Safari 5 Proves That Seamless Upgrades Exist

Apple's Safari Web browser may never break out of fourth place in the browser sweepstakes, but new features for users and developers in Safari 5 indicate that the company is committed to using it as a model for its idea of what the Web should be.

If anyone who isn't a Mac OS X user thinks of Apple's Safari Web browser, it probably hasn't been since the beginning of this year. This was when Google's Chrome passed it to become No. 3 in the market, after Microsoft Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox. But no matter what place Safari merits in the browser derby, Apple seems committed to using it as a bully pulpit for the company's vision of the Web. That's the first conclusion I drew after seeing the feature list of Safari 5.

With this release of Safari, Apple pushes the Tiger (10.4) release of Mac OS X even further into the attic: Safari 5 requires Leopard (10.5.8) or Snow Leopard (10.6.2), or Windows XP and later.

Perhaps the most visually appealing feature of Safari 5 is the Reader option for viewing newspaper and magazine articles; when active, one can view a stripped-down version of those articles by toggling a button in the address field. This can be valuable if one wants to remove much of what Apple calls the "clutter" on many Web pages. The downside for yours truly is that it also removes many bylines. Aside from that drawback, the Reader view of a page is quite useful for many purposes, including generating uniform views for printing.

Also new in Safari 5 is the ability to set Safari's default search engine to Microsoft's Bing, which joins Google and Yahoo as possible options.

As anyone who follows the industry knows, Apple is big on HTML5, even though it's a long way from being a recommended standard. This release of Safari adds a dozen features from the proposed HTML5 specification, such as geolocation and video-related functions like full-screen viewing and closed captioning. The newly supported HTML5 functions also include AJAX history, draggable attributes, forms validation, certain sectioning elements and HTML5 Ruby glosses, which are used to indicate pronunciation in Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese.

Apple claims that Safari 5 executes JavaScript more quickly than Safari 4; new page caching and DNS (Domain Name System) prefetching methods are also expected to improve performance. The prefetching, which looks up the addresses of linked Websites, is one of those so obviously useful elements that one has to wonder why this wasn't implemented years ago. Safari 5's cache stores previously uncached page types, reducing the wait for pages to load.

Safari 5 adds a way for Web developers to view page-loading problems, in the form of a new timeline panel in the browser's Web Inspector view. This can clarify how the browser assembles a page and identify those elements that bring a browser to its knees.

Windows users ought to gain some benefit from Safari 5's added support for graphics processors; this new feature puts the Windows version of the browser on a slightly more even playing field, catching it up with Safari on Mac OS X.

The address field in Safari 5 can match text against Webpage title fields as recorded in bookmarks and the browser history. This was previously limited to matching strings in URLs.

Accessing one's browser history is a little easier in this release of Safari, with the addition of a date indicator in the Full History Search function that displays the last-viewed date of a page. Users can switch between Full History Search and Top Sites views.

Those who prefer to avoid recording their every move on the Web can now verify at a glance that their tracks are covered. Safari 5 adds a "Private" indicator icon in the address field; clicking on this icon turns off private browsing features.

Security features weren't neglected in Safari 5, which include an auditor for cross-site scripting, or XSS, designed to filter scripts that could be malicious. Web applications that make use of JSON (JavaScript Object Notation) are said by Apple to run more quickly and securely in this release as well.

Finally, users who do their browsing in one tabbed window now have the option to open new Web pages in tabs, rather than creating a new window.

I spent the better part of a week using Safari on both Mac OS X and Windows, and to be honest, the Reader and Bing options were the things I noticed. Then again, I'm not a Web developer, so any features aimed at the under-the-hood operations will never grab my attention, and I wouldn't use tabbed browsing unless my life (or my paycheck) depended on it.

What stood out to me, first, foremost and more vividly than any user interface enhancements, was what didn't happen: Upgrading to Safari 5 didn't disable any of my preferred plug-ins. I don't use many, but the ones I have make a big difference in my productivity. Safari 5 may not persuade anyone to move off Firefox or IE, but for those looking for something better than Safari 4, it's here.