Within the browser wars, one browser that hasn’t really gotten that much attention is Safari. This is a little strange, as most products from Apple do tend to get lots of attention. But for many people, Safari is simply the browser that comes on Macs.
To a large degree, it’s the fault of the browser itself. If any browser could be described as boring, it’s Safari. But all that has changed with the release of Version 4 of the Apple browser, which is one of the most attractive, interactive and (surprisingly) fun-to-use browsers available today.
Click here to see a slide show of Safari 4.
To a large degree, these new capabilities are borrowed liberally from some of Safari’s Apple brethren-including iTunes and the iPhone-to bring more visual browsing cues to the browser. And these capabilities are available to both Mac and Windows users (so long as their Windows PCs have newer graphics cards).
The new Top Sites feature in Safari 4 will be familiar to anyone who has used the Speed Dial in Opera or the similar feature in Google Chrome. However, the Top Sites feature in Safari is more attractive and configurable than Opera’s or Chrome’s, respectively.
Top Sites can launch whenever a user opens a new tab or by clicking on the Top Sites icon in the browser’s bookmarks bar. Top Sites shows live thumbnails of the sites you visit the most, and also displays a star on sites that have been recently updated.
I could customize my Top Sites tab in multiple ways. I could pin a site to a specific location so it would stay there no matter what my browsing habits; I could delete sites; and I could choose small, medium or large thumbnails, which also changed the number of sites displayed.
The new Cover Flow feature in Safari 4 will be instantly familiar to anyone who uses iTunes. Like the feature in iTunes that lets users scan through a view of their music, Cover Flow in Safari provides a visual flowing view of sites within the browser history and bookmarks.
Cover Flow proved to be especially useful for searching through a browser’s history. In a traditional browser, searching history for a site brings up textual results, and finding the exact page can involve lots of trial and error. When searching history in Safari 4, the Cover Flow feature provided a view of the Web sites that made it easy to zero in on the page I was looking for.
While Top Sites and Cover Flow provide some excellent visual interactivity for users, not everyone will be able to experience it. The feature worked on all the Macs I tested it with, even an older G4 laptop, but on PCs with older graphics cards, neither of the features was enabled in Safari (making the browser work much like older versions).
On the plus side for Windows users, Safari 4 runs well on Windows systems, following all of the user interface options that users expect and also having the same look and feel as other Windows apps, including the visual features of Vista.
Some of the new features in Safari 4 are focused on adding capabilities already found in competing browsers. These include smart address and search fields that make suggestions as users type, and the ability to do full zooms within Web pages.
In terms of add-ons and extensions, Safari falls pretty much in the middle of the browser spectrum. It has more add-on options than Google Chrome but is far behind Firefox in the ability to add capabilities through extensions. In the area of customization, Safari is also in the middle of the pack.
When it comes to standards, though, Safari does very well indeed; among shipping, non-beta browsers, it is currently the top dog in standards support. Overall, I was impressed with the standards support in Safari 4, both for classic standards such as CSS and for cutting-edge things like some of the newer capabilities in HTML 5. In tests, Safari 4 achieved a perfect score in the Web Standards Project’s Acid3 standards test (at http://www.webstandards.org/action/acid3).
One of the main things that previous versions of Safari had going for them was speed, and that is still the case with Safari 4. After running a number of tests available online, Safari 4 was among the top browser performers. Using the free Peacemaker test from Futuremark (at http://www.futuremark.com/peacekeeper/) Safari 4 beat out Chrome for top honors. This is impressive, but, as I’ve said before, all current browsers perform well for general browsing. However, these speed differences could be important for those building next-generation Web applications.
Speaking of developers, Safari 4 also includes a nice set of visual tools and debuggers to help Web developers detect problems in their Websites.
To try out the new Safari 4 Web browser, go to www.apple.com/safari.