I could change the size of the thumbnails, thereby controlling the number of sites displayed. Also, I could rearrange the sites and use a pushpin icon to lock a site to a specific area. For example, I could configure it so that eweek.com always appeared in the upper left-hand corner.
While Cover Flow and Top Sites have unique elements, many of the other new features found in the Safari 4 beta are more of a case of the Apple browser catching up to other current browsers. For example, the Safari 4 Smart Address Field provides suggested sites from history and bookmarks in the same way that other browsers have for a while now. Also, Safari 4 has a smart search field that provides deep suggestions when a term is entered in the field. The Safari 4 beta also joins the Google Chrome browser in putting browser tabs at the very top of the browser window, and it now supports full page zooming.
Those who use Safari 4 on Windows will also notice a big difference from previous versions. Safari 3.x on Windows feels very much like a Mac invader on the Windows platform, lacking some user interface quirks that Windows users expect and not even really looking like a Windows application. With the beta of Safari 4, the Apple browser now supports a more native Windows look and feel.
On the standards side, the Safari 4 beta uses an updated version of the WebKit browser engine and in the Acid3 standards test the beta of Safari 4 scores 100. The browser also comes with a very nice set of integrated developer tools that provided good visual information about Web sites and Web applications.
While I've only had about a day to test the beta, in that time it has proven to be very stable and I haven't run into any major problems with Web sites so far.
Those wanting to try out the beta of Safari 4, which runs on Windows and Mac systems, can find it at www.apple.com/safari.