Apple Safari 4, the latest browser from Apple is here. The Safari 4 is still in beta, but I have been using Safari for the last two days – since Apple announced the beta – and have been suitably impressed with its performance on my Windows XP laptop. Yes, Apple Safari 4 comes for Windows and Macs, and if you have a Windows XP/Vista computer, you can safely download and use it to browse all the websites you were surfing earlier with Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Opera and Firefox. The following is my initial review and a comparison with rival browsers from my experience in using Apple’s Safari 4 for Windows.
Apple has been marketing the Top Sites feature on the Safari 4 a lot. I will come to Top Sites later in this story. What impressed me most about Apple’s Safari 4 for Windows is the lightning speed with which it displays pages. I have been a dedicated fan, once, of the Firefox, and before that – for old times’ sake – Netscape. But as the Firefox grew older through multiple updates, it became visibly overweight and slow. In the meantime, Opera, Internet Explorer and Google Chrome gained on Firefox, and the fox fell far behind in the browser battle. Once the No.2 browser, Firefox has now fallen to No.4, testimony to what lack of innovation can do to even good products. (Think of MotoRazr and the collapse of Motorola).
Face it, the Top Sites (see screen shots) feature on the Safari 4 for Windows is just jazz, but Apple being Apple, has done it well. Opera and Google Chrome already have similar features, but with less jazz. So what is Top Sites? When you start Safari 4, the page shows an array of thumbnails of webpages you frequently visit. Apple calls it a Wall Display. When you look at Top Sites, I believe Apple wants to make you feel like Rupert Murdoch (Or, say Prannoy Roy) gazing at a wall full of LCD panels displaying their multiple channels. Fact is, both Opera and Google Chrome have similar Top Sites, though they haven’t done enough to parade it as a top feature. As you keep browsing the Web with Safari 4 for Windows, the browser keeps track of which sites you visit frequently and put them up on this “wall”. So basically, Apple has expanded on this theme of thumbnails-of-frequently-visited-pages on a screen and presented it as Top Sites. It’s mostly jazz, but who is complaining of jazz anyway!
Unlike similar features in Google Chrome and Opera, Safari 4’s Top Sites is “editable”. You can place whichever page you want in this welcome screen. You can move the thumbnails around and place them wherever you want on the “wall” and even “pin” it to the location that it won’t move. Mostly jazz, as I said, but one must say that Apple has done it well with the Safari 4. Once you click on any of the thumbnails, it “springs forth” and displays in full screen. Also, unlike Opera-Chrome, Safari 4 for Windows also shows an icon (a page-turning icon with a star) whenever there are updates on that particular webpage. This way, Top Sites alerts you whenever there are updates on your favourite websites.
However, some users of the beta Safari 4 have complained that this feature creates problems in some forum pages. Safari 4 for Windows faithfully indexes and displays the page in a preview in its Top Sites, but the preview also means that some of the forum pages will have threads which show as “mark-as-read” even though the user has not read them. This, the complaint goes, is because Safari “looks” at the page and hence the forum thread becomes marked-as-read.
Apple has built Safari 4 for Mac and Windows based on Webkit. Incidentally, Google Chrome is also built on the same open source platform for making browsers. A large part of WebKit development was done by Apple. Apple developed WebKit as an open source project to create the world’s best browser engine and to advance the adoption of modern web standards. The Safari 4 can run on Macs, Windows, iPhones and the iPod Touch. Safari 4 supports CSS 3 visual effects, animations and fonts, helping developers create customized and visually stunning sites easily. For example, click here (http://webkit.org/blog-files/leaves/index.html)to see how Safari can execute the page. While Safari can display the beautiful leaves falling from the top of the page, Chrome, and others cannot.
To a large extent, the home screen of the Safari 4 browser (see screen shots) resembles the Google Chrome. The pages open in tabs at the top of the screen, just like in Chrome. This may look awkward to those using Internet Explorer, Firefox and Opera. The X mark to close tabs is located at the left end of the tab, while in Chrome, you close it from the right-end. Like Chrome, the “Find” button displays the search box on the top right side, though it looks cleaner in Chrome. The bookmarks bar can be hidden for more space on the browser screen. The pages load quickly, and since Safari 4 conforms to Acid3 web standards tests, it displays diverse pages very well, and just the way they are expected to show. The Safari 4 for Windows has been built to look more like a Windows application, using native Windows fonts and colours. This means the Safari 4 is unlike iTunes, which always looked like a Mac cowboy wandered into a Windows workshop. The tabs on the Safari are moveable, and you can even “tear off” the tab from the bar, making it into a separate window. Similarly, several windows can be merged together into a single window with multiple tabs.
The location address box on the Safari 4 shows a blue RSS button if the webpage you visit has RSS feeds. This is convenient. For those keen feed-readers, this must be a major help. The Safari has a built-in feed reader too. In the integrated Google search window on the right hand side top, there is a “snapback” feature – which means if you click on Safari’s snapback icon, it will take you back to your last Google search results page: you don’t have to manually go back-back, or do the search again. In Safari 4, if you type “dancewithshadows” and hit enter, you will reach www.dancewithshadows.com, while if you do the same on Google Chrome, the browser will display a Google search of keyword dancewithshadows. I found the Google search more useful, but this could be just a personal preference.
However, I continue to be miffed at both Safari and Chrome for NOT providing a simple drop-down arrow in the address field, where you can see the most-recently visited pages. I don’t think Chrome or Safari has gained anything by dropping this simple feature.
Whereas the page reload button is located on the right side on the Safari address bar, it is located left to the bar on the Chrome. Like in Chrome, you can select text anywhere in the page and right-click to do a Google search. In the Safari 4 for Windows, there is a somewhat large button near the top-right, which you can click to report bugs to Apple. I guess this will disappear once the beta is over and the final product is out.
Another visual treat on the Safari 4 is the Cover Flow (see screen shots) in viewing history and bookmarks. If youre familiar with the Cover Flow in iTunes, you will find this easy to use. Basically, instead of a list of bookmarks and history of browsed pages, Safari displays them in a visual fashion, showing snazzy Thumbnails in a 3D format, through which you can “flip” and find pages. Apart from the eye-candy part of Cover Flow, the actual benefit lies beneath the hood. You can search for any text item in history/bookmarks, and not just the title name. If you had visited some site on browsers in India, you can search for ‘India browser’ and find that page, even if these words are not in the page title. Thoughtful addition, I must say. Whoever remembers the title names of the pages have read? And whoever, in any case, bothers to give proper title names to pages these days?
Safari 4 has definitely raised the bar in the battle of browsers. It’s a stern warning to Google Chrome that it must keep running to stay where it is. Safari 4 is clearly the most advanced browser in the market. Pages load faster, top sites & cover flow are attractive, while the animation/CSS/Web standards will help it go a long way. However, the more features I used in Safari 4 for Windows, I couldn’t escape the eerie feeling of using the dead & gone Netscape 9. The forgotten browser had a large array of feat
ures, which looked good but gobbled up computer resources. Safari’s minimalist looks cannot hide the fact that it is actually a resource-hungry application. Top Sites and Cover Flow take up a lot of resources, and if you happen to have a computer passed on by an uncle, you won’t enjoy the features of Safari 4. And, mind you, all of my review has been based on using Safari on Windows XP, not Vista. Resource-hungry Vista and resource-hungry Chrome can be a deadly combination.